THIS IS A STORY of two women, two women on different paths, each following a passion. Their paths crossed in Kirkland and their lives – and the lives of thousands in the community – were never the same.
Lani Brockman, a natural performer from Hawaii, had been producing live productions since her teens. After attending college in Seattle, she moved to New York City to train at Circle in the Square Theater School. During the summers, she worked for the Hampton Playhouse in New Hampshire running workshops for teen performers.
She found that she loved working with kids.
After a stint traveling the country performing in kids' shows for Ringlng Brothers and Disney, she returned to Seattle area to direct, and start a performing arts program for youth, in 1989.
At the same time, Nikki Parish was traveling a very different path. A CPA, Parish worked in an accounting role in corporate America. When her son was in fifth grade, she signed him up for a theater program at the Boys and Girls Club. However, the club decided that theater wasn’t a fit for their program and ended the offering.
The parents had seen first-hand the impact a theater program had had on their children and decided to work together to start the Kirkland Youth Theater, and rented space at .
“We hustled it together,” Parish recalls. “We did three or four shows a year, charged the kids tuition, bought costumes and drapes for staging, all with volunteers working after work. We were exhausted.”
Eventually, the group took a break and Parish registered her son for acting classes at – Brockman’s theater school, which had found a home in Kirkland due in part to a budding partnership with the Kirkland Performance Center, which was still in the planning stages. It was 1993.
The two women met and compared notes. Very quickly, they recognized the potential synergy of joining the two organizations.
At the time, Studio East was in the process of applying for its non-profit status and had space in a basement. “We did one or two shows a year and held a number of classes,” reminisced Brockman. “We would rent theater space or perform in our space. We arranged seating around two poles.”
Today, Studio East is housed in a modern space on 118th Ave NE in the Totem Lake area and offers classes for a wide range of ages, home school programs, outreach programs with many local schools, teen intensive programs, mommy and me classes and more. Over the years, it has touched and introduced the performing arts to hundreds of local kids and their families.
"We’ve been involved with Studio East for eight years, and my experience has been tremendous," said Jenny Johnson, the mother of three participants. "They have such a good focus on all the ages. They understand where the kids are developmentally and what they can get out of theater at each age. What I really like as a parent is that it’s a place for the kids to belong where they can use their creative energies in a productive way.
"I have three kids. All of them have been involved. The impact has been enormous."
Her son Dexter, 13, started at Studio East when he was 5.
"I have learned all about what it means to be in a show: what responsibilities you have and how you have to act around the other kids," he said. "I used to be the youngest kid and now I’m one of the oldest so I have to help the other kids. I’ve learned backstage etiquette and how to act on stage. It’s been a fun experience. It’s all about teaching, but they do it in a fun way so that if you make a mistake you can fix it."
One of the reasons it works so well is as that Parish, who became managing director in 2001, and Brockman, the artistic director, seem to have a perfect partnership.
“I’m a groupie, not an artist and I have no aspirations to be an artist,” said Parish. “But I believe in the program because I see what it did for my son.”
Under their dual direction, the organization has flourished and grown year after year.
By 2010, they were bursting at the seams. “We were offering programs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day and still not doing everything we wanted to do,” said Parish. “We were terrified by the prospect of moving, but we realized that if the organization was going to survive us, we needed to move.”
For the first time in the organization’s history, they engaged in a fundraising campaign to raise $500,000 to the develop new, more modern space on 118th Ave. The campaign was a success, allowing them to build a 150-seat theater, three large classrooms, dressing rooms, a green room, storage, a scene shop and more.
“We’ve got high ceilings and windows, which we didn’t have in the old space,” said Brockman as she pointed to the pleasant and functional offices.
“There is room for staff, room for parents to wait in the lobby with siblings while kids are in class, lots of space for shows, parking, accessibility and a little bit of street presence, which we also didn’t have before,” added Parish. “It’s a much nicer place to bring your kids.”
THE COMMUNITY has taken notice. “We’ve had a 20 percent increase since we moved into the space,” said Parish, who adds that they just completed their first fiscal year in the new space and will be engaging in some analysis and planning in the coming months.
The larger space has allowed them to increase their offerings as well. They introduced a Young Performers Series for 10-14-year-olds who are ready for more advanced training. The group produces two shows each year, allowing these kids to own larger roles than they would normally get in productions with teen actors.
The group has also built their Teen Ensemble program, which was launched two years ago. This program, geared toward teens, targets teen participants who tend to leave the program due to their busy schedules and newfound mobility. The ensemble program takes place on Sundays when the teens have less going on and continues on an ongoing basis rather than stopping and starting for intensive stretches like regular production schedules do.
Brockman’s original program that she started when she first returned to Seattle, Young Actors Professional Intensive (YAPI), a six-week, full-day summer program modeled on Circle on the Square program, continues to thrive.
“One of our former participants who is a theater major now told us that every day she is thankful for YAPI,” said Brockman. “She told us that she’s still learning, but she’s well prepared for it. Many of our other participants tell us they know a lot more than the other freshmen.
“We don’t encourage kids to major in theater, though,” continued Brockman. “We say follow your passion, but consider other degrees. We talk about the fact that only ten percent of actors make over poverty level, so we encourage them to learn other things, as well.”
“One of the key things is that what we believe in is the process, not the product,” said Parish. “A lot of kids and parents are focused on the product but that’s the payoff. Our business is not to create child stars. And most of the kids who come here go on to do other things."
Right now, the team is gearing up for its annual holiday tradition: the production of “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” which will run from Nov. 26 to Dec. 18. A humorous take off of the popular Christmas poem, the production, said Parish, “is hilarious. We sell out 27 performances of the show."
Studio East also produces Storybook Theater, a children’s theater that presents 55-minute “fractured fairytale” musicals that reveal life lessons. The goal of the theater is to introduce kids to live theater and to get parents in the habit of going with their kids. To help parents enjoy the experience, shows include lots of humor for parents so it’s fun for audiences of all ages.
Storybook productions are performed by adult professional actors in theaters around Puget Sound. Productions are written and directed by Brockman and music is written and performed by Musical Director Susan Bardsley. Storybook Theater was the first performance at the when it opened. To date, the company has performed for nearly 600,000 audience members.
“We’ve been here long enough that I’ve started to hire our former students which is nice because they know us and they’re fabulous,” said Brockman.
Indeed, two paths intersected nearly 20 years ago and that meeting has made a tremendous difference.