Her hair was more of a glazed hazelnut than a sweet-potato orange, and her undeniably supportive parents were hardly Miss Hannigan. But as a six-year-old obsessed with the musical Annie, Abby Stein saw herself in the carrot-topped orphan.
But it wasn’t just the musical’s precocious lead that sparked her passion for performing arts. It was the precision, pageantry, and movement – the unbridled spirit of it all. It was fascinating, and Abby intended to be a part of it.
“I was amazed by the ability to story-tell through acting, singing, and dancing,” remembers Stein. “I knew that my life’s passion was going to be in the realm of theater.”
As an Irvine native, Stein was always aware of the well-reputed Theatre Arts program right down the road at Irvine Valley College. She planned to get there… just as soon as she graduated high school. Finally, in her senior year, she got tired of waiting.
“I reached out to [Theatre Arts Department Chair Scott] Grabau and he suggested that I take an entry-level class at IVC while still being a senior,” recalls Stein, who first encountered the basics of scenic design in Grabau’s stagecraft class. “Having this class already under my belt made for a smooth transition from high school."
Her moxie having paid off in the most Annie-like way, Stein would make her big entrance to the college stage the following Fall at Irvine Valley College. Suddenly availed of the endless opportunities and resources of an industry-connected Theatre Arts department, the talented freshman committed to trying a little bit of everything.
“She demonstrated unique on-stage Acting skills, in addition to her backstage duties as a young stage manager,” recalls Ron Ellison, one of Stein’s first professors in the Theatre Arts department. “This is a unique quality for a theatre student.”
Though a talented actress, Stein’s interest in the technical side of performing arts was beginning to take center stage. She began supporting department shows as a member of the production crew, quickly ascending to stage manager. Musicals – perhaps unsurprisingly, given her original inspiration – would become her specialty.
“Seeing the many positions and opportunities available through technical theater, I knew that this was where my passion was,” says Stein. “I became very interested in what was happening backstage.
“This is how I was introduced to the crazy and beautiful world of technical theater.”
Stein had come to the right place. The IVC Theatre Arts program is home not only to a faculty bearing a laundry list of high-profile design credits but a breathtaking performance space.
To call the Irvine Valley College Performing Arts Center a classroom would be… reductive, perhaps… but nonetheless accurate. Part-playhouse, part-studio, and part-rehearsal space, the Center combines the best of labs and lecture halls to afford IVC students the ultimate authentic experience.
In recent years, the 365-seat venue’s main stage has been the platform for everything from wind symphonies to Broadway classics like Cabaret and Grease. Most recently, the Center hosted a weeklong run of the underappreciated Craver and Hardwick gem Radio Gals, a show for which Stein acted as stage manager.
“Having all my family and friends in the audience finally able to see what I had been working so hard on was very special to me,” says Stein. “Another highlight…was being able to network with the many talented artists and designers [involved].”
While IVC’s proximity to the broader Southern California entertainment scene is opportune, location is only part of the program’s success story. Led by Grabau, the department engages a workforce-driven, “hands dirty” philosophy, especially in regard to the technical aspects of theater.
“Learning theater to me is learning show business,” says Grabau. “Yes theater is art, but it is also the foundation of a much larger live event industry.”
For Stein, it’s both of those things and more. Her time at Irvine Valley College, she says, engendered a greater understanding for the altruistic potential of performing arts. With her IVC certificate in hand, she plans to transfer to the Theatre Arts bachelor’s program at UCSD, where she hopes to continue exploring the capacity of theater to change lives – particularly for children and disabled individuals.
“Theater allows children of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to express themselves and be storytellers, which is a very powerful feeling,” says Stein. “What makes me so passionate about theater is that there is no right or wrong ways, and no rules as to what theater must be. It only takes three components to create theater… space, entertainment, and an audience.”
That spirit of versatility runs deep in the IVC Theatre Arts program. Whether it’s Danny Zuko’s dance moves, the set design on Wicked, or even the dubious ins-and-outs of Max Bialystock’s balance sheet that inspires them… there’s something for everyone among IVC’s three associate degrees and four career certificate offerings.
“It’s important for the young person to explore all aspects of Theatre before making a decision to pursue a career in this field,” says Ellison, who cites Theater History and Theatre Appreciation as two critical building blocks in a complete education. “There are vast opportunities for student designers, technicians, and stage managers at IVC.”
With more shows, a bachelor’s degree, and possibly a teaching career on the horizon, Stein’s star is rising. But she’ll always be grateful to the place she got her start.
“If it weren’t for IVC, I wouldn’t be entering a four-year university with already a résumé full of shows I’ve worked on,” Stein assures. “Having the opportunity to attend IVC is an opportunity I wish all college students could have.”
For his part, Grabau regards Stein’s success as a testament to the power of theatre not only to inspire and uplift people but to prepare them for real-world opportunities for advancement.
“I feel really fortunate to be charged with creating our [career education] programs,” says the IVC department head. “Exposing young drama students to the wider professional world and the careers within it is my passion.”