Reaching for the Stars

Not all stars are in Hollywood or on Broadway.

In fact, down in Laguna Beach there seems to be a lot of talent thanks to The Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre Conservatory Program founded almost three decades ago.

According to the Director of Youth Theatre, Education, and Outreach at The Laguna Playhouse, Donna Inglima, it was “formalized” in the late 1980s by Jodi and Scott Davidson and Joe Lauderdale. Currently, there are 47 students of all ages and religious beliefs involved in the popular program.

The Playhouse’s mission is to enrich lives through the magic of live theatre, to provide educational opportunities for children and adults, and to create experiences that stimulate cultural and social interaction and inspire our community.

The Basics

Students attend classes weekly from September to June, and there is also a summer institute, Inglima adds.

“We have our Conservatory Program that charges a yearly tuition and includes year-long study and production work,” she says. “We also offer our workshop classes that meet over the fall, winter, and spring semesters. There are fees for all of our classes depending on the length of weeks and material.”

Students range in age from 6 to 18 years (the Conservatory requires that students are 10 years) and come from all over Orange County to participate.

“Some of the more popular shows have been Disney’s High School Musical, The Wizard of Oz, The Homecoming, and Charlotte’s Web,” she says. “Actually, there hasn’t been an ‘unpopular’ production.  It’s just that the cast sizes vary depending on the material.”

Popular Productions

Over the years, there have been a few productions with a “Jewish” angle, too, in which students have also enjoyed participating.

“We have done And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank, and Number the Stars,” Inglima says. “However, we have done any number of ‘issue oriented’ productions for pre-teens and teens that address issues of prejudice, racism, bullying, sexual orientation … all of which address the larger issue of how the perceived ‘other’ is demonized, humiliated, and targeted by the societal perception of ‘norm.’”

Inglima, who has worked in the arts for numerous years says, it is “a constant revelation,” working alongside the kids in the program.

Some of the students have gone on to further themselves in the business of TV and stage, she says.

“A number of our students do go on in the business, be that theatre or film or TV.  But not all become actors,” she notes. “Some produce, others direct, and a small percentage actually perform. All of our students go on to college either to study in the arts or have found their way into other fields. We have and have had students at Stanford, Yale, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, NYU, Boston University, Georgetown, Columbia, Berkeley, Chapman, Kenyon College, Wagner, Emerson, Pepperdine … and others.”

Awards

The Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre and Education Department has won two awards in the past 2 years:  Outstanding Contribution to Education by the Orange County Department of Education and Outstanding Arts Entity by Arts Orange County.

And for those students who attend classes, they can’t seem to get enough of the experience of Community Theater, including Gracie Fleischman, 12, of Aliso Viejo.

“The best part of being in the Laguna Beach workshops is being able to express yourself in a creative way. I love being able to be with different kids that are my age and share a love of theater,” she says. “The hardest part is getting over your nerves! Thankfully, everyone else is going through the same situation as you are, and people are very understanding.”

Her favorite play was Number the Stars, about the Holocaust, because “it really opened my eyes when at the end of the performance, a Holocaust survivor spoke and answered questions.”

Another happy student is Allison Gerstley, 14, of Mission Viejo, who reports that through the program, she is constantly learning, making lifelong friends, and doing what she loves to do most – perform.
“This has been my second year in the Laguna Playhouse Conservatory Program; however, I have taken classes at the Laguna Playhouse since I was about 8 years old,” she says. “Being a part of this program is important to me, because it is like my second home, because everyone in the program is like a family, and I am always learning important skills and values that I apply in my acting and also in my everyday life.”
As for what lies ahead for her, Gerstley says she is interested in pursuing a job in the theater business, “like being a stage manager for Hollywood award shows or a casting director. It would also be neat to be a musical theatre teacher in a high school or junior high school.”
It’s a Community

Jeremy Canter, 15, of Aliso Viejo, adds that the best part about being in the Laguna Playhouse Conservatory is that it’s community.

“All of the kids involved are so passionate about their work and so very friendly, making the Playhouse a wonderful place to learn and grow. Our two instructors, Donna and Kelly, are fabulous at what they do and create such a loving environment for students to take risks and grow,” he says.

However, this busy student adds that sometimes, the hardest part is being able to fully commit yourself while having to focus on school and other outside activities.

“But more importantly, I think the hardest part is being willing to break out of your shell and let go of any personal defenses to be able to grow as an actor and inhabit the roles we are given,” he says.

He’s been in the program for 5 years and says he plans to stay involved throughout high school or another 2 years.

“I want to stay involved with this program in order to hone my talents not only as an actor, but as a person and also to continue to be a part of the great community at the Playhouse.”

His brother, Aaron, 13, who has been in the program for 3 years says, he likes getting to act and mingle with peers.

“Not only do you get to be in shows, but you also get to do technical jobs from stage managing to being in the box office. The Laguna Playhouse is like a huge family,” he says.

He does agree with his brother that it can be time consuming so, “you have to work on your time management skills to be able to get all your homework done and memorize lines for a show. It can also be stressful at times.”

Bottom-line though, he says, is that the program is important to him because he learns skills that will not only help him with acting but also “life-long skills such as learning how to speak in front of people, develop good diction, and work with others.”

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