Leah Henthorne, 13, was a mere spectator to one of Copperstar Repertory Company’s shows three years ago.
Now after a fire, a resurgence and a landmark grant, the Chandler-based theater company is sending the Ahwatukee teen and two other students to New York for a Broadway production.
Henthorne had been singing for several years and had participated in a school musical, but she didn’t get involved in community theater until 2012.
She and her mother, Katy, attended Copperstar’s December 2011 performance of “Annie” at the Higley Center for the Performing Arts.
Lois Zozobrado, her friend, had invited them.
They went home impressed with the production company. Copperstar, which features amateur productions by both adults and children, was “as close to professional as possible,” Katy said.
Mary-Jo Okawa, a former performing arts teacher in Gilbert and Chandler schools, founded Copperstar in 2008. She had been frustrated to see that her children’s schools did not have yearly theater performances.
“I just felt like there was a need,” Okawa said. “I knew that students wanted the experience, and I also knew, having been an educator, that it enriched their lives.”
Copperstar’s offering is a blend of education and performance. A combination of weekly lessons and summer camps with main stage shows make what Okawa said is “unique to the Valley.”
Henthorne signed up for one of Copperstar’s 2012 summer camps and later auditioned for the October main stage performance of “The Wizard of Oz.” She landed a role as a munchkin.
“She got bit by the theater bug,” Katy Henthorne said.
Henthorne, who described herself as a “shy girl,” said meeting “so many like-minded people” was her favorite aspect of Copperstar.
“She tends to be more shy in her presentation,” Okawa said. “I think being in shows has really opened her up to new adventures and new fun, and she really loves it now.”
The October 2012 “Wizard” performance came at a crucial time in Copperstar’s history.
Just a month and a half earlier, a fire had destroyed Okawa’s house.
She had been using her home as a base for Copperstar’s props and costumes.
“Our home was a total loss. We had storage from years and years of theater in our garage and in our home, so we lost all of those materials,” Okawa said.
Despite having to live in hotels and move frequently, Okawa remained determined to finish the year, and Copperstar continued with its shows.
“The fire was a huge turning point for Copperstar,” Katy Henthorne said. After the disaster sparked news publicity throughout Phoenix, Mary-Jo’s local community rallied around her.”
Prior to the fire, Copperstar had been “nomadic” prior to the fire, frequently moving to different locations for their rehearsals, Katy Henthorne said.
After the fire, Copperstar found a home.
A new home
Real estate investor Michael Pollock got them a spot in the Pollock Business Plaza on Elliot and Arizona Avenue. Built in 2013, the Copperstar Studios provides a space for lessons and rehearsals.
“I don’t know if that would have evolved had we not had the fire.”
Despite growing pains, the nonprofit company has rebounded well, Okawa said. Mesa Arts Center asked them to be one of their resident theater companies, and, for the second year in a row, the Arizona Community Foundation has awarded them a $10,000 grant.
Copperstar has used the new funds for need-based scholarships.
“We try very hard to not let finances hold people back from participating,” Okawa said.
Another achievement came when iTheatrics New York asked Okawa to nominate students for the 2014 Broadway Academy.
In a partnership with Musical Theatre International (MTI), Broadway Academy hosts young thespians from around the country for week-long camps. They perform shows from the MTI Broadway Junior Collection, which creates “Jr.” versions of popular mainstream shows.
“I was very honored to be asked to nominate,” said Okawa, who nominated five of her students for the experience. She chose kids whom she felt had a “long-term interest in the arts.”
Henthorne was one of those students.
Since the “Wizard of Oz,” she had performed in two more Copperstar shows: “Oliver!” and “Les Misérables.” She learned a lot from Okawa in two and a half years.
“(Mary-Jo) is amazing. She’s taught me so much, and I’ve progressed so much with her,” Henthorne said.
After submitting a video audition, Henthorne received a callback. She and Jake Bonar, who played the Artful Dodger in “Oliver!” and Gavroche in “Les Misérables,” will both be performing in the Jr. version of “The King and I” in July.
Her friend Lois will be going to New York to perform in “Disney’s Peter Pan Jr.” a week prior.
The students have yet to be cast.
Okawa said the three individuals will meet knowledge instructors, learn a lot, have a great time, and “go on to do really great things.”
“I never thought I’d be on Broadway,” Henthorne said.
Her success exemplifies Copperstar’s community-driven purpose.
“When I founded Copperstar, I wanted it to be a place where families and the whole community didn’t have to be Broadway actors to put on a Broadway-caliber show,” Okawa said.
“I knew that if we came together and worked hard, and if everyone put their heart and soul into it, we could do something very special. A lot of very ordinary people doing something quite extraordinary.”
Copperstar Repertory Company’s next performance is “Annie,” July 18 at 2 and 7 p.m. at the Mesa Arts Center. Tickets are $7 at the door.
Copperstar is located at 3002 N. Arizona Ave., Suites 3-4, in Chandler. For more information, visit www.copperstarrep.org.
• James Anderson is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is interning this semester for the AFN.