After four years of acting, 17-year-old Drew McCallum realized that it’s her life passion.
Then she joined Actors Youth Theatre, where she began to earn more than her acting chops.
The Gilbert nonprofit believes in imparting its youth with a comprehensive education of performance arts, production skills and the business side of theater.
“I realized how necessary it is. Here, they opened doors for me. If you want to learn to do something, they’ll help you learn how to do it,” said the home-schooled student from Gilbert. “I get to go to the background and I get to do stuff.”
Drew recently stepped off the “42nd Street” production stage, where she played the challenging role of Dorothy Brock. But while preparing for the musical, she had the added responsibility of running the box office.
She has also learned costuming — and plans to costume part of the upcoming summer camps — as well as how to run lights and keep a watchful eye when sets are built. She also plans to learn sound technology.
“It’s been an incredibly cool experience, and I’m thankful to my time here,” she said.
Bailey Gorman, a graduate of Highland High School, bears the title of operations manager — which means that he manages productions, the stage and classes; he also does lighting and sound operation and design for some of the shows.
He has been on stage since he joined the theater group in 2014: his last production was “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” where he played Quasimodo in the youth cast and St. Aphrodisius and a Congregant in the adult cast.
Lately, his work has taken him backstage.
“It’s just different education than it is when you’re training in dance, singing and acting. Although I try to take classes and lessons when I can, this side and this training is what I’m primarily focused in right now — which is great — and I’m learning a ton,” he said.
Gorman has been trained in how to direct, teach music and private voice lessons, manage the stage and backstage, design and operate lighting, run spotlights, design and operate sound, run a box office and market tickets.
He has also studied the financial side of the theater business.
“My brain is full with theatre information and knowledge, but I know there is so much more to learn as well, which is exciting for what’s to come in the future,” he said. “I think we can all continue to grow and focus on learning new things, every day.”
Both Drew and Gorman plan to eventually make the move to New York City, where the lights of Broadway beckon. But, while those dreams are taking shape, the local performing arts organization is providing plenty to keep them going.
“I would love to be on Broadway, but it’s like a dream,” Drew said. “This has definitely been a start and helps me move toward what I want to do.”
Tracie Jones, executive director and artistic director of Actors Youth Theatre knows the importance of balancing the artistic side with the business.
“They are all individually their own entrepreneurs at the end of the day,” she said, adding that the theater helps them “understand what they’re walking into.”
Jones said that even if the youth don’t go into the industry, performing arts and the theater train young people how to handle life.
“It stresses you mentally, emotionally and physically in all aspects and to be able to handle that, specially with how much anxiety people have these days, is a plus,” she said.
She’s “a walking example.” Two years ago, she lost her vision due to a cerebral tumor but a few days after brain surgery she was back at the theater.
“At the end of the day, we all have issues and we have to work to push through those and find our own dream,” she said. “That’s what we try to teach them. And we do it through the performing arts because we love it.”
Actors Youth Theatre was founded by siblings Marcus Ellsworth and Julie Clement in 2004, with the mission of educating, entertaining, and enriching the lives of individuals in the community. The founders have since moved on from the day-to-day operations.
Jones joined five years ago and has been running it for two years. Additionally, she offers about 30 paid private lessons each week, which is her income. She has adjusted her life to the challenges and said that the theater helped her to overcome the difficulties. It is her “safe place.”
About 300 students learn the performing arts here at any given time. Besides performing on stage in their 11 annual productions and learning backstage, opportunities include multiple summer camps, intensives and tour groups (a first this summer is a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland to compete in a festival).
Jones said that the theater is successful because of the students’ motivation and accomplishments.
More than half of those who acted in “42nd Street” had never tap-danced before — and had nine weeks to learn this difficult routine. They put on a poised show.
“It’s not common to have the professionalism that we have,” Drew said. “We also are like a family. That really is what it feels like. We have people to support you and people to help you build up, and that’s incredibly valuable.”