Tag Archives: Xanthia Walker


After on stage warm-ups that included plenty of high fives and cheering, Sarah Sullivan and Xanthia Angel Walker asked a cast of nearly three dozen youth (plus two grown-up actors) to picture “one person or thing you want to dedicate this show to.” Soon they’d begin a dress rehearsal for “Some Are Beginning,” a play written by José Zárate with several Valley youth as part of “The Arizonan Project.”

Cast members from "Some Are Beginning" from Rising Youth Theatre

It’s an effort by newly-formed Rising Youth Theatre, founded by Sullivan and Walker, to engage youth in telling their own stories. It’s up and running thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $5000, plus funding from the New Jersey-based Puffin Foundation — which “provides grants to artists and art organizations who are often excluded from mainstream opportunities due to their race, gender, or social philosophy.”

“You are making history right now,” the pair told their eager young performers — who auditioned for the show after learning of the newly-creating Rising Youth Theatre through various venues,  including Phoenix Center for the Arts, where “Some Are Beginning” opens tonight at 7:30pm. There’s also a 7:30pm show on Sat, April 28 — and a 6pm show on Sun, April 29. Tickets are just $10 or “pay what you can at the door.”

Scene from Rising Youth Theatre's "Some Are Beginning"

More than 100 young people from across the Phoenix metro area have been involved in developing and presenting the work, according to Sullivan and Walker — who note that their collaborators for this production include not only Phoenix Center for the Arts (which offers all sorts of arts experiences for kids and adults), but also the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix, Flight 33 and Barrio Nuevo.

I chatted with several small groups of “Some Are Beginning” actors before Thursday night’s dress rehearsal. Some showed remarkable focus. Others bounced to and fro with excitement. None seemed nervous, and all were incredibly composed and polished once the show got underway. Some aspire to theater careers, while others are happy just for the chance to make new friends.

Rising Youth Theatre's "Some Are Beginning" opens tonight at 7:30pm

“The play is about living in Arizona,” they told me. Also friendship, facing hardship, not judging others and standing up for those who’re mistreated. “It’s about the experiences of being a kid,” shares Sullivan, “which are really human experiences.” The work is suitable, she says, for audiences ages 8 and up — including adults. I found it sweet, funny and insightful. But it’s something more. It’s a beginning.

“This is the first performance of the first play of a brand new theater,” Walker told the cast before Thursday’s rehearsal. “I hope you’ll always remember how special this was.”

— Lynn

Note: Click here for more information on tonight’s performance

Coming up: From journalism to playwriting

Photos by José Zárate


Once upon a theater camp

Aaron Zweiback performs in Green Eggs & Ham with The Phoenix Symphony on St. Patrick's Day

I was reminded while reading Mala Blomquist’s post this morning that spring break camps will soon be upon us, and was busy trolling for camps with an arts and culture twist when interrupted by a call from 12-year-old actor and ASA student Aaron Zweiback, whose theater teachers include Xanthia Walker.

I first met Zweiback last summer when my daughter Lizabeth, who now studies acting in NYC, was a teacher assistant with Childsplay Academy in Tempe. She’d invited me to see the final performance of a summer workshop with a “Hairspray” theme. Zweiback was one of several campers performing snippets of the musical for family and friends — and his Edna a la bathrobe was a hoot. He’s also done theater camps with Phoenix Theatre.

I ran into Zweiback after a recent Valley Youth Theatre performance of “Charlotte’s Web” — during which he rocked the rat role — and put fist to ear with the typical “call me” sign after chatting with his dad. In a rather spooky coincidence, I’d been wondering earlier this morning whether he’d ever have time to actually pick up a phone.

Today was the day, and the call couldn’t have been better timed. Turns out Zweiback is performing in several shows I’ll be seeing in coming days and weeks. I learned yesterday that I’ll need a little snip to a torn part of my left knee, but decided to postpone all things arthroscopy for another two weeks in order to keep my review calendar mostly intact.

Aaron Zweiback recently performed in Charlotte's Web at Valley Youth Theatre

So life looks like this for me and my knee: See Zweiback and others perform in “Gypsy” at Phoenix Theatre this weekend, limp my way through a trip to visit Lizabeth over spring break, then catch a returning flight in the wee hours that gets me home just in time to hit another Zweiback gig — The Phoenix Symphony performing “Green Eggs and Ham.” Then squeeze in the surgery thing (with a doc who took his kids to see a friend from the Valley perform in “Grease” on Broadway a few years ago). I’m told the wait won’t worsen what ails me.

