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‘There’s joy everywhere’: Young Actors Workshop celebrates 50 years

This photo is one of the first from the Young Actors Workshop, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
This photo is one of the first from the Young Actors Workshop, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. In the center is founder and director Deirdre Andrews.
(Courtesy)

The Young Actors Workshop has been helping students find their voice through theater for half a century, and its founder and other participants are gearing up to celebrate.

Deirdre Andrews, a fourth-generation La Jollan who began YAW with its first show Aug. 20, 1970, is preparing an online reunion party for anyone who’s ever been involved with the theater company. It’s set for 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, via Zoom.

The reunion is meant to bring together many of the thousands of people who learned to act, sing and dance onstage with Andrews over the past few decades.

“I have loved theater all my life,” Andrews said. “I fell in love with stories. I would go to La Jolla Library and just read everything they have.”

After obtaining a theater degree from USC and working at the Old Globe theater and in commercials and other small parts, “I fell in love with directing, with working with children,” Andrews said. “They have so much joy.”

For Andrews, the best part of her job is watching “the story come alive. It’s so much fun; it’s the most fun career.”

La Jollan Deirdre Andrews began the Young Actors Workshop with its first show Aug. 20, 1970.
(Courtesy)

YAW’s first show was “The Charlie Brown Gang,” a compilation of scenes Andrews put together from comic strips with a troupe of about 12 students. She worked through the 1970s with small groups, renting the auditorium at Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church in La Jolla “for like $25 a month,” she said.

Years later, Andrews transitioned to offering classes through local elementary schools, taking on larger groups one season at a time, and gradually expanding into middle school.

YAW has run eight shows per year since the mid-'90s, Andrews estimated, with about 45 children per show. In 2019-20, she ran shows through six schools locally: Bird Rock Elementary, La Jolla Elementary, Torrey Pines Elementary, Muirlands Middle and All Hallows Academy in La Jolla and Kate Sessions Elementary in Pacific Beach.

“The Wizard of Oz,” pictured a few years ago, is one of Young Actors Workshop director Deirdre Andrews’ favorite shows.
(Courtesy)

YAW’s shows are almost always musicals. “The song brings out another, beautiful part of your spirit,” Andrews said.

She adapts popular musicals for her groups, composing original songs and writing parts for every participant.

“In order for every child to feel special, they all need a role,” she said. “I like them to have something they can identify with. I don’t just say, ‘Come on in and be a bush.’”

This spring, when coronavirus-related restrictions closed schools and in-person activities, Andrews quickly took her theater classes to Zoom. “I don’t want to take the whole year off,” she said.

Andrews said the musicals have been “tricky on Zoom; there’s an echo effect,” which she’s tried to mitigate with smaller groups, more solos and a cappella singing.

“The show must go on,” she said.

Jackson McGrath, 11, was part of the group that transitioned to Zoom classes in the spring. “It wasn’t optimal,” he said. “but Ms. Deirdre worked really hard. She did a great job.”

Jackson, who performed with Bird Rock Elementary’s YAW classes for two years, said Andrews “really helps” with a rare enthusiasm, giving stage instruction constructively.

He’s now in fifth grade at The Children’s School in La Jolla and said he hopes to continue taking acting and improv classes with Andrews when available.

Jackson’s mother, Mina Zolfaghari McGrath, said Andrews is “a wonderful jewel for our community. No wonder she’s celebrating her 50th anniversary.”

Ensuring that everyone has a significant speaking role builds student confidence as well as enjoyment, Andrews said. “If the kids are having fun, the audience is having fun.”

“When I hear the kids singing some of our original songs,” Andrews said, “it’s an echo for me.”

She quoted one of her verses: “Let’s all sing and shout hooray/everybody shines in his own way,” saying, “It’s like, yes, these kids are shining, they’re so beautiful onstage. That energy goes out; it’s connected.”

Andrews said another benefit to participating in YAW is that the students “get a sense of how to convey a story. In every show I do, I try to connect the story ideas with our theater principles, like the who, what, where, why.”

Plus, “they learn to work together and appreciate each other,” she said. “It’s a safe place.”

Andrews originally planned for the reunion to be an in-person party following a production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Though having it on Zoom won’t provide the same effect of seeing former and current students in one room, Andrews said there are positives to the online platform, like seeing a former student who went from playing piano “propped on the piano bench by phone books” in the 1970s to currently conducting in Germany.

From left, Deirdre Andrews, Liz Tyson and Tyson's daughters during a Young Actors Workshop. The girls are now 23 and 27.
From left, Deirdre Andrews, Liz Tyson and Tyson’s daughters are pictured during a summer Young Actors Workshop. The girls are now 23 and 27.
(Courtesy)

The Zoom format also will allow Liz Tyson, who lives in Philadelphia, to attend. Tyson, a YAW student in the 1970s, said she “did it as long as I possibly could. Having [Andrews] as this person who totally believed in me … she really allowed you to go places that you never would have gone before.”

YAW’s impact on Tyson, who retains a house in La Jolla and spends summers and holidays here, led her to enroll her daughters in YAW summer programs throughout their preteen and teenage years.

“Her ability to bring something positive, no matter how old you are, is really unique,” Tyson said of Andrews.

Tyson’s older daughter, Lilly, now 27, works for a production company in Los Angeles. “It all seems to come back to Deirdre,” Tyson said. “[Lilly] would tell you a lot of [her success] was the confidence she got” from YAW.

Seeing her previous students’ children in her shows brings Andrews particular delight. “There’s a lot of second-generation students,” she said. “It’s a world full of wonderful people.”

Brandon Hill is a 25-year-old former student who joined when he was 11 “and never left,” he said, volunteering with productions as a “helper-slash-intern” and then becoming the official sound technician.

For Hill, working with Andrews means sharing in the “joy shared between the actors and crew when they work together, and joy between actors and the audience. It’s art, and art is amazing.”

Lulu Lloyd (center in the yellow dress) began acting with the Young Actors Workshop in 1990 at age 5.
Lulu Lloyd (center in the yellow dress) began acting with the Young Actors Workshop in 1990 at age 5 and credits YAW with inspiring her to pursue a career on Broadway.
(Courtesy)

Former student Lulu Lloyd started with YAW at age 5 in 1990 and went on to a career on Broadway before returning to San Diego to begin her own theater school inspired by Andrews. Lloyd contacted Andrews for mentoring and choreographed a couple of shows for Andrews in the past few months.

“Deirdre and [YAW] started it all,” Lloyd said of her love for theater. “She’s such a legend in La Jolla. I want to just be by her side for everything she does.”

“I always say every show’s a miracle,” Andrews said. “It’s amazing what kids do. They’re phenomenal. There’s joy everywhere.”

For information on the Young Actors Workshop or to join the reunion on Zoom, visit youngactorsworkshoplajolla.com.