Kandiss Hernandez — Putting Every Child Center Stage

September 2012 View more

NMAG0912_NeighborhoodGrowing up, Kandiss Hernandez never ran from the spotlight: she ran into it. She developed self-confidence and learned life’s lessons on the stage. Now as executive director of Kidz Kabaret, she tries to give every child the same opportunity. Kidz Kabaret is a non-audition children’s theater group, based in Naperville, that produces more than 250 shows a year. The mission at Kidz Kabaret is to put every child center stage by giving them the chance to perform a lead or supporting role in a Broadway classic or cabaret review, in an encouraging environment. “If you put a bat in your child’s hand every day, eventually they will hit the ball,” Hernandez said. “It’s the same with theater. Kids may be natural entertainers or a little shy, but we give them all a safe place to open up and be anything they want to be.”


In 2002, Hernandez was raising her family in Naperville with a theater education and several professional productions under her belt when her daughter unsuccessfully auditioned for a community show. The experience inspired her. “I wanted to provide an opportunity for all kids to experience theater,” Hernandez said. Hernandez wrote a cabaret show, gathered 18 children in her back yard, and performed it for 80 friends and neighbors. The kids begged for an encore, and Kidz Kabaret was born. In 2003, Hernandez formed the non-profit parent company of Kidz Kabaret, Fair Lady Productions, the Center Stage Theater, and its audition group, the Center Stage Players.

Kidz Kabaret performed at the Crossroads Theater, among other venues, before finding rehearsal space at 1665 Quincy Ave. in 2006. Then 10,000 square feet of adjacent space became available and Hernandez recognized an opportunity. She sought a community grant, community support, and generous donations—such as seats from the closing of Nova 8 cinema, for a $250,000 build-out. The 162-seat Center Stage Theater opened in 2010 and features a state-of-the-art sound system, lobby, gift shop, concession area, additional rehearsal and storage rooms, and the Spotlight Room—an intimate 80-seat cabaret area for small special events, workshops, or recitals. Recently, Hernandez acquired a movie projector, 16-foot screen, and more adjacent space for another bathroom and rehearsal area.


The Center Stage Theatre is an affordable space for premieres, workshops, camps, and classes. School and community productions barrow from Kidz Kabaret’s vast stock of costumes and props for a mere acknowledgement in the program. When the director of the newly released film I Heart Shakey needed child extras, he contacted Kidz Kabaret and two children landed speaking roles.

Hernandez firmly believes theater teaches human connection. As a mother of four, including an autistic child, she is sensitive to children with special needs. When a child with autism recently performed a lead role, Hernandez was told it changed his life. “I really hoped it changed the lives of the kids he worked with,” she added.

The organization is run by an army of devoted volunteers who appreciate what the organization brings others. “My son has found a home here and his confidence and public speaking ability has skyrocketed,” said volunteer Susan Love. “I’ve watched children grow so much through the shows.” Alumni return to teach classes, choreograph shows, or help backstage with painting or theater maintenance.

Meanwhile, Hernandez uses creativity and hard work to control costs and pay the rent. She writes original material to avoid paying $2,500 to $3,000 in royalty fees for familiar titles. Yet she is continually humbled by Naperville’s support. “There is no other program like Kidz Kabaret,” she said. “I don’t know if it would be possible in any other community.”

Photo by Mike Hudson