As Desert Stages Theatre cast members and patrons mingled, a pianist performed “All That Jazz” from the hit Broadway musical “Chicago.”
The performance art theater was celebrating two milestones Aug. 11: its 25th anniversary as an organization and its two-year anniversary located inside Scottsdale Fashion Square.
“Twenty-five years doing what you love has been a blessing,” said Desert Stages co-founder and Executive Director Laurie Cullity. “There, of course, have been ups and downs as in anything we do, but doing what you are passionate about has saved my life.”
Desert Stages Theatre was established in 1995 by Cullity, her husband, the late Gerry Cullity; and Joan Thompson.
Its goal is offer high-quality entertainment and cultivate a creative and inclusive environment where actors can learn, grow and thrive.
“I’ve had many interesting accomplishments, as I look back,” Laurie said. “However, continuing to produce theater after the passing of my late husband and co-founder Gerry with the help of the community of parents actors and volunteers at Desert Stages instead of giving up was probably the most important accomplishment.”
Laurie also speaks fondly of the actors she has witnessed grow up at DST.
The community theater offers 300 youngsters the opportunity to learn theater arts as actors, directors, choreographers and counselors.
“It’s gratifying, as well, when the actors return ‘home’ to DST to see how it’s changed since they were young and to see our accomplished Broadway and screen actors still being humble as they speak of their time at DST learning their craft, which they still use today,” she said.
Laurie would like to see Desert Stages become a performing arts center, with classes in dance, voice and instruments. She would also like to host auditioning and acting-for-stage workshops.
“Every actor, in my opinion, has to be more well-rounded,” she said. The one thing that I probably am lacking in is music, for my own purposes; so, if I could give that to another kid growing up, I would see my dream come to fruition. Every actor, in my opinion, should be able to read music and understand rhythm.”
Northern Scottsdale resident Jeremy Yampolsky has been involved with DST for 17 years and included in over 60 productions.
“I think the more access that youth or teen performers have to gaining experience, whether that’s through performing or through educational classes or taking an acting class, is awesome,” Yampolsky said. “The more that we can do for them, I think it’ll pay off for us, too.”
Other members have expressed interest in teaching lessons, too.
“I already have one instructor who’s a bass guitarist [who] wants to start lessons, and I have a drummer [who] wants to start teaching lessons. I have about four voice teachers that are ready to go,” Laurie said.
In order to bring the idea to fruition, Laurie said “everything has to work in succession.”
“Even though the space is huge, about 12,000 square feet, we still have to find the room and the time,” she said, adding she’d like to offer a teen camp next summer for DST actors over the age of 13.
Boasting two intimate stages — Actor’s Café with 56 seats and Cullity Hall with 219 seats — DST annually produces 19 assorted dramas, comedies, mysteries and musicals for adults and children.
DST has a robust fall and winter lineup, including a production of “Disney’s The Lion King Jr.” directed by Lisa Barton-Figueroa.
“I love that it is in time with the live-action movie,” she said. “It gives us another tool to look at as we create these characters that everyone knows and loves.”
The 1994 Disney musical holds a special place in Barton-Figueroa’s heart: “‘The Lion King’ is the first Broadway show I ever saw. I was about 11, and I remember sitting in the theatre in complete awe.”
“Disney’s The Lion King Jr.” will run from Sept. 14-22 with a cast of 65 actors ages 4 to 16.
Performing the role of Simba is Jake Krotonsky, 14.
The Cicero Preparatory Academy eighth grader has been in several DST plays, and this is his first lead role in a main-stage play.
“I love the music from this show and that is the main reason I wanted to audition,” Krotonsky said. I hope to continue to develop my acting, singing and dancing skills. I am super excited for this role [because] it’s not like anything I have done before.”
“We had our first rehearsal yesterday, and I can already feel the cast’s excitement,” Barton-Figueroa added. “I am looking forward to taking that excitement and really molding the show into something amazing.”
Barton-Figueroa started as a performer at DST in 1999.
After graduating from Chaparral High School in 2006, she performed in more than 60 shows and worked summer camp for many years — even coming home from college in Florida to do so.
After graduating with her master’s at New York University, she returned to Scottsdale the summer of 2012 and has been directing shows at DST ever since.
“I have been in or directed shows in all three of Desert Stages’ Arizona homes. I feel so lucky and grateful that the place that really fostered my love and passion for theater still exists, and I get to help cultivate that love in other young people,” Barton-Figueroa said.
Barton-Figueroa said she has watched kids grow up and gain confidence over the years at DST.
“My life was changed because of the arts, and I am so incredibly grateful to be raising my son in Scottsdale where there are so many opportunities for him to participate in activities that are arts-related,” she said.
Also to come is the production of “Chicago High School Edition” directed by Chris Chavez.
What Chavez enjoys most about directing “Chicago High School Edition,” which runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 29, is not only educating and informing the teen cast about an era almost foreign to them, but also producing an empowering show.
“Living in an era where women still are fighting for rights, I find it empowering to present a show with strong, feisty and powerful female leads and characters,” he said. “‘Chicago’ is a musical that makes bold statements without being overt and yet being completely entertaining.”
DST will also host its Bowl-a-Thon Fundraiser again this year on Sept. 8 from 5 to 7 p.m.
Last year, about 50 participated in the fundraiser held at Bowlmor on Via Linda — now called Bowlero — and raised $13,000, which was used to offset production costs.
“This year, we plan to use the funds to partially secure the royalties for our upcoming 2020 season — $135,000 — which promises to be exciting,” Laurie said.
Over the past 25 years, DST has put on over 250 productions that have entertained nearly 300,000 audience members.
But, according to Yampolsky, the name “Desert Stages Theatre” means more than just the physical stage on which the actors perform.
“It is also meant to be a home to all actors in different stages of their lives,” he said. “Since DST has been around for 25 years, it gives actors a place to start their passion in the youth theater, grow into the teen productions, and eventually be a part of the main-stage productions.”
“We are a safe haven for those who need a place to belong, theater has recognized it all along and now society has caught up,” Laurie added.