The following two-part article about dee-Lightful Productions was published in the Culver City News on December 17 (Part 1) and December 24 (Part 2), 2009. It is reprinted here with permission from the publisher.
Aguanno’s passion for theater finds youthful audience
All the world may well be a stage as Shakespeare postulated in As You Like It, but his description of “... the whining school-boy, with his satchel/And shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school” is a far cry from the youngsters enthusiastically immersed in year-round musical theater workshops and camps offered by dee-Lightful Productions.
The organization, which is dedicated to quality musical experiences for children ages seven to 17, was cited in the Best Family or Kids Attraction category of the Best of Culver City 2009.
Dolores Aguanno, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., appears perfectly cast in her role as dee-Lightful’s vibrant founder and artistic director. Her passion for musical theater can be traced to her DNA, as her father was a professional musician.
After participating in every musical theater production that her hometown had to offer, she took several theater and dance classes in college and then moved to New York City, where she continued her training, studying voice privately, attending dance -studios, including the schools of Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham, and studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute with Strasberg and many other teachers.
“I was in the work/study program to help pay for my classes there,” she told the News, “and I became a teaching assistant for the Young People’s Program and eventually taught classes to teens for about five years while I was trying to further my own professional performing career. It was there that I discovered that I had a natural gift for teaching acting to kids. Matt Dillon, of the film Crash, was one of my students for about two years.”
She moved to Los Angeles in her late 20s to pursue her performing career and “really fell in love with the art of acting and ended up teaching acting for adults for about six years. Simultaneously, another path brought me to teaching creative writing for at-risk youth in probation camps. I also co-founded and directed a performing arts summer camp for kids at my spiritual center in 1995. It was extremely successful but the center wasn’t equipped at the time to support an -ongoing camp. That experience, however, planted the seed for dee-Lightful’s musical theater summer camp, which began in 2002.”
But back to the late 1990s when Aguanno, a single mother of two, was struggling to keep it all together. Recognizing that both of her daughters were musically gifted but unable to afford programs that would help them develop their talents, inspiration struck.
“With my background and training I could start my own program,” Aguanno said. “I loved working with children and it seemed like a great idea for a wonderful new adventure for all of us.
“My daughters were 12 and nine years old when I did my first production in 1999. I was very careful not to favor them and always had them go through the same audition process as everyone else for casting. The first show we did was Annie and it was a huge success. So many talented and curious kids came from Culver City, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles. It astounded me how many parents were willing to come out and help. We were at the hut at Lindberg Park, which we nicknamed The Stonehouse, and the parents hung curtains to mask the backstage area and create a theater space. Some aluminum can lights, chairs, costumes and makeup and voila, we had a show!”
But of course there had to be a glitch or two.
“The actor playing Oliver Warbucks had to drop out three days before the show opened,” Aguanno said. “I had no one to replace him so I became Olivia Warbucks, the richest woman in New York City in 1939. It was a lot of fun, but crazy. I went onstage for every entrance with my ‘clipboard,’ which was really my script, and when I wasn’t onstage, I was running sound cues!”
And dee-Lightful Productions was off and running as well.
“It has always been my deepest desire to have an all- inclusive environment where all kids feel welcome and safe to shine their light,” Aguanno said. “I love seeing the younger kids learning from the older, more experienced kids. It’s great to see the older kids move on and excel wherever else they move on to.
“I love seeing the shows at Culver City High School. The Academy of Visual and Performing Arts does such wonderful work with the students at the high school and it’s so rewarding to see our dee-Lightful alumni continuing to grow and shine.”
Aguanno told of alumni returning to help with shows during the year and to be counselors in dee-Lightful’s summer camp. She added that “many of our alumni have continued with their training at the university level while others have gone on to pursue other talents and interests.
