Cosmic Class Act: The Acting Academy for Kids Offers the Total Theater Experience

by • May 1, 2014 • 2014, Big Kids, Cover Story, Entertainment, May 2014, People & Profiles, Teens and Pre-Teens

If you haven’t yet seen the young Darth Vader Volkswagen commercial that first aired during the Super Bowl, you ought to join 59 million other people and give it a peek on YouTube. In it, a young boy dressed up as the iconic villain attempts to employ “The Force” around the house, but try as he might, he can’t move the washing machine, budge the doll or compel the dog to move an inch. We never see the boy’s face, but his body language communicates everything: focus, effort, disappointment… and then total astonishment when “The Force” actually works!

It turns out that when you’re embodying Darth Vader, it’s all about body language. Max Page, the young actor who played little Darth in that commercial, honed some of those skills while studying under Stephen Zygo at Acting Academy for Kids.

“My twin passions have always been teaching kids and acting,” says Stephen, who has degrees in both Musical Theatre Performance and Elementary Education. As an undergraduate, Stephen became an elementary school teacher and theatre arts director in New York and later in Hawaii, where he met his wife Maggie in graduate school as they were both completing Masters Degrees in teaching.

After graduation the couple relocated to Southern California where they continued their careers in education. Stephen was also running his school’s K-8 theater department. They were settling into the life for which they got their degrees – just in time for the recession to hit. Budget cuts and widespread teaching layoffs cost the pair (the newest hires on staff at their respective schools) their jobs.

Those job losses were a difficult thing, but sometimes unforeseen changes create unforeseen opportunities. Stephen saw a need in the community and simply wanted to continue helping kids benefit from the tremendous experiences found in the performing arts.

Stephen and Maggie took a leap of faith and followed their passion to create an environment where students are free to explore musical theatre, acting, voice, dance and instrumental music – and the Acting Academy for Kids was born. Today, it is one of Orange County’s premier performing arts academies for children ages 4 through 17, with multiple programs that provide an authentic theater experience to expose young people to all aspects of the performing arts.

Acting Academy for Kids was voted “Best Theater School” and “Best Children’s Live Theater” in 2013 by local media outlets.


The Academy’s home base at the Camino Real Playhouse in San Juan Capistrano (and satellite locations at The Gate in Rancho Santa Margarita and the Cabrillo Playhouse in San Clemente) allow aspiring singers, actors, musicians, and set designers to try their hands at the real thing – in an actual working theater as opposed to an ad-hoc stage in a warehouse or community center.

“We want kids to experience the real deal — an active dressing room, staging, lighting design, and set creation in a genuine working theater,” says Stephen. “Hands-on cooperative learning helps kids understand that each role is vital to the success of a show.”

In the Acting Academy’s Musical Theater Series, young cast members produce and perform popular Broadway musicals every 12 weeks. These seasonal programs each culminate in a full-scale production with professional lighting, sets, and sound.

Acting Academy for Kids founders Stephen and Maggie Zygo

Acting Academy for Kids founders Stephen and Maggie Zygo

For Stephen and Maggie, the Acting Academy for Kids is also about an experience that transcends the theatre. It’s about providing students opportunities to become more polished and poised, not only as performers, but as individuals. Interpersonal skills, speaking skills, memorization and the ability to present oneself in front of an audience are just some of the rewards of the Acting Academy for Kids programs.

Ten-year-old Ava Almada (on the cover as Princess Leia) has been “Mr. Zygo’s” student at Acting Academy for Kids for the last six years, where she has participated in about 14 full-scale productions and receives private vocal and acting lessons. Her experience at Acting Academy for Kids has prepared her for roles in independent films, television shows and commercials.

“Ava will not get up early in the morning for anything but this,” Ava’s mother Darcie laughingly says of her daughter’s passion for what she does. But it’s not just the acting that Darcie appreciates. “I love that, through the Acting Academy for Kids, Ava has not only developed a sense of confidence and comfort in front of people, but she gets to see what community means. We all contribute to the productions and have fun working as a team. It’s important for kids to see that.”


The Academy offers Performing Arts Camps all summer long. Weeklong sessions provide children and teens with the Acting Academy for Kids’ signature full-theater immersion experience, capped off with a performance for family and friends on their Main Stage. Kids have the option to sign up for a single week, the entire summer, or anywhere in between.

“Summer camp is the perfect ‘test-drive’ for a child who’s interested,” says Maggie. “It’s a great opportunity for kids to interact outside their peer groups as well.”

In addition to its seasonal and summer camp programs, the Acting Academy for Kids provides after-school acting classes (group and private), vocal training, and guitar and piano lessons. Fundamental concepts like improvisation, line memorization, character development, professional singing techniques and voiceover training give students a performing arts foundation that helps develop self esteem through a grade-A learning experience.

Acting Academy for Kids is also set apart from the other independent performing arts programs in Orange County by the quality and caliber of its faculty members.

“Our teachers are trained performing artists and credentialed educators,” says Maggie. “They understand how kids learn.”

The Academy’s dedicated team of industry educators and professionals create a fun and safe environment wholly focused on the experience of each child involved. Live scan screened, 1st Aid & CPR certifications, and years of experience working with children are necessary qualifications to join the Acting Academy for Kids team.


With feet firmly planted in both the arts and in education, the Zygos have taken their show(s) on the road with their “school services” concept. They collaborate with schools, churches, and community centers, administering enrichment programs for organizations that don’t have the staff or resources to develop their own.

The pair credits their successes to date to the community of parents and volunteers who help bring each production to life. It also helps that they choose productions that children and teens love to perform. At the award winning Performing Arts Summer Camps this summer they’ll be putting on stage productions of hit themes like Frozen-Solid, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz and so much more – eat your heart out, Darth.


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