Meet CYT Baton Rouge student Jackson Pierce

I’ve been on an interviewing kick lately. There are just so many rad people that are a part of the CYT family! And CYT Baton Rouge student Jackson Pierce is no exception. Do yourself a favor and read my recent Q&A with the guy whose name we’ll definitely hear again.

This is Jackson. And I think I speak for everyone in the world when I say that his shirt wins.

This is Jackson. And I think I speak for everyone in the world when I say that his shirt wins.

Hi Jackson! Tell me first, how did you first get involved with CYT?
My family has homeschooled me since I was in the fourth grade and we are currently involved in a very large homeschool community. A year or so ago, we heard of a theater group starting up and we decided to get involved with the program. My dad is on the Board for CYT and my mom is an Area Coordinator, and we’ve been involved all three sessions that CYT Baton Rouge has had.

CYT is indeed a family affair. Do you have siblings? Are they involved?
I have a nine-year-old sister who is in CYT (she does pretty much anything I do) so we spend A LOT of time together. My mom is a costumer with the rest of the “Costume Diva’s” as they are so appropriately named. And my dad helps build sets and manages to find some crazy way to injure some part of his body at least twice a show.

Ha! Sounds like my dad. I heard you recently went to the CYT EXPO. How’d you like it? 
My experience at Expo was amazing! I met so many cool people and I was able to hang out with my CYT family from Lafayette. It was a great weekend in Houston.

What has been the best part about CYT for you? 
The best part about CYT for me is the experience I’m gaining by performing and just doing what I plan to do for the rest of my life.

I’m a fan of word association. I’ll say a word or phrase, and you say the first word or phrase that comes to mind. Cool? 

Auditions: Scary
Favorite show: Shrek the Musical
Tech week: Mic interference
Broadway: Maybe
Choreography: Improving (slowly)
Favorite movie musical: The Muppet Movie (the old one!)
If I’m not at CYT after school, you’ll find me…Doing CYT stuff at home

Thanks Jackson! 

One-on-one with CYT Inc’s Dr. Summer Moshy

CYT is chock full of the most incredible people. From affiliate leadership to volunteers to students to staff, there are phenomenal people everywhere you turn. Recently, CYT Inc’s Curriculum Coordinator, Dr. Summer Moshy, humored me while I peppered her with questions about what she does for CYT and why she thinks the organization is the most special one around.

Summer (right) with CYT Inc's Director of Operations, Heather LaForge

Summer (right) with CYT Inc’s Director of Operations, Dr. Heather LaForge

First things first. You are CYT’s Curriculum Coordinator. Break down for us what that means.
Basically, I organize and maintain all of the available CYT Inc. curriculum materials that we’ve got and make them accessible (via the Curriculum link on the CYT NEXUS) to all of our CYT affiliates for use in planning the class schedule for their respective areas. I try to keep the resources current with accurate listings/descriptions of what materials we have available, so that the Area Coordinators, Managing Directors, and/or Artistic Directors can request what they need for their area teachers. I also facilitate the requests from the ACs, MDs, or ADs for the materials and answer any questions they might have about our current materials.

There are oodles of classes and even more affiliates. Your job sounds busy!
It took me a a while to recover and organize all of the curriculum stuff CYT Inc. has amassed over the past 30 years, but now that that’s done (though we do still unearth buried treasures from time to time!), I’m starting to work on creating new curriculum materials for our affiliates. I also try to solicit materials from our affiliates to enhance the variety and quality of curriculum goodies we have for them. I am also about to send out my first Curriculum Newsletter highlighting what’s new and what’s coming up for CYT Curriculum.

Summer wiith CYT student Emily Smedley at EXPO 2014

Summer wiith CYT student Emily Smedley at EXPO 2014

I’m told you’ve worked with a variety of other theatre programs. What is the main difference you notice about CYT?
The willingness of everyone involved to “give it to God” at the end of the day. To me, it’s comforting to feel that the common denominator among CYT peeps is devotion to a power greater than ourselves.

