AMBLER >> To take a first-time tour of the Young Starrs Theater Company is to see its entire history.
A decade of memories cover the walls. Every square foot is filled with 10 years’ worth of play posters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and various other hand-made ephemera. It’s like walking through a three-dimensional scrapbook—an immense collage made by many.
These are the remnants of the nearly 60 musicals Young Starrs has produced since it first opened during the summer of 2007. Now on its tenth year, roughly 3,000 students have danced, sung, and recited monologues inside the building, according to the company’s founder, Judi Starr Pezola.
The headshots of those many students crowd an entire wall in the company’s rehearsal space, their faces hanging over the stage like a frozen audience. In the adjacent green room, hundreds of yearbook-like signatures, doodles, and inside jokes are scrawled on the exposed brick walls.
Judi Starr, the director, producer, and all-around impresario at Young Starrs Theater Company, works with as many as 100 students at a time, all sectioned off into age-appropriate classes. Groups range from high school and college kids, to the Twinkling Starrs, a class comprising elementary schoolers.
Obviously, this can make for a lot of work, and plenty of stress, but Starr, who depends on help from various assistants and volunteers, says she thrives on the controlled chaos of it all.
“I kind of run on stress. It’s part of my DNA,” she says—and it would have to be. Between organizing a full-scale musical, wrangling hordes of kids every week, and assiduously working under looming deadlines, the rigors of Starr’s job could be maddening for anyone who lacks a threshold for stress.
“It’s a 24/7-times-a-million job,” she says. “I eat, sleep, and breathe YSTC.”
Such dedication, on the part of everyone involved, seems especially impressive if one considers that most Young Starrs musicals open after only nine rehearsals.
“That’s not very many!” Starr says. “Everyone is always so shocked when I say we only had maybe nine rehearsals for this enormous show,” something like “West Side Story” or “Carousel,” or a more contemporary landmark like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”
“But the kids are so focused. They raise the bar so high that they get the job done. And they help each other. It’s tremendous work,” she says.
This sense of community, of teamwork, comes up a lot in conversation with Starr. The director often stresses that a production itself—something like “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Fiddler on the Roof”—while undeniably important, is somewhat incidental.
What’s most important is maintaining a fun and collaborative experience, one that’s free of little egos.
Hanging somewhere on the theater company’s vibrant walls is a sign that illustrates this point. The sign says: “We are all Starrs … yet there is no star.” Each student, no matter how large or small their role, is as valuable to the production as anyone else.
“There are [some students] who have been very hurt by things that have happened in school, where they were cut from shows or made to feel not as good. So they come here, because we’re a really safe, caring, and nurturing environment, and we teach them as best we can. Everybody is special here,” Starr says.
She adds, “The kids consider this their second home. It’s something they have said to me over and over and over again.” And this is evident in the fact that many Twinkling Starrs move from class to class as they get older. Some even end up pursuing careers in theater.
Starr, sitting in her office recently, points to a poster on a far wall and says, “She’s one.” On the poster is Rachel Zatcoff, an Upper Dublin High School graduate who first studied theater under Starr. Zatcoff has since performed in Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera,” in the lead role.
Over the phone recently, Zatcoff says Starr “was the first real professional theater director and influence that I had as a young person. Her biggest thing when we were in middle school was making sure that everybody felt like they had an important role in the production. She was the first that taught me, ‘It takes a village,’ and how important every single role is, on and offstage.”
“She’s the best,” the performer adds. “She’s supported me in my professional career so much. She comes to everything I do. She’s pretty amazing.”
Such kind thoughts of Starr seem common, to the point of being ordinary. Multiple current and former students have offered similar statements about their director/mentor.
“We don’t just teach blocking and all that goes into being in a show,” Starr explains. “We teach confidence skills, and team-building, and great care and kindness towards one another. Yes, I wanted it to be fun and theater. I love all that. But it’s what the audience does not see that makes this place special.”
This sort of maternal passion for her students comes from a deeply personal place for Starr. In fact, the very founding of the company came from a personal, and tragic, place.
Until recently, it’s not something Starr’s been comfortable talking about. With the 10th anniversary this year, however, she’s started opening up a bit.
“I lost a daughter many years ago,” she says. Her name was Carli Starr. She died during infancy. “This company is dedicated in her honor and her memory.”
In many ways, opening Young Starrs was “a coping mechanism. It was many, many years ago that she passed. But when you lose a child, years don’t count,” Starr says.
“She didn’t have a chance to live her life. And I think she probably would have loved theater, because I love it, my mom loved it, my grandmother was in vaudeville,” she says. Starr’s other daughters, Cortni and Cari, are also involved in music and theater. “We sort of come from a long line of theater people.”
“So, I always tell my students, because [Carli] didn’t get a chance to live her life, I feel like a piece of her is in all of them. And I truly believe that with my heart,” she says. “I love very hugely, and I try to teach my students to do the same. Being truthful and honest and loving and respectful, caring, good people. It’s who they are that matters way more to me than what’s going on onstage.”
It’s 4:15 p.m. on a cold November afternoon, and while the theater company is currently empty, in a few minutes it will be flooded with middle schoolers. About 33 boys and girls will pack the front room, laughing, chattering, and going over lines for their final Monologue Magic class.
As the kids pour in and sit on the floor, each waiting to be called through a curtain to recite soliloquies on a dimly-lit stage, one of them eagerly shouts, “When do we get started?!” It’s a circus, the way 33 kids packed into a room tends to be a circus, but it’s light and exciting, and fun.
Ten years after opening her theater company, Starr has “learned to work with large groups of kids,” she says. What else has she learned? “I’ve probably learned to listen more. Because they have a lot to say. I’ve learned to just continue to be a good example and good mentor to them. And I’ve learned to just feel blessed.
“Every day I appreciate what I have. Because I don’t think too many people get to live their dream. And I am truly living my dream. I don’t ever want to stop. I won’t allow that to go into my head.”