SCOTTSDALE — The window of opportunity to explore theater arts doesn’t open at every local Catholic elementary school, but the curtain arose at just the right time at one of them.
Zach Guerrero was on the verge of leaving Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. He hadn’t fully connected with extracurricular life on campus anyhow and his mom’s internship required her to be in Tucson.
His mom wouldn’t allow it. She knew the impact the school’s two-year-old theatre troupe, St. Genesius Theatere, had on not just Guerrero, but both of her kids.
Zach Guerrero, an eighth-grader, went from being less-than-popular and not connecting with many fellow students last fall to the lead role in the school’s second musical. He had no prior acting experience. Guerrero wrapped up his second lead role, this time as Horton, in “Seussical Jr.” Nov. 18, and knows he found his calling.
“I found joy in singing, so I thought I’d give it a try,” Guerrero recalled of his rookie audition for the lead in “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I found what I want to do for the rest of my life: be on stage in front of people.”
He loves the instant energy he gets when a round of applause validates his good work and feels like he can connect with the characters, especially the flamboyant ones. Guerrero also landed a lead role in a local production of “High School Musical.”
“I want to be on Broadway, so I know I’m going to need a lot of experience,” Guerrero said.
Other student actors are reportedly just as eager to return to the stage. Classmate Caroline Clark performed in all three St. Genesius Theatre productions, striving for larger roles each time. The theater interested her since the first grade.
“I thought it was fun stepping out of your own shoes and into somebody else’s,” Clark said. “You gain so much confidence on the stage that you can’t find anywhere else.”
She also said opening the theatre troupe — named after the leader of a troupe in ancient Rome according to legend — further united the school. It allowed students to form friendships with those beyond their grade level, Clark said.
Other logistics of committing to life on stage didn’t bother the young actors either. They happily helped paper maché the props, practiced on their own, dedicated Friday afternoons to group rehearsal and one-hour rehearsals before school.
“There was never a day that my daughter didn’t jump out of bed at 6 a.m. to be there by 7,” said Alison Mahay, whose daughter, Madison, played Mayzie.
Mahay quickly found other invaluable benefits to having a theatre troupe at a Catholic school. Public speaking, even for a job interview down the road and self-confidence were among them as were the ability to memorize lines and understand a story line.
As for her own daughter, Mahay said the theater transformed her 13-year-old. Madison has dyslexia and challenges paying attention, yet raised her grades two notches by stepping on stage. Mahay quickly credits Terry Temple, director, for professionally managing such a large, young and inexperienced cast.
“It’s not every person who could do this with 130 kids,” she said.
The first production, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” featured up to 140 kids. “Seussical Jr.” had the least at roughly 120. Mahay said everything the students and army of parent volunteers — including herself, Polly Larsen and Shaleen Roberts — brought to life was through Temple’s vision. They made sea creatures glow and created props — a bathtub, cauldron, Seuss hat, clover field and tree — far larger than some of the actors.
Temple’s drive came from his own background as a performer and musician plus his love of watching children perform. He jumps at any chance to restore creativity and imagination in the education system. He teaches the art and tradition of theater and expects responsibility and quality from his actors. Audiences have come to expect it.
“People are always looking for that opportunity to be taken somewhere else, to be entertained. People appreciate good theater,” Temple said.
He just retired after 15 years as music director at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but will stay on part-time at the school to further develop the theater program. He’s also willing to bring “theater in a box” to other schools as a program or as a fundraiser.