We are delighted to feature Chasta Hamilton in our occasional In the Spotlight blog series. Chasta, founder and owner of Stage Door Dance Productions in Raleigh, joined CYT as the choreographer for our 2015 summer musical, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and she has since worked on five other CYT shows.
Chasta, 35, made a radical change in her business — and in her life — by leaving the competitive dance world in 2015. She outlines what motivated her to make this profound decision and how she reshaped her studio for young dancers in her new book, “Trash the Trophies: How to Win Without Losing Your Soul,” released Aug. 11.
CYT recently talked with Chasta via Zoom for a Q&A about the dance world, her connection with CYT and how the book was born. Below are edited excerpts of that conversation.
Tell us about your dance background. How did you get started, and what drew you to dance?
I started dancing when I was 2 [in the small community of Mohawk in eastern Tennessee]. My father had just died, and I think my mom was looking for activities and socialization for me. It was like a satellite program, kind of in this dingy warehouse, which would be completely unacceptable by dance education standards of today. They would roll out this rubber foam for the mat, it was really basic. But I just loved it, I loved it so much, and I loved dance recitals.
I loved the process, I loved the performance, I loved meeting people, being with my friends. It just brought this incredible amount of joy into my upbringing, which was laced with trauma and challenges. And it just kind of kept the focus on this really beautiful art. I think that’s why I’ve felt so compelled to stay in this field, because it gave so much to me when I needed something extra.
How did you start your studio, Stage Door Dance Productions?
I started teaching and choreographing in college, and I really enjoyed it. When I graduated in December 2007 I was living the freelance life, and then by the summer I thought, “This is something I could do.” After starting a dance program at a country club, I thought, “I think I could build a program on my own.” That fall I decided I would just go full in and started planning, getting the lease, the vision, the marketing, and then we opened in June of 2009.
What motivated you to write the book?
In 2018, I was speaking at a conference, and it was my first time back in a large, dance-industry gathering after extracting myself away from it. In my keynote I had just briefly mentioned how we had stepped away from competition, and another studio owner stopped me in the hall, and she said, “Can I take some time to talk to you?” And I said, “Yes,” and we sat down, and she had tears in her eyes. She said, “I so admire what you’ve done, but I don’t think I can make it happen in my community.” And I was like, “Yes, you actually can.”
I didn’t get her contact info but thought that if this could actually help people in an industry that is in a downward spiral and just getting worse by the year, and needs to be reinvented because it can’t even fully function — it just seemed like a conversation that was ready to be had, and with age I’ve just found that I’m more comfortable in talking about parts of my story that maybe I wasn’t before. That was the moment where I was like, “I should do this.” After outlining it, I did most of the writing between August and December 2019.
For whom did you write the book?
Dance studio owners, dance moms and anyone with a child, really, or anyone feeling like their life is falling apart. The message is truly overarching. It’s set to dance, but it could be cross-applied to anything.
How and when did you move into stage choreography?
It was always something that I wanted to do, and I did a little in college. Then with opening the studio, my focus was there for the first four or five years. Then I had the opportunity to choreograph “Aida” at Athens Drive in 2013, and I loved it so much. I cried so hard when it closed, because I thought, “I’m never going to direct or choreograph anything again, and this was so wonderful.” Then I did, like, 35 things in the next five year-period.
With CYT, you’ve worked on five summer musicals and one winter play. How did you become involved with CYT?
CYT came into my life in 2015 with “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” I had just choreographed “Rent” with the North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, and an assistant director working with CYT suggested it would be a good fit for me.
What I love most about Nikki and CYT is the standard of excellence, because that’s very much like my brand and how I operate: How can we create really meaningful, empowering experiences? That’s important for the kids that participate.
In your book, you talk about the role of dance in storytelling. What kinds of stories can dance uniquely tell, and how?
It really comes back to empathy, and this is what I tell my staff in our trainings all the time. What we have to focus on — yes, we’re teaching dance, and yes, we’re teaching choreography — but let’s focus on the humanistic component. Even if a person isn’t ready to do a triple pirouette, let’s give them movement that’s going to empower and inspire who they are, so that whether we’re setting a specific story with a narrative, or even if they’re just discovering something about themselves, which is going to help them gain empathy and understanding toward others, the heart of it really is that humanistic component.
And how can choreography help tell a specific story within a musical or play?
Who doesn’t want to just bust into dance when something really exciting or frustrating or tragic happens? It’s just a great way to show a spectrum of emotions. I always think of dance and storytelling as words on paper, or relationships on paper, or an existence that is imaginatively transitioned to expressive movement. And that was one of my big problems with the competitive industry — it was becoming so non-creative. When we lose the creativity, we lose the art. When we can just focus on dance, for the sake of the person, the sake of the story, the sake of the performing art, it elevates.
