If there’s one thing that Lighthouse Youth Theatre’s John Fanelli believes in, it’s connecting young people with the arts.
But that’s not all. Fanelli also believes equipping youngsters with the necessary tools to succeed in life by providing them with a safe and encouraging environment. Forget the talent scouts and hoopla that parents and children often unrealistically dream about in hoping to climb to stardom. Fanelli, Lighthouse Youth Theatre’s founder and artistic director, believes his program teaches the true process of acting and performing.
The Thornwood-based company is specifically geared toward children of different age groups living in Westchester, Connecticut and New York City. There are several full-length “main stage” musical productions for students ages 5 to 19; the LYT Junior Company, for children 5 to 12; the Teen Drama program, which produces at least one dramatic work per school year; and Protégé, an intensive audition-only program for actors between 13 and 19. There are also group classes and summer camp programs.
Before rehearsals begin, Fanelli requires that cast members read a script from start to finish and then re-read it to get a sense of each character. The children are asked to highlight their lines as a way of helping them memorize their parts.
Typically, 18 to 22 rehearsals are scheduled for each show, with the requirement that each child come fully prepared. For children as young as 4, that is still a doable goal, said Fanelli. Because each child is required to focus on his or her part, most seem to do it without much difficulty, he added.
“If you expect a lot, you get a lot,” said Fanelli. “On the other hand, if you expect little, you’ll get a little.”
Fanelli, who has 16 years of experience directing, teaching and creating programs for youth theatrical companies, takes every child who expresses an interest in the theater company and the arts and forms a plan of action for each one.
“I think they all have potential, despite the fact that they come in with different levels of a gift,” he noted.
Fanelli, who works closely with Jesse Pellegrino, director of theater and dance, Julia LaVerde, the company’s office manager and stage manager, and his wife, executive producer Nanette Fanelli, finds joy in nurturing children who have talent but are often shy.
“To me the real success stories are those of kids who are shy, but a year later, two years later, they’re outgoing and singing and dancing,” Fanelli said.
Quick to dissuade parents from pushing their children, Fanelli, who served as artistic director of the Times Square Group, where he developed and implemented educational theater programs for the New York City schools, advises them to seek out stardom, if they must, after their children have graduated from college.
“I tell many of them that their child’s next stop should be New York University or the University of Michigan theater programs, not Broadway,” he said.
At LYT, Fanelli said students are challenged to do things they never thought possible. Many of them also have an opportunity to participate in productions run by the Family Theatre Company, an initiative he also heads up.
Since its 2006 launch, LYT has produced what Fanelli described as “affordable, wholesome entertainment for families.” Many of its productions have been performed at the Rosenthal JCC in Pleasantville, the Ridgefield Playhouse, Westchester Broadway Theater and Yorktown Stage. The company is currently in rehearsal for its production of “The Music Man,” which will run from July 5-29 at WBT.
What shines through all LYT productions is Fanelli’s real passion for teaching musical theater.
“In fact I consider myself a teacher first and a director second,” he said. “I love it when I see kids who get it, watching the moments when the light bulb goes on, be it after five minutes or five years of work.”
For students, Fanelli said the goal is to develop a good work ethic and to guard against instant gratification.
“I think we can really have a positive impact on these kids’ lives,” he said.
For more information on the Lighthouse Youth Theatre, visit www.lytshows.org or call 914-741-4205. The theater company is currently located at 17 Gramercy Place but will be moving to a new location in Armonk in September.