Orange County’s Acting Academy for Kids Rolls Camera
By Jody Robinson
You may have met Stephen and Maggie Zygo, of the Acting Academy for Kids through these pages previously, and sitting down with them is always a pleasure. If you haven’t met them before, welcome. Either way, this time, we’d like to start with something a bit different. A little visualization.
Ready? Ok: Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Now, imagine this. Flashbulbs popping, crowds of adoring fans murmuring, a long, crimson carpet rolled out. There is a tall step and repeat backdrop for paparazzi photos set: all is ready for a Hollywood premiere. The first actors arrive…and step out of Mom’s minivan.
“My twin passions have always been teaching kids and acting,” says Stephen. Originally from Rochester, New York, Stephen earned twin degrees in Musical Theatre Performance and Elementary Education. Having directed over 40 youth programs, Stephen and his wife Maggie decided to create the Acting Academy for Kids (AA4K) in hopes of providing a high quality theater experience for children across Orange County. Since its inception in 2006, over 10,000+ students have joined the ranks of talented performers who make up the AA4K family.
The academy’s newest offering, and what is now the largest differentiator between AA4K and other acting programs for kids, is a fully-realized film program. Brian Stevens, an actor, writer, and filmmaker who resides in Los Angeles, has been with the Acting Academy now for four years, and has taken on the task of writing for and directing AA4K ‘s newest program. “Stephen asked if I’d be interested in doing a film project where the kids would be exposed to an authentic “Hollywood” experience of being in a feature film. I was a bit skeptical about the potential success of such a program because I wasn’t sure how much interest we would have. I wrote the script hoping to have a dozen or so kids interested enough to audition and we ended up with 46 students vying for the roles. My other expectation was that since these were musical theater kids, the transition to film wouldn’t be seamless. But I was wrong again – I was floored by the innate talent these kids have.”
Seeing as the Acting Academy has garnered accolades such as “Best Children’s Live Theater” and “Best Theater School”, one might think that they’ve earned a break from creating new, unique programs – but a break is not on anyone’s mind: let alone Stephen or Maggie. “We are laying the foundation to create an on-camera acting school that will be a premier experience in South Orange County – a program that will be distinguished by our focus on nurturing the young actor. It is our goal to challenge and help our students continually grow and achieve even greater success in whatever paths they choose,” Stephen states. And grow they do. The film experience is focused on giving the kids the information they need to be successful in the real world while providing the care and support parents have come to expect from AA4K. While the Acting Academy’s summer camp is the “perfect ‘test-drive’ for a child who’s interested,” says Maggie, the film program is a full immersion experience. From auditions, to call backs, to a full day on set, the film projects culminate in a local screening for friends and family and each actor receiving a credit-named role on the Internet Movie Database. The Academy’s first foray into motion-picture magic? “Oh Imperfect Night”, a short film which premiered at The Regency Theater in San Juan Capistrano.
“We want kids to experience the real deal,” says Stephen. “Hands-on cooperative learning helps kids understand that each role is vital to the success of a show.” With a cast of over 60 voice artists, and 300+ crew and animation experts on board to make a film like Inside Out, learning teamwork in a real-world environment is imperative for kids who want to see what life as a performing artist is really like – and, to remember that sometimes it takes an army to ensure that the show must go on.
And the most rewarding part? “Watching the performers sitting in the movie theater seats in anticipation of their film debuts. Regardless of their role in the film, every child had their moment to shine and it was really something to see.” When developing the working scripts, Brian tries to write the roles for ages anywhere from 7-19. “I have a rough idea of what I’m shooting for in terms of ages and genders, but that’s always subject to change – you might have a person coming in to read for a certain role, but end up being the perfect fit for another.”
How AA4K evolved
As both founders hold Master’s Degrees in teaching, they not only bring a dedication to the craft of performance, but an unflinching drive to bring on the best teachers in town – a combination that attracts instructors who are both trained performing artists and credentialed educators. Live Scan screens, 1st Aid & CPR are also requirements to join the AA4K team.
