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When Debora Wondercheck created the Arts and Learning Conservatory in 2007, she enrolled around 100 kids a year. Today, her mission to make the arts more accessible and inclusive  extends to 1,200 youths a year.

What started as an after-school summer program at Vanguard University, where Wondercheck was teaching at the time, quickly turned into a nonprofit organization providing arts instruction in over 40 schools throughout Southern California, including a few schools in San Bernardino and Los Angeles County.

Based in Costa Mesa, the Arts and Learning Conservatory offers classes in music, theater and dance throughout its fall sessions and summer camps. Productions are also held throughout the year with some of the most popular shows being “Mary Poppins,” “The Addam’s Family” and its most recent show, “Once on This Island,” presented this past July. 

Wondercheck said “Once on This Island,” which tells the story of a dark-skinned peasant girl who falls in love with a light-skinned boy, is a musical that should not be done if the cast cannot properly represent the characters of the story. 

According to Wondercheck, the lead needs to be a Black young lady, and the rest of the cast should showcase people from all walks of life, including white, Asian, Latino and, of course, other Black folks as well.

During the casting process for “Once on This Island,” Wondercheck actively reached out to community organizations of color. Because the Black population makes up only about 2% of the county, finding someone who was Black and also understood the discipline of the theatrical arts was even more difficult.

“I joined, like, every group I could just to be able to be proactive in finding the children that would not only benefit from the show, but would be presented in such a beautiful light on that stage,” Wondercheck said. 

After seven long months of active recruitment, whether that was through joining Facebook groups or networking with Black church leaders and congregations, she was able to create a fully representative cast for “Once on This Island.” The conservatory called the effort to make the cast as diverse as possible its ACTivism project.

Wondercheck emphasized that this outreach not only served to help her find her lead actress, but also to spread the word that her organization was available to students of color looking for a place to study the arts.

“What helped me is that I’ve been around for 17 years,” she said. “They knew I was legit. And when I say ‘they,’ I’m talking about the Black community.”

Dwayne Roberts, a minister of music at Second Baptist Church in Santa Ana, recommended the Arts and Learning Conservatory to the youths at his church. 

Roberts said Wondercheck and her orchestra frequently performed at Second Baptist Church and that he has had many of his youths audition and perform in Arts and Learning Conservatory’s productions. 

“She’s definitely a friend of our church and we support her wholeheartedly in any way that we can.” Roberts said. “She provides opportunities that some kids may not get or even think about.”

One student who attended Second Baptist Church, Rhyan Wilson, auditioned for the “Once on This Island” production, landing the lead role as well as an opportunity to experience working with a diverse cast, a Black female director and a former Broadway performer, Keenah Armitage. 

Choreographer Keenah Armitage, right, works with Marcus Brooks, a student at the Arts and Learning Conservatory. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Arts and Learning Conservatory

Armitage had worked with the Arts and Learning Conservatory prior to “Once on This Island” when she choreographed its production of “The Wiz” five years ago. Aside from her experience on New York’s stages, Armitage was also a professor of musical theater at Texas State University.

At the Arts and Learning Conservatory, Wondercheck strives for excellence as well as equity, so that students who come through her program can learn skills and make connections that could potentially set them up for life. 

“She wants it to be high level so that if someone decides that they want to take it further, they have the goods,” Armitage said. “They’ve been given the right level of instruction, the right level of direction, the right level of training, to go further. And I find that is so commendable, which is why when she asked me to be a part of it, I said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’” 

“Once on This Island” was especially reflective of Wondercheck’s mission to ensure that the people being represented in the play matched the diversity in their immediate audience, as well as Southern California’s broader population. 

“All of these Black organizations, as well as other minority organizations, were just sending people to come see our show, because they knew that any way you looked at it, their kids are going to see people that look like them on stage,” Wondercheck said. 