“I get just as excited when I hear that one of our timid 8-year-olds broke out of her shell and aced her science presentation because of the confidence she developed at dee-Lightful. Or kids who were shy and didn’t have a lot of friends now have a bunch of dee-Lightful friends all over the Los Angeles area. It’s become an incredible community. And the parents have been so supportive, volunteering in any and every way possible.”
Aguanno praised the Culver City Department of Recreation and Parks for its assistance in advertising the program in the Culver City Living Guide, handling the registration in its office and providing rehearsal and performance space.
“Although the staff has changed faces many times since I’ve been there, they are all really kind and try to support us as best they can,” Aguanno said. “One of our biggest problems has been with scheduling consistent space to rehearse and perform. Their schedule is very busy and they service many other city groups and private ventures so I have to schedule our performance dates way in advance … Another major challenge we face is storage space, as over the years we’ve accumulated many costumes, props and set pieces.”
Asked about her goals, Aguanno responded, “it would be so great to have a little theater where we would rehearse and perform and have storage space and dressing rooms. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but I’m keeping the idea as a real possibility. Another goal is to establish a scholarship fund so that more of the tuition would be subsidized for kids in need.”
Aguanno’s daughters – who were, after all, the catalysts for dee-Lightful’s creation – told of the powerful effect it had in shaping their lives.
Tiffany Williams is now 23 and performing her first professional gig in the musical 42nd Street with Moonlight Stage Productions in San Diego.
“I can’t even count how many shows I have worked on with my mother,” Williams said. “From the time I was 12 until I was a senior in high school I participated in my mom’s shows, both on and off stage. Whether I had the chance to be center stage singing my heart out, in the chorus dancing my butt off, working as a camp counselor, stage managing, choreographing, controlling lights and/or sound, in charge of costumes or helping to paint/create the scenery, I always felt like I was an important part of a huge collaborative effort.”
sister, Allegra, 19, who is currently a sophomore majoring in Musical Theater
at Cal State Chico, said that “growing up constantly surrounded by musical
theater and being able to express myself on stage has shown me the path that I
want to take in my life. If it weren’t for dee-Lightful Productions, who knows
where I’d be
“It has allowed me to open up as a person and not be afraid to express myself, whether it’s on stage or off stage. I am so grateful that my mother founded this organization because I knew from the day I got on stage that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
Look for Part II in next week’s edition of the News, which will look at some of the parents and children who have participated in dee-Lightful Productions, and will detail its upcoming show.
Cast and crew full of praise for dee-Lightful Productions
Part I introduced Dolores Aguanno’s dee-Lightful Productions, which provides musical theater training for children ages seven to 17.
By Sandra Coopersmith
The parents and children involved with dee-Lightful Productions come together to create a formidable cheering section in support of enthusiastic young actors.
Sophie McLean, whose daughter, Mollie, had been with a previous theater group from kindergarten to age nine, spoke of her family’s experience.
“We met dee-Lightful Productions at the La Ballona Festival. Dolores was manning the booth. Having become unhappy with the previous group we had been with, we decided to give dee-Lightful a shot. Our aim as parents is to always have our children in a friendly, safe environment, leading them into adulthood with good morals, good friends and a sense of giving back. I can honestly say that joining this group has changed our lives for our entire family.”
Thirteen-year-old Emma Castro shared one of her favorite memories.
“During Aladdin there was just music playing before we all started getting ready for our show. The song Seasons of Love from Rent began to play and a few of us got up on stage and just started singing. Unrehearsed, unplanned, but boy did we sound good! This was one of my favorite experiences because it really shows that we are all in this together and how much we all care for each other and that Seasons of Love is basically the dee-Lightful theme song.”
Pam Fader, mother of Brandon Blum, a 17-year-old junior at Culver City High and active member of the high school’s Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, said there were “so many wonderful moments that it is really hard to pick one. I would say that one of the happiest times for me was getting to stage manage with Chris. Having that and then Jeremy helping out with lights and Brandon on stage, it really was amazing to have our whole family working together.
