When Morgan Dayley moved from the Midwest to start the drama and dance programs at East Palo Alto's Eastside College Preparatory School, she had a total of six students enrolled in her first classes. Three years later, the programs have grown massively and her courses are routinely maxed out. But while her students love creating characters and honing their performance skills, there's a lot more to theater than basking in the limelight. That's why this summer she's decided to give Eastside students the chance to do the behind-the-scenes work of stage managing and working the front of house, box office, lighting and sound for a production starring local theater professionals.
While there are other summer-theater programs for youth in the area, Dayley said their costs are prohibitive for many Eastside students, almost all of whom are the first in their families to be college-bound. Since Eastside also requires its students to participate in summer-enrichment programs, "I thought, why don't I just make one and provide this opportunity for them?" she said.
Dayley's goal is to give her students real-world experience that can translate to career potential in the future.
"It's about getting them a lot of practical skills they can put on their resume and then go out and hopefully get involved with theater companies throughout the Bay Area," she said.
The program's inaugural effort is a production of "Almost, Maine," a play in nine vignettes by John Cariani, set in a whimsical, fictional town on a winter night under the spell of the northern lights. Dayley first fell in love with the show, which she called "witty, sweet and charming ... about love, loss and everything in between," when she was in college.
"The script is a little bit absurdist. There's people carrying around their heart in a bag, lots of sayings that involve love and relationships," she said. "The students love it too, and there's no risque content."
The play, with its vignette format, also fits the program well because Dayley's goal is to not only give her students practical experience but to give the performers, many of whom are experienced at acting but haven't done much directing, a chance to stretch their wings as well. Since it's broken up into separate mini plays, "If they're not acting in a scene they will step out and direct," she said of the cast members. "I wanted this experience to be one in which everybody was learning new skills."
Dayley is participating as a performer, too.
"I didn't do that because I'm a diva," she said, laughing, "even though I did really want to be in it." With their erstwhile teacher busy acting on stage, she explained, her students can't over-rely on her guidance and instead have complete responsibility in their jobs, forcing them to use their skills.
"It kind of sinks in on them that they're running the show," she said.
Dayley's own stage skills are well documented. She's recently earned rave reviews for her performances in such local productions as "She Loves Me" at Foothill College and "Into the Woods" with Palo Alto Players, and she also works as a choreographer and director with a variety of Bay Area companies.
Growing up in Idaho, "I started out as a ballerina but by the time I hit 8 I was too tall," the 5' 11" Dayley explained. She took her strong soprano voice and love of dance to show choir and drama in high school, did her undergrad degree in dietetics and worked for a bit as a dietician but found it wasn't her true calling ("It's tough to tell people what they can't eat," she said). She then moved on to Minnesota State University to earn a master's of fine arts degree in musical-theater acting and afterward ended up at Eastside in 2013 to start up drama and dance programs at the school.
"Education has always been something I'm passionate about," she said, and Eastside's commitment to traditionally underserved students inspires her.
Currently living in Hayward (having been priced out of the Peninsula, which is none too affordable on a teacher's or actor's salary), she said she is thrilled to be part of the regional artistic community.
"I feel really lucky; the Bay Area is rampant with good, lush talent," she said. She mined that talent to select her cast of seven, recruiting actors from various companies around the Bay and one who was in Dayley's very first classes at Eastside who's now studying theater in college.
"The kids listen to them more than they listen to me; they are the experts," she said, of the students' enthusiasm for working with a professional cast. "They're wonderful collaborators."
The actors are volunteering their time, and, after recouping the production's startup costs (such as for the rights and royalties to the script), all profits will be donated to Lauren's House 4 Positive Change, an East Palo Alto nonprofit that offers summer and after-school programs for homeless children in San Mateo County.
"It teaches children life skills and about how they can improve quality of life. The students seem really excited about that, too. It's a local cause they're familiar with," she said.
With tickets priced at a modest $10 ($5 on opening night), Dayley is hoping to draw a lot of support for her hard-working crew and cast.
"We're hoping to get big audiences," she said.
Much like her earliest Eastside classes, this year's summer program is small, with six students (who have already studied drama with Dayley during the school year) trying their hands at the off-stage side of show business. But the ebullient Dayley hopes it's just the beginning of an ongoing offering.
"I'm hoping it will get bigger, hoping that it expands," she said. "I love the whole collaboration-learning process."
What: "Almost, Maine"
Where: Center for the Arts, Eastside College Preparatory School, 1041 Myrtle St., East Palo Alto
When: Weekends July 22-Aug. 5, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m.
Cost: Suggested donations is $10 ($5 on July 22) and proceeds benefit Lauren's House 4 Change.
Info: Go to Event page.