Wearing tights, tank tops, shorts and T-shirts, 16 dancers and 16 actor-singers stretched their glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, shoulders and arms to the pumped-up beat of “Cover Girl” by RuPaul on The Gateway stage.
“This is our morning community roundup,” said Shereen Pimentel, the new Maria in director Ivo van Hove’s “West Side Story” revival, as she watched in the aisles. An alumnus of The Growing Studio International’s LINK Program, Pimentel was selected from one of the 50 universities with strong theatre programs by visiting LINK staff who choose one or two faculty-recommended students. Danny George is the chief executive officer of Manhattan-based The Growing Studio International and executive director of LINK.
Pimentel is a current LINK staffer during the Broadway shutdown. She was waiting for the show’s call. “There’s no tentative date,” she said. “They said summer, but things change.” She spoke about van Hove’s direction. “The integrity of the musical hasn’t changed, but it’s told in a different way. He modernizes the show that blends in old theatre with new theatre.”
The students came to Bellport on Dec. 26, basically quarantining together, poised for a 10-day instruction and coaching workshop by a star-studded roster of 20 theatre professionals including director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who won several Tony Awards, and director and choreographer Josh Rhodes. It was an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily schedule and they were rehearsing for the Sunday, Jan. 10 showcase of group and individual numbers that would be live-streamed via three cameras and a drone on The Growing Studio’s Facebook page to theatre and casting agents in the city. It was an open invitation, so some industry pros would also be allowed to attend. During the last two days of their time in Bellport, LINK students will be meeting with some of those pros.
Several Gateway buildings practically reverberated with singing and dance moves, including a spirited impromptu chorus from the kitchen as lunch was prepared.
So how did LINK come to The Gateway?
“As a former performer and Gateway casting director, I was asked to teach musical theatre songs at The Growing Studio; that’s how I met Danny,” said Michael Baker, who is also Gateway’s Acting School director. “Then he made the connection that he went to school with my wife Jessica. When COVID hit, Danny asked if The Gateway would be interested in hosting them. Paul [Allan] and I brainstormed how we could work this out safely. So the students basically flew in, they’re in their bubble following all the safety guidelines, they take multiple COVID tests. They eat their meals here and don’t go off grounds. [Stop & Shop bags sat by the residence door. George also cited Jim’s Deli in Brookhaven.] And we were happy to host them.”
The workshops have advanced some students already, including Pimentel, to their dream jobs. You can thank George’s grandmother for starting him on the mentoring path by introducing him to Broadway when touring companies came to Miami.
“I was a performer for years,” explained George, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. “I became frustrated in my own career and felt I needed more education. I had no money, and if other actors wanted to take a class, I would sit in for free.” Recognizing massive talents that he knew would be big stars, George started The Growing Studio; then the LINK Program evolved.
“We just became nonprofit,” he said. “So we can now offer LINK free to students.”
So, did his eyes pop when Pimentel performed “Breathe” from “In the Heights”?
“I knew she’d be a star,” he said. “But she didn’t.”
The kind esprit de corps here in coaxing out the best performance from the students was pervasive in several areas.
“That was really, really special,” George said to Anaya White, who sang a powerful “The Life I Never Led” from “Sister Act,” as musical director Fred Feeney played piano in the rehearsal space. “You always look professional. You always keep it together.”
Back on The Gateway main stage, choreographer Ricky Loftus was focusing on a dance set.
“Don’t forget to go down,” he said calmly. “Take more space stage right.”
It was like that as other LINK staffers guided the students.
As Zac Molegraaf, a singer/actor who hails from Houston, Texas, and attends Montclair State University, said of the experience, “It’s a very encouraging environment and we have a great support system with professionals. And also each other.”