“My daughter, Emma, nine years old, had never done any formal singing before this past summer, let alone musical theater,” Janine deZarn told the News. “So when she wanted to sign up for a musical theater camp called dee-Lightful Productions I was skeptical. The hours were long and I thought she’d be burnt out before she even got through the blocking process. I couldn’t have been more wrong. From day one, Emma loved it and lit up like a Christmas tree when she walked into camp each morning, hugging new friends and counselors, forgetting I was even there!”
Dana Murphy, 21, a fourth-year theater major at UC San Diego who, started with dee-Lightful when she was 11, has been working with its summer camp for the past few years as a staff member and last summer directed one of its productions, Once on This Island.
“dee-Lightful Productions and Dolores Aguanno opened my eyes to
of theater as a young adult and gave me the self confidence and passion for art that have formed me into the actress, director, choreographer, and person that I am today,” she said. “Theater in general is an amazing tool for helping young people break out of their shells and become comfortable in their own skin, but Dolores brings a special element to dee-Lightful that makes it unlike any other children’s theater that I have been a part of.”
“My oldest daughter, Tia, who is 11, found her true love, song, by trying musical theater camp,” said Christina Geas-Lane. “Along the way she has met some of the nicest, smartest, funniest kids around, and parents as well. This year, my youngest daughter joined and she loves it just as much but for different -reasons – she got to act like a dog for months! And again she has met the most wonderful people.”
Susan Rosales, Kacey Mayeda’s mother, told two things that have stood out during her 13-year-old daughter’s involvement with dee-Lightful Productions.
“First is Dolores’s ability to understand the
essence of the characters, which enables her to cast beyond traditional images.
It allows our Asian-American daughter to break the stereotype of a blonde
-Disney Cinderella and to play an Annie without short curly red hair. Second,
found that dee-Lightful is not just a resource for children. Many of the best friends we have made as adults have come from the ranks of the fellow parents of the cast members.”
“Our daughter Audrey Rose first met Dolores at awinter break theater workshop through Culver City Parks and Recreation,” said Elizabeth Belser. “She was seven and that was it. She proceeded to become a part of the dee-Lightful family and did more than a dozen shows over the past seven years. Some of Audrey’s best friends were made from her years spent with Dolores.”
Karen Hilsberg credits dee-Lightful Productions with helping her 10-year-old son, Ben, “to discover his voice. He has learned not only to sing, dance and act but also to speak up for himself. He has gained confidence, which he takes with him into social situations, school and athletics. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of dee-Lightful is the warm community of families who develop friendships with each other over the years. My son has made very good friends whom he sees weekly at dee-Lightful and socializes with outside of dee-Lightful.”
Aguanno interjects teaching opportunities that go beyond learning one’s lines or hitting one’s marks.
“With each show I try to give the kids some background of the show and the cultural issues and values of the time the show was first produced, and when and where it takes place,” Aguanno said. “Annie, for example, deals with child neglect and abuse. Fiddler on the Roof, Mulan and Aladdin have themes of breaking tradition, the struggle to do things a little differently from how they’ve always been done. The show we’re working on right now, Guys and Dolls, originally produced on Broadway in 1950, reflects the attitudes and behaviors of New York City males and females towards each other.”
That newest production will be playing Jan. 14-16 at the Veterans Memorial Building, located at 4117 Overland Ave. The Full Show (ages 11-17) will be performed each night, and there will also be a matinee performance Jan. 16. The Musical Revue (ages 7-10) will be performed at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 15 and noon Jan. 16.
The Full Show tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for children 14 and under, and $5 for seniors 65 and older. The Musical Revue tickets are $5 for everyone. Tickets will be sold at the door, and Culver City Unified School District teachers may attend without charge.
Aguanno beamed as she spoke of “what a beautiful community theater we’ve become in the last 10 years. I can’t believe that this 2009/2010 season is our 10th year. We have to do something to commemorate 10 years. I don’t know what yet, but something”