At Diversity Studios, a large, framed photo on the main desk shows co-owner Theresa McDonough chumming it up with Dr. Phil. “He’s kind of a big phony,” she surmises of the television psychologist. But that doesn’t stop the 25-year-old actress and director from capitalizing on her brush with fame — she was on the show a few years ago. McDonough took the photo to Burlington’s annual Kids Day last spring, knowing the famous face at her booth would grab people’s attention. From there, she could reel them in to talk about what’s really important to her: Diversity Studios, Burlington’s newest organization for performing-arts education, which she opened last February with her husband, Yukio.
Since then, the young couple — he’s also 25 — have been hard at work getting the word out, from handing out flyers in subzero temperatures on their opening day to spray-painting their car with an enormous Diversity logo. It wouldn’t be hard to get lost in Vermont’s kiddie acting scene, already abuzz at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and the Very Merry Theatre in Burlington, and the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, to name a few.
So, what’s different about Diversity? The teachers do a little bit of everything — hence the name — including leading kid and adult classes in acting, standup comedy, musical theater, poetry and studio production, as well as lessons on a variety of musical instruments. Diversity also offers a recording booth, a production studio and an intimate performance space.
Theresa and Yukio McDonough both grew up in Vermont. He’s a violinist and former concertmaster of the Vermont Youth Orchestra who went to Purchase College, SUNY, to study music, but decided partway through to focus on arts management, as well. “I would spend six hours a day practicing,” Yukio says. “But I wanted to have more of an influence in my community.”
Theresa is a University of Vermont grad who grew up knowing she wanted to perform. And she had a role model: Her mother, Jeanette Davis, seized the spotlight as the world arm-wrestling champion — twice. Back in 1985, after Davis’ victory in the first-ever female division, Regis Philbin brought her on his “Lifestyles” show and challenged her to a match. “She’s probably my main inspiration for my interest in entertainment,” says Theresa.
After graduating from college, she and Yukio moved to New York City together, where he broke into the music-production scene. He began an independent record label and worked with producer Drew Money, who makes beats with hip-hop artists Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. Theresa studied acting at the Weist-Barron Studios in New York and was cast as a Catholic schoolgirl in a horror flick called Play Hooky that’s due out later this year.
Still, it’s hard getting steady work in the Big Apple. And Yukio and Theresa wanted to be closer to their families in Vermont. “We felt we could make more of a difference here,” he says.
When they moved back last September, the pair knew only that they wanted to continue working in the performing arts. They considered opening a nightclub, but then they stumbled on a spacious basement unit on College Street that had been used for some 25 years as a storage space. They began to envision classes and a studio there.
“When I get an idea, I have to do it,” declares Theresa.
“And I just have to go along with it,” her husband — they got married earlier this year — adds with a grin.
“I signed on the dotted line and went from there,” Theresa says. She began scouring Craigslist for instructors and quickly found Natalie Miller and her husband, Nathan Hartswick, who teach acting and standup comedy, respectively. Four more instructors have come on board since then.
The McDonoughs, who both have day jobs — she works part time at the HowardCenter; he works a late shift operating Vermont Public Television’s master control board — put $15,000 into renovating the basement.
A slight musty smell is all that remains of the storage unit Diversity once was. Red, blue, pink and purple paint brightens the rooms; vinyl records, picked up on the cheap at ReSource, tile some of the walls.
The couple rents out the place for $75 an evening — “It helps pay for the lights and gets people through the door,” notes Yukio — and charges $25 an hour for recording sessions. “I love being able to make people sound good,” he says.
So far, the McDonoughs say, musical theater and standup comedy classes have been the most popular. And not just for kids.
Marti Woodman, a 63-year-old UVM accounting professor, signed up for Diversity’s standup comedy classes this summer — a six-week course is about $150. “It’s one of those things that’s been in the back of my head for a long, long time,” she says. “And I never did it because I was nervous.”
Nine years ago, Woodman lost her eyesight — and, remarkably, started laughing about it almost immediately, she says. Woodman explains that she had always identified with the character of Luisa in The Fantasticks, who prays, “Please, God, please, don’t let me be normal!” When she became blind, Woodman thought, Wow, maybe God listens to my prayers.
She started writing stories about “ending up in the middle of College Street when I didn’t want to be,” she says with a chuckle. “There’s way too much humor in life not to want to share it.”
This year, Woodman took the summer off for the first time in her 20 years at UVM. When she found out about Diversity’s standup classes, it sounded like a perfect fit.
With the exception of one other woman, her classmates were men under 30. At their sessions, Hartswick instructed them to come up with five minutes of material to perform; then the students would all listen — and usually laugh — and he’d advise them on how to make it better. At the end of the six weeks, they performed at Winooski’s Monkey House.
Woodman took to standup immediately. “You have to get over yourself. You have to not take things too seriously,” she says. “I felt so light every time I went and came out of [that class]. Light and happy.”
It must have helped to have an instructor as enthusiastic as Hartswick. Earlier in the summer, he wrote about the class on Diversity’s Facebook wall. “Here’s what I usually think: ‘Today I have to ___.’ Here’s what I thought this afternoon: ‘Today I get to teach a standup comedy class.’ A good sign.”
For kids, the benefits of the performing arts are plentiful. Theresa McDonough says her two younger brothers had never considered acting until their sister opened her studio. Now, after taking a couple of classes at Diversity, they — and several of their classmates — have appeared in Heritage Ford commercials opposite veteran Vermont actor Rusty “the Logger” DeWees. The boys,” says Theresa, are “just blossoming.”
The instructors at Diversity make a point of teaching kids not just about the art but about the business of acting: how to audition and find local gigs. “A lot of parents don’t think there are acting opportunities around here,” says Theresa, who also set up auditions for Diversity students for a production called “One Voice” by Joel Klein, a producer of TV’s “Fear Factor.”
Of course, for kids, acting isn’t just sitting on a haystack while the Logger grills them about Fords — though that does look like fun. Yukio and Theresa McDonough say children’s and teens’ adeptness at carrying themselves with poise, speaking confidently in front of strangers and, well, getting over themselves will be invaluable down the road. “We want them to take these skills into the real world,” Yukio says.