Thursday, September 26, 2013

Encore Entertainers Trains Kids for Life

Gracie Monaghan, 8, (middle) plays Scuttle, the dumb seagull, with her friends, two sisters, Maria (left) and Athena Seiple (right) Siena Funiciello, 7, played Ariel in this part. All photos provided by Shana Ghekiere.
Lisa Puskar, 9, who split the part with Sienna, talks to the prince, Jack Ghekiere, 8. His sister, Helena, 10, plays Sebastian
Hats Off To Encore Entertainers For Training Kids How to Act For Musicals And --  For Life

By Diana L. Chapman
 Tiny, and a whirlwind of an 8-year-old, Jack Ghekiere stepped out of the crystal blue waves in his prince role, bold, confident and remembering every single line he had learned for The Little Mermaid.
   Jack and the other 32 kids in the summer production ages 4 to 13 only had two weeks to learn their lines before the performance would happen before their parents, well-wishers and the general public at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.
   "It was so fun and I'd rather be doing Encore than school," said the peppy boy with bouncy, Shirley Temple curls after the performance.
    That was likely the case for the scores of youths who had a chance to act, sing and dance in the musical even though they are much younger than many of their counterparts who had lead roles in the group's double-the-size productions like Oliver which had 83 students.
    The smaller performance is to help some of the younger youth to strut their stuff, some of whom  might not have had a shot for the leads in larger productions.
   "I was scared," said Gracie Monaghan, an 8-year-old, who played Scuttle, the seagull in Little Mermaid. "When we did Oliver, it was my first time ever speaking on stage. Then, the Little Mermaid was scary and it was my second time and I had a really big part. It was fun and scary at the same time. I liked acting like Scuttle because he was so stupid."
   The amazing shows -- I've seen two of them already and am looking forward to seeing Peter Pan midwinter in San Pedro and possibly Seussical in Redondo Beach-- were the brainchild of Marcelo and Summer Cacciagioni mostly propelled by Summer's  mentor and Summer's abilities to get youth to act on stage no matter their age, their fears, their shyness or just about anything else that would terrify someone to perform.
   "I love shy kids. They are my specialty," said Summer during a phone interview who has two children, Alora, 4, and 11-month-old Lilly Rose and lives in Torrance. "Bring me a super shy kid and I get so excited. Every kid is different and every approach has to be," who adds that her sometimes massive shows teach children a lot about life. Children who go through her programs, she said, learn about commitment, responsibilities, team work and respect. Most of all, it gives them a big boost in self confidence.
   Parents are also encouraged to take on larger roles in the productions.
   The programs accommodate children ages 4 and up and does provide scholarships for some students. Last year, Encore raised $30,000 to help families who otherwise couldn't afford to enroll their children. This year, the Gala will be held at 5 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Torrance Marriott with casino games, live music, a silent auction and a banquet dinner. Tickets are $65 per person if purchased before Oct. 19.
   The non-profit organization's beginnings were sparked  in 2007 when Summer's mentor, Alex H. Urban, who ran youth drama productions, died and "it really opened my eyes."Summer was so impressed with Urban  that when she wrote a high school paper on him she  penned: "One day, I want to grow up and produce, direct, and run my own Youth Theatre Company!"
   She did teach youth for a variety of studios across the South Bay, but after Urban's death, both her husband and friends encouraged her that it was time for her to open her own non-profit  theatre company, calling it Encore which stands for Educating the Next Class of Rising Entertainers.
     Terrified about whether it would work, Summer  said she needed a minimum of at  least 25 kids to start, she prayed hard for 45.
   Instead, she got 67 and is "blown away" by the successful productions that entice  kids and their parents to join up. Since its opening, Encore has taught more than 1,000 students through productions, outreaches, camps and classes. By the end of the year, the non-profit will have conducted over 40 musical productions. Encore has two branches for its operations, one in San Pedro and the other in Redondo Beach.
    The actress says her company is part of the village needed to raise a child which can take "an army."  Her youngest student was a 3-month-old  baby and her oldest, an 81-year-old woman. Her gift, she says, is what presses so many youngsters up on the stage despite all their fears.
    "I'm not just about the quality; I'm about the process," she explains.
     And it can become a family affair.
      Jack's sister, Helena, played Sebastian in the Little Mermaid, a large part for a 10-year-old, especially having to have a Jamaican accent. She had other large roles before, but this was her biggest.
    "It was my first time being in just about every scene," Helena said. "I thought it would be hard, but it's always easy to learn my lines. It was so much fun, but I was exhausted afterward."
   Their mother, Shana, explains that the entire family has been happily immersed into the productions, meeting lifelong friends especially when parents are "encouraged" to share talents making costumes, and organizing the students. Her husband, Mike, played the shyster, Fagin, in Oliver where his children had smaller parts.
   "I find Encore to be incredibly supportive environment for all involved," Shana emailed me.  The children are met "where they are" and helped to grow, not only as performers, but as people. They are encouraged to try (and "failure" is seen as a natural part of the process!).
   "I honestly hear, "Encore is the best thing EVER! at least 25 times a week from my daughter.  My son also loves it. The teamwork that the parents do to make a show is amazing. It is truly a community at Encore."
   Eight-year-old Athena Seiple agrees with that assessment.
   In Little Mermaid, "I was a chef. I was a fish. I was a seagull. It made me feel like I was on Broadway. I made new friends and I liked everybody in the camp. It made me feel really good about myself. It made me feel like I was an adult."
    For more about Encore Entertainers, call (310) 896-6459 or email:  Visit to buy tickets for upcoming musicals and for class prices.