When Stephen and Maggie took a leap of faith and followed their passion to create an environment where kids were free to explore musical theater, acting, voice, dance, and instrumental music, they were simply following a dream. Now, their summer camps, musical theater productions, voice lessons and private after-school acting classes give kids from all over Orange County the ability to follow their own dreams – without having to trek to LA in search of a like experience. And the kids are ready to work. “The moment you walk in and you are laying the scripts out, [and the kids] come in and are fully prepared and so excited to get to work, when the kids share that excitement, that’s when you know you have a really good thing going,” Brian notes. “Watching the kids on the last day of shooting and seeing the sense of accomplishment – what a great moment – you can’t overstate it enough.”
And the parents agree: Brynn Rydquist, whose son Noah, 9, participated in the Academy’s first film project, “can’t say enough about our experience at the Acting Academy for Kids. I love that Noah is involved in such a creative, encouraging environment with such talented professionals…The staff are all great mentors, super involved with the kids, and they make every child feel special.” Beyond that? The American Alliance for Theatre and Education notes that students involved in drama performance improve reading comprehension, verbal, and nonverbal communication skills, improve school attendance, and reduce dropout rates.” And, in addition to building overall communication and social skills, “involvement in drama courses and performance has been shown to improve student’s self-esteem as well as their confidence in their academic abilities.” Noah’s experience at the Acting Academy seems to back that up, as his mom notes he doesn’t have “an ounce of fear in presenting reports at school or anywhere he needs to be up in front of people.”
Film isn’t the only way to experience the real show-biz deal, however. The Acting Academy’s Musical Theater Series casts, produces, and performs a new popular Broadway musical every 12 weeks.
Bringing a full-scale production to life on stage is no small feat, combining professional lighting, sets, and sound. Their home base at the Camino Real Playhouse in San Juan Capistrano (and satellite location at the Cabrillo Playhouse, San Clemente) allows singers, actors, musicians, and aspiring set designers to test their skills in actual working theaters. Knowing your way around a stage is becoming of greater value nowadays as well, with television shows such as Glee (2009), Smash (2012), Make It Pop (2015), and the new School of Rock TV adaptation airing this year increasing steadily in popularity. Not to mention the Hollywood blockbuster productions of Pitch Perfect (2012) and its hit sequel Pitch Perfect 2 (2015). Musical Theater is at the forefront of pop culture, and the AA4K is leading the way in preparing today’s talent for tomorrow’s opportunities.
Opportunity, as it turns out, is not far off: Mary Desmond, 17, was a successful contestant of American Idol’s 15th season, (currently airing), and earned a role in a new documentary about bullying called “Someone to Save Me.” Since she “learned at [age] 13 that the Acting Academy “was holding auditions for a stage production of “13”, and couldn’t wait to audition,” she has taken acting lessons from Stephen, whom she credits with “teaching her so many important lessons”, including audition advice that she attributes her career success. “He told me to ‘be remembered’ – ‘be loud and show them who I am’. This advice has served me well.” But being a part of the AA4K is more than just success, more than being known in the industry, more than developing public speaking skills or rounding out a child’s musical talent. It is a mentorship, and a community, and a family. What better place for a child to find their voice?
Giving each child a chance to raise that voice, the Academy also offers Performing Arts camps all summer long. Providing their signature immersion experience, campers can sign up for a single week, the entire summer, or any amount of time in between. If your child is at the top of bottom of the age range for Summer Camp, not to worry: ages are split into smaller groups of 4-7, 7-10, and 10-13 year olds (contingent upon enrollment). That being said, each program fosters open communication and teamwork among age groups, and the kids love it. Jessie-Ruth, 15, came to the Academy “not knowing a soul”, her mother Blair notes. Since then, she has participated in both musicals, like Mulan and The Little Mermaid, along with the film project, and will be the first one to tell you that “I have so much fun being here. I’ve learned so much and have made so many great, lasting friendships.”