Even though you have “trashed the trophies” and totally transformed the model of what a dance studio can be, there is still a performance-based aspect to choreographing for the theater. Can you talk a bit about how you work with young people to steer them away from what you call an “addiction to accolades” but still prepare them for public performance?
The first year [after the studio transitioned], I remember the kids being like, “So we’re not doing dance competitions anymore?” And I said, “No, we’re not doing dance competitions. We’re here to be competitive at life. And life doesn’t give you a trophy on any given day. You have to be intrinsically motivated to know that you are putting your best self forth in anything you do, whether that’s onstage in your dance, or walking into a college interview. Whatever you do, do it at a level of excellence and do it really well.” It took two or three years for that to become this really strong cultural shift. Now that culture is more vibrant and more needed now than ever.
In general, how can children benefit from participating in dance or any of the performing arts?
The list is endless, truly. Time management, organization, communication skills, empathy, understanding, responsibility, accountability, confidence. An understanding of self as it relates to a collective, as a whole.
My dog [Elvis, a Scottish terrier] was Toto in CYT’s “The Wizard of Oz” last summer, and he even benefited. He was so confident, so happy. It’s the community, too, of coming together and achieving a goal as one. Children really do need to participate in healthy programs, and CYT’s model fits that bill, above and beyond.
In telling the story of how you transitioned away from a competition-based studio model, you outline steps that others can take to make radical change. You even incorporate dance words such as “pivot” and say, “Figure out where you stand and where you want to go,” which sounds like a stage direction. To do this, you note the need to identify core values. How can you help children identify core values through dance and theater?
We hashed out four words, because accessibility is good — you don’t want your values to be so complicated that you give people a headache when they see them. We picked four words to make sure everything is funneling through them: technique, performance, community and character, all working toward the overall common goal. We said we needed to keep it simple, to hold ourselves accountable and to also be able to communicate this expectation, which will also set boundaries.
Last year we had a bullying situation, where we had to ask a student to leave, but the boundaries were so very clearly set, and the expectations, and there was a breach of that. The important thing is that the kids get it, too, because if I have to bring them into my office, I can say, “Do you think this action fits under technique, performance, community and most certainly character?” It’s a rubric they can understand.
The book’s subtitle is “How to Win Without Losing Your Soul,” and you say that “winning does not come in the shape of a trophy or medal. Rather, it is being able to recognize the journey we choose to live and the ability and awareness to be grateful for it.” With this reframing of what “competitive” means, what kind of feedback do you get from Stage Door or CYT alumni about their experiences with you and those programs?
The greatest thing is the can-do attitude. They know if they are going to be working on something with me, we’re going to push it to the furthest capability possible. It’s going to feel challenging, and we’re going to grow through the process. I’m so adamant that if you’re not growing you’re standing still, and standing still is basically moving backward. Because if you’re standing still, someone else is passing you, and you’re not growing. My number one thing when I’m working on anything is that there’s some level of growth. I think that’s why I work so well with a company like CYT, because it’s a very growth-oriented process. That’s the heart of anything truly meaningful, that we’re growing through it. But it’s a process.
You are clearly committed to helping others beyond Stage Door through your nonprofit, Girls Geared for Greatness. CYT just staged a successful, covid-friendly benefit concert in July that was rooted in peer-to-peer fundraising. Tell us a little about your nonprofit, and the importance of teaching young people about philanthropy.
What we realized is that, yes, we do dance, but with the competition piece removed we also had so much more bandwidth to do more, so with the humanistic component as a focus, we looked at how we could continue to elevate it, even beyond the studio. That’s where Girls Geared for Greatness was born, as a way to focus on the lives that we have in front of us, to say, “You are already geared for greatness, it’s in you, but let’s have skills, let’s have opportunities, so that we can continue to cultivate and pull that out, beyond the dance steps.”
Your book reads like a “how to” manual for reinvention in general, for anyone, and in any field. The epilogue was written just after the pandemic landed. What was that reinvention like for Stage Door and your students and parents?
It took 48 hours to get the full program digital, from March 14 to March 16, and June was a mix [of online and in-person programs]. Pretty much everything I did with taking ourselves out of competition and rebranding, we did in a much faster timeline. Just going through that process of a major change helped us prepare for changes that we basically have had to make on a weekly basis since March.
