Laguna Playhouse’s Youth Conservatory Program sets students up for success, on stage and off

By MARRIE STONE

One of the hardest parts of being a kid is figuring out who you are and who you want to become. Childhood can be a time of low self-esteem. Lots of students suffer a lack of confidence and scramble for acceptance from their peers. All those issues might be exacerbated in towns like Laguna, where sports dominate our culture and the pressure to perform feels high.

The Youth Conservatory program at the Laguna Playhouse aims to address those concerns (and more) by providing a safe space for students to try on a variety of hats, experiment with new identities, be exposed to an array of theatrical opportunities and receive sophisticated training. Because the Playhouse is one of only two professional regional theaters in Orange County, it gives students a unique opportunity to work with experienced industry instructors.

For the natural performers who happily ham it up in the spotlight, the Conservatory program provides some astounding opportunities. Behind-the-scenes technicians who enjoy scaling catwalks and constructing stage lighting will find their home. Artists who excel at set designs? Fashionistas who love creating costumes? Type-A directors who relish the chance to order others around? Check, check, check.

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Photos courtesy of The Laguna Playhouse

(L-R) Sydney Schaarsmith, Sophia Klein, Mia Wright, Lu Conceicao, Sam O’Neill, Max Allen, Bladen Logue and Katie Baker

“I wanted to create a place where students from all levels could experience theater,” said Joe Alanes, who took the helm as director of Education and Outreach in 2021. “Whether they’re trying it for the first time and still scared to get on stage, or they intend to pursue it as a profession.”

Unlike other theater programs, the Playhouse focuses on process over performance. The year-long program, aimed at youth between the ages of 10 and 18, exposes students to various aspects of acting and theater, both on stage and behind the scenes. “We train their self-esteem. And we train them to work together as a team,” he said. “These things help no matter what profession they choose. We create an environment of trust where they can take risks and fail. Their ensemble members pick them back up and help them learn and grow and see it as a learning experience.”

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Students perform in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (L-R) Ailey Katayama, Sydney Schaarsmith, Lila Etherton, Kai Wright and Marina Strombom

At the end of each session, students demonstrate their new-found skills. “It’s not so much a performance, but a look into what they’ve learned so parents can understand why we train the way we do,” Alanes said. “When they’re doing different exercises, students don’t necessarily realize they’re learning to trust their instincts or learning how to react. But these skills help them become better actors.”

The theater also helps them become better humans. Acting gives kids an opportunity to flex their empathy muscles. Inhabiting characters who might see the world differently than they do isn’t a bad skill to have in today’s divided world. “There are no bad characters. Bad guys don’t know they’re bad,” Alanes said. “They just want something and they’re going for it. They feel like they’re in the right. So, students have to get into that mind space. It helps them to empathize and have a sense of curiosity about what drives these people so they can create full, three-dimensional characters.”

To facilitate that protective environment where students are encouraged to take emotional risks, the Playhouse aims to create a culture of acceptance and camaraderie. “This is the place where kids come to feel safe. This is the place where they can be themselves,” Alanes said. “For whatever reasons, a lot of them can’t do that at school. The parents start to see this as an important sanctuary for them.”

Current and former students share how the Playhouse Conservatory Program has impacted their lives

“As they’re doing it, they discover what path they want to take in the future. They try different things like playwriting and directing. Students can be assistant stage managers, assistant directors, assistant choreographers, music directors – there are so many different paths,” Alanes said, noting that several students begin the program wanting to act only to find their calling backstage.

Even if their paths don’t lead to theater, students will benefit no matter what profession they choose. Litigating a court case requires performance skills. Teachers improvise in their classrooms all day. Self-confidence, teamwork, collaboration, empathy – those are skills that serve you no matter what.

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“Students learn to work with people who might have different views than they do,” Alanes said. “But empathy helps them to understand each other instead of trying to convince them they’re wrong. They learn to be curious. There are reasons others [believe what they do]. They’re not bad people. Being in theater helps kids understand that. They have to collaborate. Hopefully they can pass that skill of empathy and understanding onto their parents too.”

The Youth Conservatory employs four professional instructors, and an additional three instructors through the SchoolPower program. They also bring industry experts to host workshops on targeted topics. On February 8, for example, Jenelle Lynn Randall (currently starring in Ain’t Misbehavin’ now on stage at the Playhouse) will lead a workshop on creating an audition self-tape for television, film, theater and commercials.

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Teachers Toni Redman and Anthony Kairouz teaching a Musical Theater Workshop

“So many auditions are self-taped now, especially since the pandemic,” Alanes said. “How do you make a self-tape when you’re auditioning for a commercial versus for film versus for a play? There are different techniques and different ways to present yourself in the best possible light. Do you look at the camera? How do you read the copy? There are a lot of aspects to it. These workshops have proven very valuable.”

California’s newly enacted Proposition 28 (providing state funding for arts and music education in schools) gives programs like these the latitude to expand their offerings. In addition to the Youth Conservatory (currently serving roughly 55 students between the ages of 10 through 18) and Junior Conservatory (serving roughly 20 students between the ages of 6 and 9), the Playhouse offers classes during ski-week, spring break and summer vacation. They also do outreach programs to local schools, partnering with educators to both impart a theatrical curriculum and expose elementary students to the theater by performing plays like Island of the Dolphins in conjunction with what they’re reading in school.

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Students in grades 1 through 5 attending Summer Camp with Teacher Mary Sherg Kaye

This spring, Conservatory students will stage a production of The Addams Family Musical. Auditions are being held February 2 and are open to both Conservatory members and outside members.

“So many kids have stayed with the program from 5th grade through their senior year,” Alanes said. “They grew up at the Playhouse. They’re highly trained and they made lifelong friendships. For a lot of these kids, it’s their lifeline. They might not be able to be themselves at school, but here they can really be themselves and support each other. We’ve created a strong environment of trust and growth.”

Alanes intends to build on that legacy. For as many students as the Playhouse has already served, he’s aimed his sights high and wide to expand the program.

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Mai Wright (as Helena) and Sam O’Neill (as Demetrius) perform in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

For more information on the Youth Conservatory program, its offerings and how to audition, visit their website by clicking here.


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