September 11, 2008

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Second Life to the rescue
Drama school saved by virtual benefit concert
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

It sounded too good to be true when an “angel investor” helped get All Access Productions open in an old mill in Nashua in 2007. All good things come to an end, though, apparently.

Everything was in the investor’s name, but that family wasn’t in town enough to be involved on a day-to-day basis, explained Brandon Mallard, the artistic director. Mallard declines to name them. Uncomfortable with their liability, they decided to pull out, he said. They notified the performing arts school Monday, Aug. 25, that Friday, Aug. 29, would be the end of their involvement.

Mallard and dance director Bethany Cassidy had days to transfer the business and find between $3,000 and $4,000 to cover things like insurance and the security deposit for their lease.

Here’s where their story takes an abrupt turn.

Mallard had been making a little money as an entertainer on Second Life. His avatar performs, with him singing live, in “clubs” in the virtual world. An average gig might earn him about 20,000 lindens — Second Life currency — which equals about $40, he said. A couple friends found out about the All Access situation and organized a benefit concert in Second Life to help keep the school open. A dozen All Access students participated, singing live on Second Life, and by Tuesday, Sept. 2, they raised somewhere around $4,000 to keep the company in business.

John-Michael Breen, of Chelmsford, said Mallard had booked gigs for him and his classmates at “clubs” all over the virtual world. They put headphones on and sang some jazz standards and Broadway tunes into a microphone, “and people all across world could hear us singing,” Breen, 16, said. Audiences “tipped” them in lindens. They raised more than $1,000 Saturday, Aug. 30, when Breen was helping. It was his first encounter with Second Life, he said.

Becca Tarr, 15, of Nashua remarked that the people behind the avatars were so supportive, although the students didn’t know who was watching the concerts or from where. They tipped the equivalent of $5 or $10 each time someone sang, she said.

Sound odd? There’s a play going on until Sept. 27 in New York’s Players Theatre that actually previewed in Second Life, Mallard said. Alcohol, by Kyle Bradstreet, is a one-man show (www.alcoholtheplay.com) and the live actor James Fauvell also performed it in Second Life, according to SLNN.com.

Mallard, 25, now has everything that has to do with the business of his school under his name.

It’s now called Phoenix Academy. Mallard called Cassidy from Concord, while trying to find a title that wasn’t too close to names already registered with the state. Somewhere in the conversation, one of them said, “If we can raise this money, talk about a phoenix rising from the ashes...” It clicked. It was a phrase they had used before when faced with a challenge, he said.

Although the original investors bought equipment and funded a production of The Who’s Tommy in 2007, the school’s class income covered operating costs and paychecks from the first month, Mallard said. He’s confident that it’s a viable business. The investors are leaving most of the equipment.

Although the class and performance space on a partially air-conditioned floor of 25 Front St. has a new name, Mallard said nothing is changing in their day-to-day operations.

They have had about 150 people fill out registration forms since they opened, and average about 60 active students at a time, he said.

Breen is enrolled in four classes at Phoenix Academy this semester. He’ll take advanced acting with Mallard, and three dance classes. He’s been involved in theater for about eight years and started at All Access after Mallard asked him to audition for Tommy.

“Already in a year I have felt myself grow so much more as a performer,” Breen said.

Tarr joined last fall, and normally takes a “show class.” She also studies advanced acting, and jazz and ballet technique.

As All Access, the school created an ambitious performance schedule for 2008, and has had to postpone, cancel or replace some titles. They just cast for Bare, a contemporary musical, which is scheduled to run in December. They are postponing The Giver for the spring, and so far have canceled Songs for a New World and Our Town from the list. — Heidi Masek


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