ARTSies Teaches Lifelong Skills with Performance Arts

May 14, 2024

In the theatre world, a triple threat is someone who can deftly dance, sing and act. ARTSies co-founders Libby Avalos and Joey Herbison are such people, with over 40 years of combined experience in the business. But their musical theatre classes and camps offer an additional triple threat: confidence, community and inclusion.

“The biggest skills we can give our children is confidence,” says Avalos. “It plays into how well they do in school, which impacts how well they're going to do in their career, how they make friends, how they build relationships – it's such a huge thing.”

The pair spend a lot of time nurturing the confidence of their students, ranging from Grade 1 to high school. Licensed musicals like Matilda and Shrek are divided to ensure everyone gets a part in the final live performance, and students gauge their own comfort levels with roles. The goal is to challenge, but not overwhelm. 

“Be yourself” is not only their tagline but also a throughline. “You can't get creativity wrong, like there's no wrong answer,” says Avalos. “We ask them to bring themselves into this work.” She adds that celebrating each others’ strengths and differences, and mixing age groups “builds community in a powerful way.” It’s personal for Avalos, whose own arts community helped her cope with bullying and hard times in her youth.

Herbison notes that students sometimes “have challenges they have to face, but they aren't feeling like an island unto themselves…. Seeing everyone around you rising to the occasion and going out there with the same energy and working together to make it happen, is amazing. They feel like they’ve climbed a mountain together, and they have.” 

The results are tangible: parents reporting reduced anxiety in their kids, children who raise their hand more in class and speak up for themselves, kids who make eye contact and are more open. Other benefits, says Avalos, are the creative thinking and problem solving skills that are nurtured through their improv training and through live theatre, where one must adapt and move on from the curveballs that often occur.

“Not everyone understands how valuable arts education is…. When parents experience these big breakthroughs they're amazed. It’s integral to so many areas of life.”

Herbison and Avalos met developing programming for a Markham theatre program in 2013, before launching ARTSies in 2017. They are joined by an assistant director, two instructors, and a team of summer staffers. 

Avalos says they chose to open in Markham because of the immense local opportunity, the “bustle,” and the “major passion for supporting arts among Markham families.” They’ve had over 1500 enrolments, including through the pandemic, when they got creative and took a financial hit in order to be able to provide the families with some joy amid lockdowns. 

“With the different cultures here, there are a lot of different styles of art forms that are explored,” says Herbison. “A lot of the families really connect to this idea of musical theatre. And not only the skills that they see on the stage, but also the responsibilities that come with being a performer and having that responsibility of having to keep in check with choreography and memorizing music and lines and being a character…. The parents were really excited to see their kids express themselves and find that leadership development and teamwork.”

In addition to summer camps and tri-semester programs, ARTSies provides private vocal and piano lessons and multiple family-friendly live shows a year.