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Making a Scene: Music teacher starts theater company for teens

Justin DePaolis-Metz started the theater program Spotlight on Youth. Carrie Snyder / The Forum 1 / 2
Justin DePaolis-Metz works with students during rehearsal for the musical “Tarzan” at the Scheels Center for Performing Arts on the Oak Grove High School campus in Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum 2 / 2

FARGO – Growing up in Yankton, S.D., Justin DePaolis-Metz didn’t have the opportunity to participate in theater in middle school. He had to wait till high school.

“I did a lot of ensemble and backstage work, which really gave me an appreciation for teaching it,” he says.

Now, the 29-year-old Fargo Public Schools music teacher is providing teens with the opportunity he didn’t have.

This winter, he launched Spotlight on Youth, a theater company primarily made up of two groups: Re|Act, a five-week program for actors ages 12 to 16; and Upstage!, a two- or three-week program for teen and adult actors with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Funding for the company has primarily come from ground-up efforts such as garage sales and a silent auction. It’s all hands on deck for adults and teens alike. Everyone pitches in to bring a show to life.

“With what we have, I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to come up with,” he says.

DePaolis-Metz broke away from an afternoon rehearsal with co-director Jennifer Kapitan to talk about his company and Re|Act’s first show, “Tarzan: The Musical,” which premieres Thursday.

Tell me about Re|Act.

It’s an intensive auditioned program for actors 12 to 16. There are opportunities for actors that age, but there isn’t really anything auditioned. It’s kind of, “If you come, we’ll give you a part,” which is cool, but a lot of these actors have done that for several years and are ready to move on but just aren’t old enough.

So it helps fill that gap?

It’s very much a transitionary program, really about building well-rounded performers more than just preparing for a show.

We offer master classes on things like sets, props and costumes; we talk about headshots and resumes, vocal techniques, dance.

These actors really want their hands in everything, so when the end result comes on stage, there’s nothing that they haven’t touched.

Why is theater so important for this age group?

I think first off, it builds confidence. It also builds their ability to work with one another as well as to take an idea and effectively communicate it.

But, additionally, especially for some 12-year-olds, they’re not necessarily fully aware of their own bodies yet, and I think it gives them a chance to grow into them.

I think theater’s so cool because it allows you to explore and create and make mistakes and learn from them, and this is an age that is really vulnerable to making mistakes, and we’ve been taught that that’s a bad thing. This is a safe environment for them to explore that and really come out ahead.

Why did you pick “Tarzan” for Re|Act’s first production?

I saw it as a good opportunity for education. … There’s so much to teach in this show, with the vocals, choreography, costumes and set.

Beyond that, it’s a show that hasn’t been done in the area.

How are preparations for “Tarzan” going?

Preparation is going extremely well. The kids are running the show with well-developed characters, and their production elements are very polished.

Tell me how the Upstage! program went.

Beyond my expectations.

We didn’t go through an audition process; I just started working with them so I could cast (for “Guys and Dolls Jr.”) according to their strengths.

What does theater provide people with special needs?

I think, again, it fosters independence, it fosters creativity. It helps them focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t.

But the other cool thing is that I think it creates this element of family.

What’s next for Spotlight on Youth?

A winter production for UpStage!, a small-cast show for Re|Act, and a few other surprises. Additionally, next summer, we will implement even more programming.

What has starting Spotlight on Youth taught you about theater?

Spotlight on Youth has reinforced in me my belief that high expectations and quality instruction can produce magical results. It has taught me that theater is a fantastic learning environment for every student, and every student can and does grow in tremendous ways when given the opportunity.

If you go

What: Re|Act’s production of “Tarzan: The Musical”

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Stage at Island Park, 333 4th St. S., Fargo

Tickets: $18 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, and $6 for kids ages 12 and under, and are available at The Stage’s box office, by calling the box office at (701) 235-6778, or online at They cost $2 more apiece if purchased at the door.

Meredith Holt

Meredith Holt is a features/business reporter for The Forum who covers topics in health, mental health, social issues, women's issues, arts and entertainment, food and more. She also writes a column on health and wellness, body image and media representationShe was a copy editor/page designer for six years prior to joining the features team in March 2012.

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