In its third year, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s summer theater program amps up the intensity — while still being a blast.
This summer, lunchtime at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is a whole show of its own.
“We always put on music and start dancing,” Shawn Cacciola, an 18-year-old participating in the WBTT’s summer program for the first time, says of his lunch break. “Everyone is having a good time, whether it be watching a counselor’s video or playing ‘Mario Kart’ or dancing to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’”
It’s the third summer the troupe has offered its Stage of Discovery theater intensive for 13- to 18-year-old dancers, singers and actors — a free five-week program led by theater professionals.
WBTT Founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs says this is his heart’s work, offering a free program to students who might never get theater instruction otherwise. And his motivation is highly personal.
“I was one of those kids who didn’t have money to attend performing arts programs,” says Jacobs. “I would have fallen through the cracks if, in my 20s, mentors had not been set around in my life … So these five weeks they’re here, I give them my very best to see these kids to their full potential.”
Jacobs says he chose to focus on teenagers because most performing arts camps in the area are offered to younger people. He also has a knack for working with teens, he says, so sticking to 13- to 18-year-olds was the perfect fit.
A little more than half the kids from last year returned this summer, Jacobs adds, which is a testament to how much these students enjoy the instruction they receive.
One is Todd Bellamy II, a 16-year-old actor who grew up attending WBTT shows in which several of his relatives performed. This summer, he returned to the program for a third time.
“This is a second home to me,” he says. “It doesn’t matter who you are. Race, creed, sexual orientation, it doesn’t matter. They will make you feel like you belong.”
The camp takes place every weekday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and at the end of the five weeks, the students put on a full-fledged production for the public. This summer is the first time Stage of Discovery will present a musical rather than a play, and the show Jacobs chose is a junior version of last summer’s mainstage WBTT original revue “Broadway in Black.”
Jacobs says putting on a musical presents several challenges, because fitting in not only acting but singing and dance instruction into five weeks is a lot for the students to memorize.
However, he says the passion in the eyes of these talented students makes him confident in the future end product.
Cacciola says nailing the choreography has been a particular challenge for him coming from more of an acting background, but he just adds it to the list of valuable learning experiences he’s gained from the program. Another valuable lesson is how to work in a professional setting with artists who are both younger and older than him.
“Seeing fresh faces in this industry is very different,” he says of his younger peers. “They definitely inspire me to be better and work harder.”
The compassion of the program counselors and teachers is unlike anything 17-year-old Trinity Pitts has experienced. She says seeing how much thought and effort goes into their instruction inspires her to work harder every day.
Bellamy couldn’t agree more.
“The counselors want us to release the inner fire from our hearts to put out to everybody, so they try their best and go over and beyond for us to be great,” Bellamy says. “They love us, they really do.”
Pitts says she never knew how much preparation went into a professional show because her theater experience has been limited to what her school can offer. But her WBTT instructors and fellow participants are expanding her knowledge significantly.
“Being around all these people who love the same thing that you do is such a thrill,” she says. “And also to have these amazing counselors who want you to grow as much as you do.”
Pitts and Cacciola say they’re ecstatic to be performing solos in the show, and Bellamy is living his dream of performing several songs he’s adored since his childhood.
“From ‘Dreamgirls’ to ‘The Wiz,’ it’s a huge plethora of songs from different musicals,” he says. “It’s so fun.”
But as challenging as that iconic material can be, Pitts says nobody gets lost in the whirlwind of rehearsals. The teachers make every person feel important, she says, and they’re given in-depth instruction that makes a difference.
And that’s been Jacobs’ goal all along — to show young people who don’t always get the chance to step on a stage that they have a shot.
“The next Josephine Baker or the next Bernadette Peters — those people need opportunity,” he says. “WBTT is that net, that essential arm into a community that is still underserved when it comes to culture and art.”
Correction: The print version of this story failed to include the two dates of the "Broadway in Black Jr." performances, which will take place at the theater at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 15 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 16.