It’s not recess, but outside on Rancho Vista Elementary School’s playground, excitement brews as fourth graders eagerly await their turn to hop on stage to sing, dance and rehearse their lines for the upcoming production of “It’s Time to Just Believe.”
“It’s Time to Just Believe” was created by the Palos Verdes Performing Arts Conservatory as part of their school-based performing arts program.
For 11 weeks, PVPAC’s staff members go on campus to rehearse with each grade from second to fifth, for an hour until the day of the much-awaited invited dress rehearsal and the evening of the 30-minute show.
“Going to schools and igniting a passion for musical theater is very rewarding,” says teacher/director, Emilee Yaakola. “While singing and dancing may not be every kids cup of tea, every student is learning about self-confidence and public speaking, which are life skills they will take with them into their adult lives.’”
The program is designed for each grade to share common songs, and for each grade’s play to be tied into their current curriculum.
This year, second grade is focusing on habitat and nature, third graders are learning about space, fourth graders are reenacting the history of California and fifth graders are spreading the word of “Hamilton” in their rendition of the American Revolution.
“This is a lot more memorable than learning from a book and taking a test,” says fourth grader, Audrina. “It’s also a lot more fun,”
“Students really love the program,” says fourth-grade teacher, Laura Monge, who has seen every play since the program kicked off four years ago. “It not only builds self-confidence, but it helps develop creative-thinking skills and thinking outside the box. We keep doing it because we’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from parents, and the kids really shine, especially on performance night.”
Shining onstage and building self-confidence have been the goals of the Palos Verdes Performing Arts education program since it was founded in 1999.
Almost 20 years later, the Conservatory, as it has been known since 2014, has a full-comprehensive program that includes summer camps; a 40-class schedule including a special-needs class, workshops and master classes; four full-scale productions and four song-and-dance troupes.
It also serves the community through a series of outreach programs that has reached more than 12,000 low-income and special needs students as well as senior groups throughout the Los Angeles area.
“This really is a unique program because of all the venues they can choose from,” says Conservatory Director Joel Sluyter. “There are so many different paths they can choose from… volunteering, singing, acting…”
Heart of the Conservatory
The heart of the program, however, is the Conservatory’s performing groups.
Sluyter started as the groups’ choreographer six years ago. Now, he couldn’t be happier in the way the program has grown and fostered a family atmosphere among the 60-plus performers.
The performers, who range in age from 8-18, and who audition every year, act as ambassadors for the Conservatory. The students perform at community venues as well as at theme parks and sporting events, setting examples that bring in new students and talent.
“A lot of our performing group members do the shows, and they have to take classes, so they’re here all the time, and they get people to join the conservatory” says Sluyter. This place would be a totally different vibe without them.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Taryn, 12, who has been active in the Conservatory for four years. “I’ve made a lot of friends, got to do shows and sing and dance. It’s my happy place.”
With a highly trained professional creative staff and top-quality instruction, many students have gone on to prestigious university theater programs and have become professional performers.
This, however, is not the main goal of the Conservatory. “It’s not about creating the next star,” says Sluyter.
“Yes, I’ve picked teachers who can create that, and the talent comes first, but at the same time, it’s about growing good people and using the arts as a way to support that."
Because about 85 percent of his students will not choose theater as a career, said Sluyter, they'll be learning more about life skills.
"I am so proud of the kids and families that are in the halls because they put such hard work and dedication into this program,” he said.
With plans in the works for a $5 million, 8,200 square-foot second story addition to the Norris Pavilion, which could be up and running as early as the summer of 2020, the Conservatory’s future and commitment to the community continues to grow.
As Executive Director Julie Moe Reynolds recently told the Daily Breeze, “Building the Conservatory on our own property makes a lot more sense, so we won’t have [so many] payments and will be able to invest more into teachers and shows and programs.”
There is already a list of ideas ready to put into action.
“The new building will have three studios that are the same size as our largest studio now, so we will have the ability to add more classes, another performing group, mainstage show and possibly a competitive dance team,” said Sluyter, who added that the space is planned as a community-oriented conservatory.
“I want families, parents and kids to look at this as their second home and as a place where they can not only grow in the arts, but in other areas as well.”
For more information on the conservatory or to make a donation to the building fund, contact the conservatory at palosverdesperformingarts.com.