Turns out “Green Eggs and Ham” includes all sorts of amazing folks from Valley stages. ASA teacher and renowned Valley actor Toby Yatso, with whom both Lizabeth and Zweiback have studied voice, is narrating the story. Zweiback does his “boy soprano” thing as “Sam I Am” and shared that the theatrical piece of the concert is being blocked, choreographed and directed by Bobb Cooper, VYT’s producing artistic director.

There’s another Sam in Zweiback’s life as well — an actor named Sam Primack whose little mittens I once guarded with care as backstage mom for a Greasepaint Youtheatre production of “Oliver.” He and Zweiback were in “A Christmas Story” at Phoenix Theatre earlier this season, and both are cast in Childsplay’s world premiere production of Dwayne Hartford’s “The Color of Stars.”

Sam Primack poses with a VYT fan after performing in Charlotte's Web

After Zweiback shared a bit about auditioning for all these shows, I invited him to write a guest blog with audition tips for young actors — and he graciously agreed. It takes a generous spirit to share one’s own “secrets to success” and Zweiback certainly has one. I fully expect to see him performing on Broadway stages one day, and hope he’ll also keep an eye out for opportunities to audition for roles in works by William Shakespeare where his intellect and gift for comedy would shine.

If the ticket fairies are working in my favor, I’ll be able to enjoy the work of another Valley-trained actor while in NYC next week. Nick Cartell, who has performed with VYT, Phoenix Theatre and other Arizona companies makes his Broadway debut this month in a revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Katie Czajkowksi and Aaron Zweiback after a Childsplay summer camp performance based on the musical Hairspray

I’m also looking forward to the Homestead Playhouse production of “Holes,” being performed at Copper Ridge School in Scottsdale March 28-30, because another young performer I met after the Childsplay “Hairspray” camp performance landed the warden role. Katie’s mom, Deb Czajkowski, recently got in touch to share the happy news — and her thoughts on the many benefits of theater for youth.

I hope those of you still wondering what your children or teens might enjoy doing over spring break will do a little theater camp legwork. One day, perhaps, you’ll get to turn to your child and share the old theater adage for good luck — “Break a leg!” Just try to keep your own body parts intact in the meantime…

— Lynn

Note: Click here to read Mala Blomquist’s post on spring break camps and here to learn about all sorts of summer camps. Find additional spring break camps at Voices Studio, Creative Stages Youth Theatre and Mesa Arts Center (if you’ve got one, send me the scoop at rakstagemom@gmail.com).

Coming up: Spring break NYC-style, Hometown boy makes Broadway debut

Rising Youth Theatre

Rising Youth Theatre founders Xanthia Walker and Sarah Sullivan

After completing MFA degrees in theatre for youth at Arizona State University in Tempe, Xanthia Walker and Sarah Sullivan knew they wanted to start a theater company, so they looked around and considered the community need.

“We noticed that no one was doing full-time, community-engaged theater with youth,” recalls Walker. They’d found the need — “creating original plays with youth based on their true stories.” And so Rising Youth Theatre was born.

At this point, says Walker, it’s a “pilot project.” The task at hand is “developing our model for creating work.” They expect to do residency work all over the Phoenix metro area for a good six months or so, creating a youth theater production and building the reputation they’ll need to move forward.

Once they’ve laid this foundation, says Walker, they’ll seek additional funding and partnerships. Walker notes that they’re already working with several Valley agencies serving youth — including the Boys and Girls Clubs, Flight 33 in Guadalupe and Barrio Nuevo Phoenix.

They’ve already spent more than a month working with groups of youth at seven different sites in Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler and Guadalupe. “We’re probably working now with about 1oo to 150 middle school or high school age youth,” says Walker.

“A team of resident artists work with us to facilitate story gathering with students,” explains Walker. Their current project focuses on “what it means to be an Arizonan in 2012 from the perspective of a young person.”

Walker notes that the artists use various methods to help youth capture and share their thoughts about Arizona — including improvisation, story sharing, theater games and writing exercises. They then look for universal notes, comments and stories that elucidate common threads and themes.

Playwright José Zárate, who attends each of these workshops with youth, takes notes that get translated into outline form — material that he’ll eventually craft into a play performed by Rising Youth Theatre. Walker expects to hold auditions around the end of February, then move forward with rehearsals and developing the program.

Auditions, shares Walker, will be open to both youth involved in the residency phase of the play’s development and youth from the larger community. She expects the process of developing the play together as a cast to take about six weeks.

