A Palos Verdes conservatory creates a home away from home for future Broadway stars

Watch them find their light.

  • Category
    People
  • Written by
    Anthony Karambelas
  • Photographed by
    Monica Orozco

It’s just your typical South Bay family. Except it’s got 30 or so kids. And instead of mom calling them down for dinner, there’s the announcement over the PA system: “Everyone on stage for notes!”

The Palos Verdes Performing Arts Conservatory (PVPAC) may be an after-school program for the arts, but it’s a home away from home for most of the kids who wander the halls each week. Over its 20-year history, the Conservatory’s taken Palos Verdes youth and turned them into recording artists, Golden Globe nominees and even … wait for it … Hamilton stars.

But if you ever visit the 7,000-square-foot space, you might wonder how such a successful program is so unlike those cutthroat acting schools in NYC. Even though PVPAC’s played the part—having put on a production of Fame two summers ago—those in charge at the Conservatory will have you know that is not what the Conservatory is.

“We’re not teaching them to go out and be an actor. We’re teaching them to be able to go and interview well for jobs and public speaking, and how to feel confident in who you are as a little human being,” says Emily Yaakola, seven-year instructor at the Conservatory.

They’ve found the secret sauce somewhere between a professional quality youth theatre and dance school and a safe space where kids can just, as Conservatory director Joel Sluyter puts it, “be themselves.”

And the students soak it up—many of them daily attendees who, whenever not studying at school or sleeping at home, are here … smiling, laughing and having the time of their lives. Getting them to leave at the end of a day is something like asking them to step out of the hot tub when the air temperature’s dropped below zero.

Parents have Joel—or if you want to get with the Conservatory kid lingo, “Superman”—to thank for that. You can see why he deserves the title. In spite of the incessant phone calls, emails and administrative matters—once handled by four full-time staff members, now just him—he has a strict open-door policy.

“I believe a strong connection and having kids in here all the time is great,” he says. “I can’t be working when there are 15 kids in here. I can’t call someone or be searching a show, but it makes them happier and I like it. It’s fun.”

Until college bid them part, most of the students, once in, are in it till the end. Considering many of them start as young as 4 through the entry-level summer program, Camp Curtain Call (where they write and produce hour-long shows), that’s really saying something.

“At first I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” says Giovanna B., an 11-year-old who started as a 6-year-old camper and now serves as dance captain for the upcoming production of We Will Rock You. “I came up with a bunch of random stuff, and then I started coming here and acting and dancing and singing. I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do,’ and my passion just keeps growing.”

Like Giovanna, most of the kids found their love for theatre at the Conservatory and pay it forward by mentoring the younger ones as camp counselors and positive role models. Even after college many return to direct shows or become part-time instructors. Because of that, there’s an endless supply of professional directors and choreographers who give the kids a simulation of what it’s like on Broadway.

“It’s a youth conservatory, but they’re so professional here with everything,” says 15-year-old Riley L., who’s been at the PVPAC more than 10 years now. “They won’t baby you. They treat you like adults, and they give you opportunities like adults.”

If you count the differences between Conservatory shows and those of the professional series, you’ll come to realize there’s only one: it’s teenagers on stage and not adults. Everything else—including venue (Norris Theatre), lighting design, sound design and the tireless crew—stays the same.

Just like in the industry, not every kid gets the lead. And this can come as hard-hitting news for some students and even parents. But somehow this doesn’t foment any sibling rivalry.

“We don’t compete here. It’s not what we do. It’s not what we’re focused on. We’re focused on entertainment,” says Joel.

So far, community response has been nothing short of ecstatic and beholden. And why shouldn’t it be? The Conservatory breathes life into the Hill, one student at a time.

As Ben L., a 6-year student at the Conservatory, puts it, “It’s everything you could ever want, right here.”

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