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CYT Santa Cruz proves it’s a family affair

Perhaps one of the best things about CYT is that it can involve the entire family. That is the case with the Hash family, and I recently got to speak with parents Phil & Cheryl about their involvement with CYT Santa Cruz and the positive impact it’s had on the lives of their daughters (Hi Caryn & Monika!) and on their family as a whole. Truly a remarkable family. Enjoy!

How did you and your family first get involved with CYT?
Cheryl: For about a year my friend Mary Jo Epperson kept telling me about a Christian-based theater group she was helping to get started in Santa Cruz. The day before the first CYT class/session, my daughter was begging to take dance classes (which didn’t appeal to me because of a previous negative experience with another dance studio). I remember saying to her, “Let’s go check out this theater group Mary Jo keeps telling us about. You prefer acting over dancing anyway. First classes are tomorrow. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to continue.” Well, as you can guess, we haven’t looked back.

Caryn as a Who Citizen and Monika as Thing 2 from Seussical

Caryn as a Who Citizen and Monika as Thing 2 from Seussical

Was this your first foray into theater?
Phil: No. We had been involved with another theater group when the kids were younger.  It was less than satisfying for many reasons.

Cheryl: As Phil mentioned, when our girls were younger, they danced and acted with another studio. Wasn’t entirely bad, but was not the greatest.

I’m told you both wear many hats in regards to helping out with CYT Santa Cruz productions. What have your various jobs been?
Phil: I’m head of the Set Committee (I organize and help build the sets; we have a set designer), I’ve ushered some of the shows, and ran a “follow spot” for a show.

Cheryl: Costume Designer and Costume Committee Chair. I also make cookies, brownies, etc. for refreshments, and manage our costume storage area.

Phil working on the set during Tech Week of Jungle Book

Phil working on the set during Tech Week of Jungle Book

What’s the most gratifying part of being involved together as a family?
Phil: When a show comes together we all take great pride in its success, even though we contributed in different ways. We can appreciate each other’s contributions, the kid’s performances, Cheryl’s costumes, and my sets.

Cheryl: The friendships we have gained as a family. Families that have the same values, interests (theater!), experiences, life stories. Yet we are all unique and bring many gifts to CYT. It’s been wonderful to see our girls grow in theater and to be a part of that growth. And as adults, I think both Phil and I have grown as well and have learned a lot about theater. It’s fun to be creative together! It has also been good for our girls to see that Phil and I are still learning and growing; it’s a life long journey.

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The journey from CYT student to CYT director (sorta)

You guys. You’re about to meet an extraordinary gem. Caleb Craig is a former CYT San Antonio student, and current intern director for CYT San Diego‘s production of The Addams Family. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with him about CYT life, college life, and future life. Lucky me!

Here's Caleb, ladies & gentlemen.

Here’s Caleb, ladies & gentlemen.

Not so long ago you were a CYT San Antonio student. What were some highlights from your days on the CYT stage? 
I was part of CYT San Antonio’s ambassador group, the Encore! tour group. That has by far been my favorite part of CYT. We had the privilege of working directly with Sandi and Scott Mitchell producing and performing medleys and arrangements of songs from various genres and shows. That group of people have become my closest friends. They’re like family to me.

The Encoure! group with their Artistic Director Sandi Mitchell

The Encore! group with their Artistic Director Sandi Mitchell

Any favorite CYT roles or shows stand out to you?
I was Peter Pan in Disney’s Peter Pan Jr. and it was a dream come true for me. That was my first lead role in any show I’d done. One of my favorite shows that CYT San Antonio put on was definitely The Wizard of Oz. It was filled with so many incredible moments, including a 12-minute quick change from Ms. Gulch to the Wicked Witch of the West. Watching the make-up and costume crew backstage move super fast to completely change the actress’s appearance was something to behold.



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What is CYT? Travis Russell (and a video) explain.

You may have seen the new What is CYT? video circulating around the webiverse recently. It’s an awesome look into the CYT program as a whole and highlights kids from Affiliates around the country having a blast putting on various productions. It sort of makes me wish I was under 18 again.

And while many people had a hand in making the film, I sat down with the guy who ultimately put all the pieces together: Travis Russell, CYT Inc’s Director of Communications.

Travis, break it down for me – technically speaking, why are videos a good idea?