Overcoming Past Obstacles

When Wilson was in seventh grade at the Orange County School of the Arts, she performed in a production of “Once on This Island,” but was not even considered for the traditionally Black lead role. Despite being the only Black girl in the production, according to Wondercheck, there seemed to be a lack of effort made to cast with accurate representation.

The Arts and Learning Conservatory, on the other hand, was committed to creating a fully representative cast, and that’s exactly what it did. ALC has even included sign-language interpreters and closed captioning to make its shows more accessible to audience members who face challenges with their hearing. 

“So our big thing right now is our ACTivism initiative, moving forward, so that we really ensure our casting reflects the modern Orange County. We really want to ensure that all people, all walks of life, are going to feel welcome and invited into this artistic space,” Wondercheck said. 

Wondercheck’s nonprofit — which had an annual budget of $570,029 in 2018, according to its 2019 990 tax returns, the most recent publicly available — provides an opportunity for students like Wilson to be seen alongside a cast and leaders who also share her skin tone. It was a spotlight for Black Americans to be recognized for their talent rather than to fulfill the token “person of color” role.

“What I love about Deborah and what she’s doing is that she’s bringing (opportunities) to communities that don’t have those opportunities,” said Wilson’s mom, Nyquita Wilson. “All it takes is one opportunity to be like ‘I’m good at this, I love this,’ so that they would be inspired to look forward to do it, to be a part of it. So I’m just very inspired by the work that she’s done and I hope to help them continue in their mission.”

Rhyan Wilson as Ti Moune in the Arts and Learning Conservatory’s “Once On This Island.” Credit: Photo courtesy of the Arts and Learning Conservatory

The missed opportunities Rhyan Wilson encountered doing theater since she was in middle school is something that Wondercheck makes up for with her nonprofit’s goal to provide accessibility and equity for Southern California youths who want to learn the arts.

“Our program affirms children, like all children, but especially those of minority background,” Wondercheck said. “We’re all about affirming, when we’re going to challenge kids, whoever they are, whatever walk of life, to be the best they can be because we have very high standards.”

The classes and opportunities to perform through the Arts and Learning Conservatory come at a price, as she charges a tuition fee to ensure the students’ quality of education. Those fees go toward hiring qualified instructors, buying set pieces or anything else that may enhance the students’ overall experience. However, scholarships are also available to help offset costs for those who cannot afford to attend.

“We provide robust scholarships. I think we’ve provided over 650 scholarships over the past few years we’ve been in existence,” Wondercheck said. “Our whole mission statement is to make the arts equitable and accessible to all children, including those that are under-resourced or underrepresented.”

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, when all live theater venues were forced to shut down for more than a year, the conservatory was able to continue its mission by holding virtual classes and rehearsals, and presenting socially distanced shows. A drive-thru version of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was presented in December, and ALC students performed a radio play, “May the Farce Be With You,” in July. “May the Farce” was a satire of “Star Wars.” 

Thanks to the Arts and Learning Conservatory, Nyquita Wilson told Wondercheck that this was the first time her daughter was seen and heard.

“And this is the first theater company that she’s come to where not only does she get to play this prominent role and be seen and valued for who she is and what she brings to the table, but she also got to work with a Black director. And she never had that experience before,” Wondercheck said. 

Nyquita Wilson was deeply moved by her daughter’s involvement with the Arts and Learning Conservatory because she never had these resources or Black mentors during her performing arts training in Orange County.

“To have the conservatory director and the show director be Black females was something that I’ve never even had the experience to be a part of,” Nyquita Wilson said. “So as a mom, as a performer, this has been just an overwhelmingly transformative experience to see that this is here in Orange County.”

The Arts and Learning Conservatory recently closed auditions for its production of “Matilda,” which is scheduled for November. Auditions for “Les Miserables” start on Jan. 8, 2022.

For those who don’t want to wait until January to get involved, fall classes start on Sept. 7.

Kim Pham is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at kimhphm@gmail.com.

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