Since its inception more than 30 years ago, North Texas Performing Arts has grown to become the largest youth theater in the country, serving more than 11,000 students in 170 productions a year.

Fast forward to 2015 when NTPA CEO Darrell Rodenbaugh noticed a growing need for a school that would accommodate youth who were actively involved with professional performing arts opportunities, and the idea for the Academy Conservatory was born.

He formed a board of directors and created leadership and academic teams to support the program. When developing the structure for The Conservatory, NTPA leadership conducted discussions with college admittance counselors, surveys, focus-group sessions and classroom experimentation.

The end goal for the program was to create a flexible academic option so students would not have to sacrifice either their education or industry involvement. In 2018, the Academy’s first class launched with 40 students.

“We’ve created a learning laboratory environment with the objective to provide opportunities for youth who are passionate about the performing arts,” Rodenbaugh said. “We want to build the acting, dance, musical, and technical skills to give our students an advantage in their collegiate and professional pursuits.”

Starting a career in the performing arts

NTPA’s Academy Conservatory is a flexible learning environment where students grades 6-12 can pursue one of seven theatrical arts certifications ranging from musical theatre to film and television.

The program’s structure is an ideal option for students who are traveling for interviews, auditioning for television work and engaging with other professional theaters in the industry.

Forty students made up the first Conservatory class at the program’s launch in fall 2018. Since then, the program’s size has more than doubled with a cap at 100 students. Classes are conducted at the NTPA Willow Bend Center of the Arts conveniently located off the Dallas North Tollway inside The Shops at Willow Bend in Plano.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Rodenbaugh said the Academy was online within days and did not lose a single student through the process.

“I was so proud of the team and the work they did to pivot so quickly,” he said. “We had parents who told us they weren’t sure if their kids would’ve survived without the program, and we were a real saving grace for them.”

Pursuing professional work without sacrificing education

The Conservatory delivers excellent depth of experience and prepares students for professional careers in the performing arts, Rodenbaugh said.

“The NTPA Academy’s unique model allows students with a desire to pursue college or a career in the performing arts a broad and deep training and education, excellent skill-building, and the flexibility to pursue auditions and professional work while continuing their education,” Rodenbaugh said.

Head of School Mike Mazur said the flexible learning model encourages a variety of approaches for students and affords them the opportunity to work professionally while keeping up their studies.

He said he is proud to see students engaging in the industry. Right now, graduates from the program are touring with “Jagged Little Pill," a current student is touring with “Annie,” and another current student has an Apple+ TV Show.

“We hope students stay until they graduate, but we also see students who get a job that takes them away for a semester,” he said. “The course load is structured like a college—students matriculate into one of seven certifications based on experience, not necessarily time.”

In addition to teaching students to be excellent performers onstage, The Academy also teaches its students to be excellent citizens offstage through its 10 characters including: Teamwork, Leadership, Responsibility, Respect, Self-Confidence, Integrity, Discipline, Gratitude, Positive Attitude, and Love One Another.

Auditioning for a spot in the Conservatory

Director of Education Kaitlyn Barnard said NTPA hosts open houses and events during which the community can get a feel for the program.

To enroll in the NTPA Academy, students must complete an audition which is tailored to the student’s desired certification. A student looking to graduate with a dance certification might have a dance solo for an audition while a student geared toward musical theater would perform a solo or a monologue.

As a nonprofit institution, NTPA is aggressive with scholarships and works to support students with economic need, Rodenbaugh said. The Academy does not charge an audition fee and is seeking qualified, ambitious students for the program.

“Financial capacity is not going to be an obstacle in being part of our program,” Rodenbaugh said.

Barnard said the amount of time students spend at the Conservatory fluctuates from student to student and there is a growing population of students who want to be there from the beginning.

Preparing students for success

Students can sign up for either Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday classes. Barnard said classes cost up to $425 and include three hours of instruction for 15 weeks. Students can build out their schedule based on the certification track they are following and their specific needs.

“In addition to thorough training in performing arts disciplines, we are also making sure they learn practical skills they will need such as how to find an agent, how to budget with an irregular income, and how to take care of your mental and physical health,” she said.

Overall, the level to which NTPA educates and prepares students for a career in performing arts is unheard of, Mazur said.

“There’s not a performing arts program in the entire southwestern United States that can offer this depth for grades 6-12,” he said. “You’ll find it at the collegiate level, but not outside of that environment.”

For more information on NTPA’s Academy Conservatory, visit the website here.

The above story was written by Summer El-Shahawy, a member of Community Impact’s Storytelling team, with information solely provided by the local business as part of their “sponsored content” purchase through our advertising team. Our integrity promise to our readers is to clearly identify all CI Storytelling posts so they are separate from the content decided upon, researched, and written by our journalism department.