There have been so many arts organizations sitting still, and that concerns me, watching, waiting, hoping [the pandemic] disappears. I don’t think that’s sustainable. There’s no way that Stage Door Dance is going to stop. We didn’t even take a spring break, we haven’t paused since Christmas break. We’re here, we’re going. The arts are so important. We need to be reminded of what the arts are and how they impact our society.
In the epilogue you write, “History will not forget how we reacted during this time.” How can dance and performing arts continue to help young folks navigate the pandemic and cultivate the “passionate optimism” that you say is necessary for difficult transitions?
They have to focus on their realm of change. It’s so easy to get distracted at the bigger and the beyond. Focus on what you can, because you do have an audience, and you do have people you can impact, and I think the crisis in general can be very overwhelming.
This question can paralyze people from what they do actually have and the opportunities they have right in front of them to make really meaningful change and movement. We can do hard things, and it’s important to maintain optimism, and also understand that optimism is not necessarily positivity. You can still be really grumpy and have bad days but be optimistic about the outcome.
Keep listening to your inner voice, because in the early [stages of major change] there’s a lot of external influence of what people think and how they would do it, and as a person that kind of learned the hard way, it’s easy to bend over backward to avoid conflict. There is going to be a formative period that doesn’t feel great.
Change isn’t going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not right, and it doesn’t need to take away the value or the meaning of making that shift when it’s right for who you are and what you do.
For Andy Pleasant, CYT’s upcoming production of “Our Town” is like coming home again ~ although he has never really left.
Andy, a lifelong Clayton resident, grew up downtown on Barbour Street and attended Clayton High School, where he played George Gibbs in CHS’s 1969 staging of Thornton Wilder’s iconic play. Much has changed for the town and for Andy in the past five decades, but some of the most important themes of the play — including how we give meaning to our lives and how we treat others — remain timeless.
Andy had always enjoyed theater and had been in some plays, “but ‘Our Town’ was the biggest thing I’d ever done,” he said. He remembers that the stage in 1969 was plain and bare, with only a few props. This is a common way to present “Our Town,” which is set in a fictional New Hampshire hamlet in the early 1900s. The script recommends creating an atmosphere that conjures the classic New England sensibilities of dry humor and understatement and says that the spartan setting helps to stimulate the audience’s “cooperative imagination” — in other words, how we fill in the blanks and process the story is up to us.
No doubt Andy’s own good humor and his childhood experiences in team sports helped him animate his character. He and George “were a lot alike,” he said. In an early scene he had to pantomime throwing a ball in the air. “That was a piece of cake — I’d done that all my life,” he said, with a wry smile. Andy said he didn’t mind being directed, since he was used to having coaches “yell” at him. There was a learning curve, though, in being mindful of stage presence and how to be “in the right place at the right time to make it seem natural.”
Andy ended up carving out a long and distinguished career in athletics at Clayton High, serving as a health and PE teacher for three decades and coaching football, basketball and baseball. He was inducted into the Johnston County Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010. He also spent more than two decades managing the town pool in the summers and working part time at Pine Hollow Golf Club. “I’ve always played my whole life,” he said.
Looking back, he can see similarities between athletics and the theater. In both, he said, the goal is to get everyone involved working together as a team. And both endeavors are about making connections, some that last a lifetime and extend down through generations. He still sees former students all over town, and he ended up teaching and coaching many of his students’ children.
For Andy, the hardest part of playing George was conveying some of the more adult aspects of his character, including learning how to cry. He said he had to “think of some terrible things.” He didn’t seem to mind kissing his Emily Webb, though, played by Pat Forbes (Poe). He was dating someone at the time, but he and Pat “practiced a time or two,” he said, smiling. He also appreciated acting out how to show care for others and imagining what it would be like to have a wife.
He did marry a girl next door, of sorts, fellow Clayton native Gloria Pittman, in 1977. They have two children and four grandchildren. Andy, now 68, left his job at the golf course this past August to slow down a bit and travel more. And even though he didn’t do any acting after high school, he learned lifelong lessons in the theater that have served him well. “It gave me confidence to know I could go out and be another person and assimilate a kid my age, to play that role and be that person as he should be portrayed.”
He remembers that every show of the 1969 production of “Our Town” was sold out. Even after spending a lot of time rehearsing, he said, he had some opening-night jitters, “but I knew I’d done enough to be comfortable. It was fun to see people I knew in the first few rows. You want to make sure you do your best so they’ll enjoy it. We worked really hard to make it a good play.” His high standards for sportsmanship no doubt transferred to his dedication to that long-ago production of “Our Town.” He noted that he and his classmates believed that the “C” in Clayton also stood for “class, because you’re representing our town.”