“The play will have a full production team and professional actors performing alongside participating youth,” says Walker. Actors Ricky Araiza, recently seen in Childsplay’s “The Sun Serpent,” and Elizabeth Pollen, who performed last season in Childsplay’s “The Tomato Plant Girl,” have already signed on to the project. Both are energetic, vibrant performers.

Rising Youth Theatre recently became the resident theater company of the Phoenix Center for the Arts, which is sponsoring their first production. It’ll be performed at the center the last weekend of April in 2012.

Rising Youth Theatre is offering six theater classes for youth which start in January of 2012 and cost just $60 each. There are two for first through third graders (“A Whole New World: Imagination and Adventures” and “Choose Your Own Adventure”) and four for fourth through sixth graders (“The Actor’s Tools: Body & Voice,” “Who Do You Think You Are?,” “Clowning Around,” and “What’s The Story?”).

To learn more about Rising Youth Theatre, the “Arizonan Project” or theater clases for youth, click here.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to read a “Stage Mom” review of an earlier work directed by Xanthia Walker which shares the stories of youth and families living with autism. Click here for information on other classes offered at Phoenix Center for the Arts.

Coming up: Making my holiday reading list

Photo courtesy of Xanthia Walker

The normal heart

As AIDS activists mark thirty years since the first report of AIDS, the play “The Normal Heart” is enjoying a successful run on Broadway. It’s been nominated — along with “Arcadia,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and “The Merchant of Venice” — for a 2011 Tony Award® for best play revival.

The Normal Heart is nominated for five 2011 Tony Awards

“The Normal Heart” is described by its creators as “the story of a city in denial,” unfolding “as a tight-knit group of friends refuses to let doctors, politicians and the press bury the truth of an unspoken epidemic behind a wall of silence.”

The play was written by Larry Kramer, and performed Off-Broadway in 1985 and 2004. This revival is directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe.

Like many in the Valley, I was mindful today of the many lives taken and affected by AIDS. According to a June 3 story from Reuters, the disease has “infected more than 60 million people and claimed nearly 30 million lives.”

But my thoughts turned as well to families affected by autism spectrum disorder, as I attended a benefit performance of a play titled “Like Everyone Else” — a joint venture of Phoenix Theatre, Arizona School for the Arts and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center.

On either side of the stage, tall and narrow nooks looked like blackboards — each covered with dozens of colorful chalk words and images. Math problems. Movie slogans. Drawings of animals. Scientific formulas.

They hinted at the diverse but uber-focused interests of people living with autism, a theme mirrored in much of the play’s dialogue.

The work opens as three individuals living with autism share a bit about their unique struggles. But soon a loud chorus of voices on stage conveys a single message: “Everyone is special in their own way.” And a young woman says, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

“Like Everyone Else” gives voice to the concerns, hopes, challenges and dreams of children and adults living with autism spectrum disorders — plus those of parents and siblings. Even friends, teachers and various community members.

A girl argues with her sister. A boy engages his brother in a lightsaber duel. A young man looks for a job. A young woman longs to leave home and live on her own. A SARRC professional helps with various services and supports, and the audience enjoys a filmed tour of the Center.

During one vignette, a young woman in a white labcoat stands in front of a white screen showing a picture of the human brain. She gives a brief but comprehensive overview of autism spectrum disorders, sharing common characteristics of people with autism and noting that 1 in 110 people fall somewhere along the spectrum.

The remarkable use of props and noise elevate the work to a truly rare blend of education and entertainment. Under Xanthia Walker’s direction, the work is warm and humorous rather than preachy. We get it, but leave the theater feeling like we’ve just been handed the most beautiful gift rather than a piece of social commentary.

I spoke with ASA head of school Leah Fregulia-Roberts after the show. She’s grateful that students from ASA’s Theatre for Social Change class had the opportunity to work with SARRC youth. “This must have been a life-changing experience,” reflects Fregulia-Roberts.

Laura Apperson, ASA arts director, hopes to secure funding for future collaborations tackling additional issues facing youth. I suggested depression, of course, since it’s my job to advocate for my own kids — and because experts cite its prevalence at 1 in 10 youth.

She’d also love to see “Like Everyone Else” performed again and again, to raise awareness throughout the community — and to continue showcasing the talents of the remarkable cast and creative team who put it all together. I suspect Robert Kolby Harper, associate artistic director for Phoenix Theatre, agrees.

“It’s amazing,” says Harper, “what can happen when people come together and try to understand each other.”

— Lynn

Note: Click here for information from the folks of “The Normal Heart” about how you can “get involved.”

