WATERLOO REGION – Seventeen months after the start of a pandemic that will not stop, Drayton Entertainment has announced ambitious plans for a youth academy to shape the next generation of musical theater titans.
“This is a natural extension of our musical theater program for young people which began five years ago,” notes Drayton associate artistic director David Connolly, who will become director of education at what is now called the Drayton Entertainment Youth Academy.
âWhat we’re really doing is instilling incredible principles into the lives of these young people through education. It has always been our mandate, but when the pandemic came along and forced us to recalibrate, we finally had time to have some really deep conversations. “
Located on the outskirts of Waterloo, this “cultural incubator” for Drayton’s expanding arts empire will include 10,000 square feet of redeveloped teaching space which, once renovations are complete, will include rehearsal rooms, lecture halls, classroom, music rooms and theater studios, with space to teach technical skills such as set construction, lighting, sound, wardrobe, painting and props.
With a prize of $ 3 million and a fundraising campaign slated to launch this fall, a major hurdle has been overcome with the donation of a former industrial building at 145 Northfield Drive West in Waterloo – not far from St. Jacobs Country Drayton’s Playhouse – by local philanthropists John and Willy Heffner through a 20-year renewable lease.
“This is how Drayton started in 1990-91,” notes Drayton CEO / Artistic Director Alex Mustakas, who predicts the academy could be up and running as early as January.
âWhen everyone was shutting down (due to the recession), this small community came together to hold a professional theater festival. We start over in a way. It’s a dark time right now, but the theater will return.
“We know the impact of the pandemic on young people and we are really excited about the next generation.”
There will be two teaching streams, notes Connolly.
- Recreational, where students sign up for singing, dancing and drama lessons with âsome really amazing mentors to teach kidsâ.
- Pre-professional, with admission by audition, which will be “streamlined” towards a career.
In addition to musical theater and technical training, there is an annual high school music project, mobile theater productions aimed at younger audiences, and a Young Company mentorship program for those wishing to pursue a career in the field.
While the academy has been in discussion for five years, the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement has made its mandate of equity, diversity and inclusion even more essential.
âWe want to destroy financial barriers, physical barriers, emotional barriers and geographic barriers,â insists Connolly, noting plans to reach young people who identify as BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color), LGBTQ +, new Canadians and people with disabilities with the help of a scholarship endowment fund.
Performance is important, he says, “so the last row kid who wasn’t interested in his high school drama program can look at himself and see himself.” “
“Why would you be interested if your story isn’t told, if it’s just one color of skin or just able-bodied people or something?” He poses rhetorically.
“We had a much larger conversation and we are a microcosm of it.”
Drayton currently operates seven theaters in communities in and around Waterloo Region, presenting 800 performances a year before the pandemic shuts them all down.
The youth academy will benefit from reciprocity with the professionals who run it, on stage and off, and will serve as a ânurturing schoolâ for future productions.
âWe have to train people because the doors open,â notes Connolly, a Sheridan College graduate who was the first below-knee double amputee to dance on Broadway.
âThe cast will become larger and hopefully more attentive. We would like to be part of the wave of change by giving young people the skills that will allow them to succeed.
When it comes to the kind of kid he’s looking for, Connolly has a clear vision.
âThis kid obsessed with the musical ‘Hamilton’ or ‘Wicked’ in the basement all alone,â he explains, âwho needs to find his kind to say he’s not alone.
âWhatever your passion, it’s only when you find your like-minded group that you can thrive. That’s what we want this academy to be – a place where people come together and really feel like they belong. “
The idea that all actors are loud extroverts, he says, is a myth.
âIt’s also true that there are some very shy and introverted types who don’t know how to direct this energy. We will help.
“Or they are the life of the party and their families are not sure what to do with all the dramatic energy, and they are taught to moderate it.”
âWe want these kids to realize ‘Wait a minute, this is my super power! Being too dramatic is actually exactly what I need to be in this world! ‘
âWe want to give them a stage.