One day roughly three years ago, Jude Scott came to his parents with a simple-yet-life-altering idea.
“I want to act,” he told them.
Through a quick online search of local theatre troupes, Jude, who was 9 at the time, had already identified the troupe he would join: North Texas Performing Arts (NTPA), a non-profit theatre company. Oh, and he had found an agent.
“None of this was parent-forced at all,” his mother, Natosha, says. “His dad and I were happy to do whatever we could to support him, but we didn’t have big dreams of Hollywood. This was all Jude. When he came to us, we just said, ‘OK. You did your homework; let’s do this.’”
In the years since that fateful Google search, Jude has performed in so many NTPA productions that even he has lost count. He has also enrolled at the NTPA Academy (a theatre-focused school open to part- and full-time students) and taken myriad private lessons from the company’s educators. His mom has gotten in on the act, too: Natosha is one of the weekend house managers, and she coordinated concessions at NTPA’s Willow Bend location.
“I want to support his dreams any way I can because I see how he lights up when he’s on stage,” Natosha says.
She also believes wholeheartedly in what North Texas Performing Arts provides young people like Jude.
“We live in Texas, where football is king and the arts aren’t always supported. When you say, ‘Oh I want to perform,’ people look at you sideways. But at NTPA, these kids have a home. And I’ve seen it do wonders for Jude and so many others.”
“It’s a Family”
North Texas Performing Arts was founded in Plano roughly 30 years ago, and ever since, the organization has steadily widened its reach across North Texas. Its mission—to ensure all youth get the opportunity to experience theatre and have their voices heard—has fueled that growth, and NTPA is now comprised of five youth theatre troupes; the Starcatchers program for children and adults with cognitive disabilities; the Academy; and a repertory theatre for adults.
“It’s a family,” says Lauren Boykin, the organization’s senior director of marketing. “We teach theatre, of course, but what we're really focused on is how we teach children to be better human beings: whether they go on to be a Broadway star, or a doctor, or wherever life takes them.”
To that end, North Texas Performing Arts focuses each of its efforts around what they call their “10 Characters,” which include responsibility, respect, integrity and gratitude.
“We support each other,” Boykin adds, “and that's huge with our families and our staff.”
That support was especially critical when the COVID-19 pandemic hit North Texas.
Like most folks, Boykin says NTPA’s leadership thought they’d be able to get back to rehearsals and productions after a couple of weeks. But when a couple weeks turned into a couple months, teachers and administrators started hearing from parents.
“When we shut down, we heard from a lot of families who were just begging us, ‘As soon as you can, please reopen your doors. Our kids need you,’” Boykin says. “Unfortunately, theatre was taken away from them for a while.”
Natosha says she noticed a significant change happen with Jude when North Texas Performing Arts productions were put on pause. He was the same creative kid, she says, but it’s like there was something missing. He would offer to lead the prayer at church because he missed storytelling; he missed taking the lead, like the 10 Characters taught him to do.
So when NTPA finally got back in the swing of things in summer 2020, it was like a switch was flipped inside her son. His light, his passion, that intangible “something” that was missing for far too long: It was back.
Of course, theatre looked a little different that summer. Directors and staff went to great lengths to keep everyone safe and comfortable, and their efforts had a clear impact on the students.
Later that fall, one young theatre participant took the safety precautions so seriously that he asked his teachers if he could be isolated right before his show’s tech week.
“He’s a young kid, but he still walks right up to his teachers at school and says, ‘I’m in this show, and I’m around a lot of kids every day,’” Boykins says. “He asks permission to sit apart during class and lunch, all because he wanted to keep everyone safe. Can you imagine a kid asking to be alone like that? That’s a big deal.”
Boykin has many stories just like that: tales of kids doing whatever it takes to help the show go on. Throughout the summer of 2020 and into the fall, some students joined rehearsal via Zoom. Some plays even went on that way, with a big screen propped up right next to the stage, and young actors and actresses donned in full costume reading their lines and singing their lyrics into a laptop in their living room.
Unorthodox? Maybe. But “teamwork” is one of the 10 characters, and if your teammate is willing to perform Guys and Dolls or Jekyll and Hyde via Zoom, what more can you ask for? That collaborative spirit is one reason Boykin believes so strongly that theatre creates kind and compassionate humans.
“Similar to sports, kids have to work together as a team,” she says. “The difference is they're building a story together. They're making something from scratch and learning essential life skills like communication and collaboration. Especially when everything is so tech-driven, it's a chance to put down the phones and create something together. Plus it's been really cool to see our kids adapt to new situations, new challenges, and things we never even thought about.”
Kids like Jude. While he was at times shy while discussing his budding acting career over the phone, Jude’s voice perked up whenever he started talking about the ways North Texas Performing Arts has shaped who he is today.
“It’s helped me open up more, and be more comfortable with who I am,” he says. “It’s also introduced me to so many people who are willing to support my dreams. I want to be an actor and director, and they’ve made that feel possible.”
“I Have to Say It: It’s Changed Our Lives”
Most people involved in some way with North Texas Performing Arts have met the Long family. After all, three of the family’s four children have been heavily involved with the organization over the years, and one of them, Edelweiss, is named after a famous song from The Sound of Music.
But while the Longs have had a sizable impact on NTPA, Amy, the family matriarch, says North Texas Performing Arts has had an even greater impact on them.
“I have to say it: It’s changed our lives,” she says. “One of our fondest memories will always be seeing our oldest son on stage playing guitar for Edelweiss while two of his siblings are right by him. When our fourth kiddo decided he didn’t want to do theatre, I joked with him, ‘Can you just be an extra?’”
The Longs epitomize just how much of an impact North Texas Performing Arts can have on young students throughout North Texas. Years ago, Amy says a director named Brandon Cunningham took her oldest son, Jackson, under his wing. “He’s the kind of person who meets a child where they’re at,” Amy says, so that’s what he did with the elder Long child.
Specifically, Cunningham helped Jackson find a confidence he didn’t even know he had. Jackson was in the background for a couple of productions, but thanks to some compassionate guidance from his director, he was eventually able to take center stage.
In total, he ended up starring as the lead in somewhere between 10 and 15 shows.
“I lost count,” his mom admits.
Jackson, now 21, is working towards a degree in industrial organizational psychology, a career path his family says is a direct correlation to his time with North Texas Performing Arts.
“Theatre taught him that he loves working with others to create community,” Amy says. “That’s the power of a place like NTPA.”
There’s also Truman, 17, whose involvement in Les Misérables was so formative that he credits it with helping him get into college. And, of course, there’s Edelweiss, now 11, who Amy says has “grown so much alongside NTPA.”
She started out as a background actor, then moved into supporting roles, and is now honing her choreography chops. She just finished a successful run of Spongebob, and is looking ahead to future productions.
Whatever comes next, her mom will be in the audience, cheering her on alongside parents like Natosha Scott whose families, like hers, might be changed forever by North Texas Performing Arts.
This article originally appeared in our January/February 2022 edition of Local Profile as "The Show Must Go On."