Coming up: “Annie” tales, Tony® meets AriZoni, From Sondheim to South Park

Seasons of change

Home Free, Cheyne - Sanctuary Art Center

With just a week before next Sunday’s CBS broadcast of the 2011 Tony Awards®, I’ve got a serious case of Tony fever. How kind of the Metropolitan Men’s Chorus to open Friday night’s benefit performance of “At the End of the Day…” with the song “Seasons of Love” from the Tony Award®-winning musical “Rent.” Also “Not While I’m Around” from “Sweeney Todd,” another Tony Award® winner, and two other selections.

I loved the fact that chorus members donned street clothes instead of traditional choir garb. Think red check flannel and Hawaiian print shirts. Khakis and flip-flops. And that they sang surrounded by set pieces resembling old aluminum siding spray painted with brightly-colored graffiti.

Open Heart, 2004, Gary - Sanctuary Art Center

“At the End of the Day…” — presented by QSpeak Theatre (of Phoenix Theatre) in collaboration with Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development in Phoenix — is “a play based on true stories and experiences of LGBTQ and homeless youth living in the Phoenix Valley.”

The play was “written in collaboration with program participants of START and GreenHouse Project programs at Tumbelweed Center for Youth Development, and youth participants at 1n10 and Y.E.P.” The one night benefit performance was directed by A. Beck, who describes it as the outgrowth of work with more than fifty youth during the course of nearly a year.

My daughter Lizabeth participated in several QSpeak projects (including “At the End of the Day…”) while attending high school at Arizona School for the Arts. Tomorrow afternoon, June 5, we’ll be seeing “Like Everyone Else” — developed by Xanthia Walker’s “Theatre for Social Change” class at ASA in partnership with Phoenix Theatre and the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center.” Both works feature snippets of stories meant to convey youth experiences in their own voices.

The 12-member cast did an exceptional job conveying the hopes and fears of LGBTQ youth struggling with homelessness and all that can entail — poverty, hunger, unwanted sexual encounters and more. Plus the issues that plague all teens and young adults, from self-identity to choice of values.

Choose, 2006, Ashley - Sanctuary Art Center

The work sheds light on complexities of societal supports for people experiencing homelessness. Bed shortages. Inadequate training for professionals. Budget cuts. And the tendency of too many to say they want to help the homeless without taking a single step to actually do so.

One message in particular stood out. These youth and young adults don’t want to be stereotyped or stigmatized. They’re people. Period. Yet portions of the dialogue revealed stereotypes some homeless youth hold against peers with mental health disorders, described in the work as “crazy,” “mental” or “psycho.”

Some aspects of life on the streets, including encounters with law enforcement, were deliberately excluded from the piece. The depiction of a youth who feels forced into prostitution by the need to pay rent was done with real artistry, but the sheer number of encounters “shadowed” through a piece of hanging cloth made this scene feel almost gratuitious to some in the audience.

At times, comments by cast and creative team during the post-show talk back were needed to elucidate points conveyed somewhat vaguely during the show. The fact that churches and temples, even those offering free food and clothing, feel unsafe to youth who grew up feeling judged by religious family and friends. And the aversion to accepting help that comes with strings attached. Think sermon first, meal later.

Coffee Shop, 2004, Scott - Sanctuary Art Center

If you missed the performance of “At the End of the Day…” but want to learn more about helping LGBTQ and/or homeless youth, click here to visit the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development in Phoenix. And stay tuned for future “theater for social change” fare from Phoenix Theatre and its many community partners.

— Lynn

Note: Additional information on programs and policies related to homelessness is available from the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness.

Coming up: Valley stages featuring Tony Award®-winning works

All artwork from the Sanctuary Art Center in Seattle at www.sanctuaryartcenter.org

Choosing a college theater program

Valley theater professional Xanthia Walker holds both a B.A. in Theatre Arts and a B.A. in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies from the University of Minnesota, as well as an M.F.A. in Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University.

So I knew she’d be the right person to ask for tips on choosing a college theater program. Here are a few of her thoughts…

Compare both schools and theater departments within those schools, suggests Walker. Two schools that look very similar on paper might have very different theater departments.

For every school you’re considering, note the number of theater department faculty members and the kind of “work, research and performance” they are producing. Then ask yourself whether “it is exciting to you and something you want to be a part of.”

Theater students sometimes wonder whether it’s better to attend a college or conservatory. “I think this is just a personal preference,” says Walker. “It depends very much on the kind of education you want.”

“Conservatories are often smaller schools where you have a very focused and specific major,” adds Walker. “Colleges have a lot more room to try different things.”

So what about the B.A. versus B.F.A. question? “This is a tough question,” reflects Walker, “because it is so much about the kind of education you want to have.”