Videos have a much greater impact connecting with people. If you look at the analytics for different mailers, posts, and pages that contain video, its engagement is easily 3-5 times higher than content without video.

A few CYT Affiliates had been asking for quite some time for a short video that would act as a “teaser trailer” to explain what CYT is. With the Spring 2014 shows quickly approaching, the time seemed right so I sifted through hours of footage and selected the best clips.

The video is super rad and I know it took a lot of work from a lot of people. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

Most of the footage came from CYT Lafayette and their amazing videographer John Rabalais from Focus Productions. Some of the footage was from Corrie Cooper from CYT NYC, and CYT San Diego. I did most of the editing which was fairly easy due to the great “CYT Theme Song” written by CYT Inc’s own Renee Kauffman.

I know nothing about making a professional video. Take me through the process.

First, using Final Cut Pro 10, I laid down the music track and marked any key music changes that needed to be on beat. I laid in the clips we selected and then trimmed each transition. The hardest part for me, not being skilled with words, was coming up with concise, explanatory text. Being simple with your text is hard.

Yes, it is. Thank you for acknowledging. Continue.

I previewed the whole video a few times making little tweaks and changes. Once it’s done you have to export it, upload it, and share it with the world. I can only watch it a few times before I go crazy wishing I had more time to make it even better.

Spoken like a true creative.

The hope is to one day be able to curate quality footage from all CYTs so everyone is represented. I hope to make many more videos about CYT so we can really get the message out about why arts education and teamwork are so important.

Thanks for the insights, Travis!

You can watch the video on YouTube, and then head over to CYT Inc’s Facebook to share it with your network of peeps.

Q&A with CYT co-founder Sheryl Russell

Either you’ve met her, heard of her, or stumbled upon this post because you googled “amazing woman.” Here’s the deal about Sheryl Russell: she is among the most Godly, encouraging, patient, and organized women ever. She is half of the CYT co-founding duo (Hi Paul!), and I recently stole a few moments amidst her busy schedule to pick her brain about what, why, and how she does what she does for CYT.

Paul & Sheryl Russell looking fancy at a recent CYT Portland gala

Paul & Sheryl Russell looking fancy at a recent CYT Portland gala

Let’s flashback to 1981. What was the thought process in originally starting CYT?

Paul was a teacher and needed a summer job. His friends were painting houses or selling air conditioners and that didn’t excite him. He had just finished a successful run of a musical at the school where he was teaching, came home one day in March and asked, “What if we put on a play this summer?” We opened The Sound of Music that August.

CYT has come a long way. Did you always intend for it to grow into a national organization, and what has it been like to witness?

No, we didn’t have a business plan to expand into every major city in the U.S. After 15 years, families moved to other cities and called to ask how they could have CYT in their local community. It’s pretty amazing to visit other CYT’s across the country and pause and ask yourself if you’re in San Diego or Kansas City…the model is working. It also fills my tank to see our CYT Alumni’s children now involve in CYT. We are truly the grandparents now.

Sheryl (center) at the 2011 CYT Leadership Council Meeting.

Sheryl (center) at the 2011 CYT Leadership Council Meeting

You’ve worn many hats for CYT. What do you currently do, and what does a typical day look like?

My current title is co-founder and my time is spent with CYT Inc., the national company that manages the CYT affiliates across the country. I don’t think there’s ever been a typical day working for CYT…everyday has it’s opportunities and challenges. I currently do the accounting for CYT Inc. and I’m beginning to revise all of our business manuals as well as create new support materials for our affiliates. I’m also working on a development plan to increase our contributed income. And I do some traveling to visit new start-up areas and to keep in touch with current affiliates.

Judeo-Christian values are at the core of CYT. What programs are in place / how do you and Paul ensure that it mindfully remains centered around Christianity?

We’ve always believed we are Christians involved in a children’s theater arts program, not a Christian theater arts program. As we continue to love God and love people with our actions, we believe our Judeo-Christian values will continue to flourish.

You have 4 children and 5 grandchildren (with a 6th on the way!) Most of your brood is involved in CYT in one way or another and it’s a lovely example of how family-oriented CYT is. What do you attribute to the involvement of family in the operation of CYT affiliates around the country?