He wasn’t too bothered about having to memorize a lot of lines for the play. “Once you get involved, it becomes second nature,” he said. Repetition and rehearsing helped him to speak and act as George in a way that felt natural. And now, as an avid audience member, he can especially appreciate the hard work that goes into acting and producing plays. His favorite stage show is “Phantom of the Opera,” which he has seen four times. He loves the music but also respects the complicated staging.
He has seen other productions of “Our Town,” including CYT’s 2011 show, and always enjoys its message. “It’s like Clayton was, back in the day,” he said. “Nothing like it is today.” The play is like a Lifetime or Hallmark movie, he said. “You just get involved and see the good, clean living during that time.”
Andy has seen plenty of changes in Clayton, which was going through integration back in the late 1960s. Now 150 years old, the town is in many ways still a “great place to live,” he said. But it’s not as quiet as it used to be, and traffic is a big issue. And it’s no wonder: The town’s population has grown from about 3,000 when Andy played George Gibbs to nearly 23,000, according to recent Census Bureau estimates. It was a town “where you knew everybody. Now, at the grocery store, you see people you don’t know,” he said.
Despite the changes, though, Andy is as dedicated to Clayton as ever. “My life’s been good,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. Just like in ‘Our Town’ itself.”
“I’m celebrating because I’ve got a friend who tells me all the things that ought to be told me.” ~ George Gibbs, “Our Town”
Charlie Putnam played George Gibbs in CYT’s 2011 production of “Our Town” opposite Jordan Biggers, the subject of our inaugural In the Spotlight blog feature. She played the straight-talking Emily referenced in the quote above, the girl next door who becomes George’s bride. “We had a lot of joy getting to perform an iconic love story together every night,” Charlie said.
But CYT’s “Our Town” was by no means Charlie’s first show. He developed an interest in theater while growing up in the Cleveland School area and started taking summer camp classes at Raleigh Little Theatre while in elementary school. From the beginning, he said, he loved the performance and community aspects of theater. He appeared in RLT shows, including “Cinderella.”
Charlie started his tenure with CYT as soon as he was eligible to participate. During the summer before entering seventh grade, he played the fiddler in “Fiddler on the Roof.” From there, he went on to do 12 shows with CYT, “which is still the record,” he said, wrapping up with “The Little Mermaid” in 2016.
Charlie, now 21, is a student at Elon University, double-majoring in political science and business administration. He has spent this semester studying at the Dublin Business School in Dublin, Ireland. Although he doesn’t plan to pursue theater professionally, he carries indelible memories of his time onstage and plans to participate in community theater in the future. There is “a really special feeling” about performing, he said, that’s hard to pinpoint. “Having a live audience in front of you is the most exhilarating time that I can imagine. Especially with theater, where mistakes are so common, the rush of adrenaline is incomparable.”
He and the “Our Town” 2011 ensemble got a taste of that unpredictability on opening night. “The fire alarm went off five minutes into the production,” he said. “Everyone in the theater was evacuated onto the town square. Audience and cast. It was about an hour before everything was cleared for us to come back in, but unfortunately the flashing lights of the alarms continued to blink in The Clayton Center throughout the show.”
Charlie has fond memories of the communities that formed during his CYT shows and noted the bittersweetness of the “ephemeral and fleeting” aspects of theater. “Moments spent with the cast and crew are that much more special knowing that it has to come to an end,” he said.
“Our Town” holds a singular place in Charlie’s heart. It is his favorite play, and he sees it whenever he can. “The stories about life and death presented in a neat, three-act package transcend the stage,” he said. He has also studied Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece from an academic perspective, writing a critical analysis of it for an American literature class at Elon. “It opened my eyes to even more layers to the show,” he said.
As a seasoned CYT veteran, Charlie has some words of advice for the cast of our “Our Town” 2020: Pay attention to pacing. “Plays need to have some speed to them to keep the audience engaged,” he said. “Say your lines with clarity, but make sure each line follows the next pretty closely.” To that end, he said, “think about the script. Really read it. Quite a bit of the show is about the relationship between the large things we can’t explain and the small realities that define our lives. Particularly in Act Three, I think Wilder says some fascinating things about life.”
Carolina Youth Theatre’s production of “Our Town” will be staged at The Clayton Center Feb. 27-28-29, 2020. Tickets go on sale Feb. 3.
Carolina Youth Theatre (CYT)
Carolina Youth Theatre is a community theater focused on providing theater arts education and performance opportunities to students across the Triangle.