Local theater group draws hundreds of student actors
Operating out of a single room in managing director Donna Amadee’s house, the organization started with 60 students, no real infrastructure and far more ambition than cash. Its earliest shows were attended almost entirely by the actors’ families.
But as Amadee and artistic director Brooke Abrahamsen visited other U.S. chapters of CYT, some founded 10 to 15 years earlier, they drew encouragement from a vision of what their new venture could become.
Now, just 10 years after its inaugural performance, CYT Richmond staff members can barely contain their excitement as they discuss the explosive growth of a program that’s respected within the Richmond metro area for turning out one quality production after another.
“Before every show, this rush of emotion comes over me,” said Amadee, whose son and daughter grew up performing in CYT shows. “I see the kids on stage and I remember back when we first started, and I think, ‘Thank you, Lord, that we did this – that there were enough people willing to do what it took so these kids could experience what my kids experienced.’ ”
How popular is CYT these days? The Richmond area affiliate’s 37th production – a seven-show run of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opening Friday at the Steward School’s Robins Theatre – sold out in just 73 hours.
And if the participation of 400 Richmond metro region students between the ages of 8 and 18 isn’t enough, CYT Richmond also has four young actors coming from out of state to participate in the August production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
“It’s the pursuit of excellence,” Abrahamsen said. “That’s a huge reason why people want to be part of what we’re doing.”
CYT was founded in San Diego in 1981 as an after-school program. Its four main objectives are training children in the performing arts; building leadership skills; developing a sense of community and fellowship; and providing positive role models for students.
CYT Richmond, a nonprofit that receives less than 5 percent of its operating budget from donations, offers three 10-week instructional sessions – fall, winter and spring – that cost $190 apiece. Enrollment in one of the classes makes students eligible to audition for roles in the Broadway-style musicals that conclude each session. Abrahamsen estimated that about 150 kids usually audition for each show and roughly half are selected.
“We have a very competitive audition process, so we don’t put kids in the shows if they’re not ready,” she said.
There’s ready … and then there’s CYT ready.
Local teen Makenzie Mercer, who earned her dream role as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” has performed in CYT Richmond shows since she was 8 years old. She was 11 when she landed the lead role in “Annie.” This weekend will mark her final show.
“It’s taught me a lot about commitment,” Mercer said. “It’s not just, ‘Come on the weekend, do your thing and leave.’ There’s a lot of work to do during the week, too.”
CYT Richmond productions are truly family projects. While the young actors are expected to learn their lines and show up on time for classes and rehearsals, at least one parent per family is required to volunteer for the numerous behind-the-scenes duties that make productions possible.
“It’s very much a bonding experience because we can all come home and talk about what we did for the show,” said Todd Mercer,
CYT Richmond board of directors’ member, who has had three children (including Makenzie) in the program.
And what they did can include building and painting sets, making props or hand-stitching elaborate costumes. For a 2011 production of Aladdin, volunteers spent weeks making 70 genie costumes for a dance number.
CYT Richmond’s eight paid staff members supervise the various aspects of each show and occasionally hire specialists for more complex projects, but volunteers are a huge part of the organization’s success.
“Not all of the parents know construction, but everybody is willing to pick up a drill and help out,” said tech and warehouse director Chris Osborne.
Last month, while many area families enjoyed Memorial Day cookouts or hung out by the pool, more than a dozen parent volunteers spent Saturday working on sets for Beauty and the Beast.
Being a family-friendly enterprise is vital to CYT Richmond’s success. Abrahamsen seeks shows with “redeeming value” that are age-appropriate for young actors and appeal to the multiple generations represented in a typical audience.
“We try to be consistent in every aspect of what we do,” Amadee said, referring to the quality of all elements of the productions – makeup, lighting and costumes as well as acting. “Once people come to a show, they tend to come back,” she said.
And once kids get a taste of the theater, they usually stick around. Makenzie Mercer noted that while there is competition for roles among the hundreds of young actors in the program, it never rises to the level of “cutthroat.”
“You can be disappointed about not getting a part, but we’ll go out afterwards and we’re all still friends,” she added. “It’s not an intimidating atmosphere, just fun and free.”
Teaching kids to gracefully deal with disappointment is an aspect of the program’s focus on character development, which seeks to instill skills and abilities they can use long beyond the theater.
Abrahamsen, who has an 18-month-old daughter, can’t wait until she’s old enough to get started.
“I feel like there’s something bigger going on here,” she said. “CYT is the place I want her to grow up.”