CYT has created an atmosphere that involves the whole family. We not only involve the child but we ask parents to serve on a production committee. We’ve had grandmothers on the sewing committee, dads on the make-up committee, and moms helping to build sets. We’ve all been given different talents and no matter what age, CYT has a place for each individual to use their God-given gifts.

The entire Russell clan on Easter Sunday (2014)

The entire Russell family on Easter Sunday (2014)

If forced, would you rather sing, dance, or perform a monologue?


Do you have a favorite show? As in, when you hear an affiliate is doing it, you get a tinge of excitement & want to hop on a plane to go see it?

Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat…and I did hop on a plane one time when CYT Spokane did it!

Can we play a little Word Association? What is the very first thing that comes to mind when I say the following…

Opening night – The gift of hard work
Paul – Energizes others with his passion for the arts through his love for the Lord
HYPE – leadership
Auditions – Hardest weekend for moms
Broadway – Someday a CYT show will premiere
Showcases – Fun
The future of CYT – This verse was shared with us in 1981 and it remains true today. We ask God daily to direct our steps in fulfilling His plan for our lives:

“But these things I plan won’t happen right away. Slowly, steadily, surely, the time approaches when the vision will be fulfilled. If it seems slow, do not despair, for these things will surely come to pass. Just be patient! They will not be overdue a single day!” Habakkuk 2:3

Sheryl, you’re the dream. Thanks so much for taking the time!

CYT Atlanta alum to guest star on NBC’s Parks & Recreation

Kelly Washington is a CYT Atlanta alumni who caught the acting bug and eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream…and she’s made good on that dream. Proof: Kelly guest stars on tomorrow night’s episode of Parks & Recreation (Thursday, April 3 at 8:30pm on NBC). Kelly was nice enough to let me pick her brain about her CYT days and her exciting experiences on the set of one of the most popular TV shows around…

Parks and Recreation

Kelly (center, with Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman) plays a high school student leading the Prom committee facing budget limits, and works with the Parks department to overcome the challenges.

So you were a part of CYT Atlanta since its inception…any favorite roles/shows?

CYT Atlanta’s first show was mine as well. It was Tom Sawyer (Russell House) and I played Becky Thatcher. It opened my eyes to the world of acting, and I never looked back. That role also gave me my first kiss, hah! Since it was my first CYT show, it was also my favorite. I had such a blast and made some lifelong friends.

How did performing in musical theater prepare you for the world of professional acting?

Musical theater will always be a part of my life. It’s where I started performing. I even went to Pace University in NYC as a Musical Theater major, until the acting work in film took over and I decided to move to LA. Something I’ve learned in LA is the idea of people performing “big” and “over the top” can be totally foreign to many actors. So when it comes to sitcom, some of the crazy out-of-the-box opportunities that I have enjoyed are more unique than I realized. I will always geek out over great songs from musicals and sing them loudly in my car.

Okay, we’re dying for some behind-the-scenes info of working on Parks & Rec.

Parks and Recreation is truly the GREATEST show ever to be a part of. It was a blessing, and they welcomed me into their family with open arms. Getting to improv, or “fun run” as they call it, with Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, and Nick Offerman was incredible. Hard not to laugh though. They are comedy GENIUSES! It’s a lot of work and non-stop filming, but who wants to sit in an empty trailer when everyone on set always has a smile on their face, even if it’s been a 12-hour day?

Is acting your main focus at the moment?

Acting is what I live and breathe. I just graduated from Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv training center started by some of the improvisational greats, including Amy Poehler! I still take multiple acting classes every week. I think it’s important to never stop learning. And of course auditions take over your life, which I love. I have a few things in the works, that I can hopefully share soon!

I heard you also have a guest spot on tonight’s episode of The Middle (Wednesday, April 2 at 8:00 on ABC). This is a big week for you! What was it like working on that show?

Working on The Middle was great! They shoot on film, which is insanely rare now and that could be the only chance I ever get to be on actual film. I loved that everyone ate lunch together, cast and crew alike. The actors were all super professional and prepared, and not a single diva attitude in sight.

Parks and Recreation If you don’t get a chance to see the Parks & Rec episode live, fear not. You can go to after it airs and watch it online! Yesssss.