“If you want a broader degree in theater, where you have a focused training path but are also required to learn about all aspects of theatre, choose a B.A. program,” says Walker. “If you want a very specific, directed, focused program that trains you deeply in one aspect of theater, like acting, then choose a B.F.A.”

When I asked Walker what makes a good theater program, she noted six things students should consider…

  • Is the program producing an innovative, quality season of plays that people in the community are actually coming to see?
  • Does the program have qualified, talented faculty who are great teachers and great artists? (Look for folks who are creating work/doing research in the community and teaching.)
  • Do students in the program feel ownership in the department and feel proud of where they go to school?
  • Are there opportunities for lots of different levels of students? Are there exciting, cool opportunities for freshmen as well as growth opportunities for juniors and seniors to develop their craft?
  • Does the program invest in students (through time, financial aid, resources and quality programming)?
  • Does the program have diversity (of training, experience, people and courses offered)?

A final reflection shared by Walker: “I think it is so important to find the right training fit for you, and that will have the most impact on your career after school.”

— Lynn

Note: I also asked Walker if there are any “red flags” students should look for in evaluating schools, and she shared two: 1) Is the department shrinking (financially, # of students/faculty)?, and 2) Are they producing the same 15 plays every five years?

Coming up: Fiddling fun, Arts awards, Student reflections on “Macbeth”

Choosing a performing arts college

The happy day came just a few weeks ago. Lizabeth, our 17-year-old high school senior, finally got that last college admissions letter. We can all stop clinging to the mailbox, and turn instead to thoughts of mounting college costs and creative contents for care packages.

Lizabeth is in the final stages of deciding where to attend college — a step that follows a host of others. Researching schools. Deciding where to apply. Completing applications. Securing letters of recommendation. Traveling to campus tours and theater program auditions.

And now, revisiting information and observations about her three top choices to determine which college or conservatory feels most like home.

Xanthia Walker holds an M.F.A. in Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University in Tempe

For fellow families with children facing similar decisions, I’ve garnered tips from Xanthia Walker, M.F.A. — education associate with Phoenix Theatre, faculty member at Arizona School for the Arts and co-founder of Rising Youth Theatre.

Walker has worked as a resident artist for the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development, Free Arts of Arizona and the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections.

She currently teaches “Theatre for Social Change” at ASA in Phoenix — where students are developing an original theater production titled “Like Everyone Else” with the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center.

“Choosing a school is a very personally specific decision,” says Walker. “I think a lot of it is about knowing what you want.” Big school or small school? Dedicated college town or urban campus?

My husband James did a lot of work with Lizabeth during the pre-application period to help her identify wants and needs — and to search out schools that seemed to match her interests and priorities.

They put together a notebook with school profiles and such that Lizabeth used all through the appplication process. It was especially helpful during meetings with the ASA college counselor, and now serves as a place to put more detailed information on schools in her top tier (faculty bios, alumni achievements, history of works performed by students, etc.).

Walker encourages students to “sit down and think about what you want out of your college experience.” Make a list with three sections — your wants, your needs and your no-ways. 

Maybe you want to live in a big city, need affordable housing but think having a roommate is out of the question. It’s best to consider these factors early in the process — even visiting possible schools before applying when feasible.

“As a student,” shares Walker, “I learned so much about the schools I was considering that I would have had no way of understanding had I not been able to physically be in the spaces.” She’s a strong proponent of site visits for both undergraduate and graduate programs.

“Meeting the students and professors, getting the vibe of the school community, actually having face to face conversations with people and taking a tour of the department/campus — and even sitting in on some classes directly influenced my choices, and even changed my mind,” she adds.

“What I thought I would love pre-visit,” reflects Walker, “was different than what I actually loved post-visit.”

Though there’s plenty of buzz about “the best” schools in the country for those studying performing arts, Walker says it’s better to think in terms of “best departments” instead of “best schools.” Not every school excels in every area. “Look at the specific departments where you will be spending your time,” suggest Walker, “and compare that way.”

There’s also the “college” versus “conservatory” question. Again, Walker says there’s no better option — just the need to match what’s offered with what a student is looking for.

I’ll share more of Walker’s thoughts on the college/conservatory questions, and her tips for evaluating specific theater departments and programs, in tomorrow’s post.

In the meantime, please comment below if you’re a college or theater professional with tips to share — or a parent or student who has found certain approaches/strategies helpful in the great “choosing a performing arts college” debate.

— Lynn

Note: Click here for information on the ASU M.F.A. Theatre for Youth program and here to read an ASU profile of Walker.

Coming up: Choosing between college theater programs