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Published July 07 2012

Making it big, then giving back

MOORHEAD - Austin Regan has worked on Tony Award-winning productions. He helped direct the hit stage adaptation of Green Day’s “American Idiot.”

But his dream gig? Coming back to direct the musical at Trollwood Performing Arts School.

“That would be a real special experience,” said Regan, a 27-year-old who lives in New York. “It’s part of my youth and part of how I became who I am.”

Regan, a Fargo native, is part of an ever-expanding circle of Trollwood alumni who are burnishing the school’s legacy from Los Angeles to Broadway and more than a few places in between.

And while those who leave to do big things are important to the program, those who return to share their experience with local teenagers, some of whom aspire to follow in their footsteps, may be more so.

“It’s a great thing on a number of levels,” said Kathy Anderson, Trollwood’s executive director.

She credited the deep alumni pool for helping the school in everything from networking to mentoring to fundraising.

When well-known performers and artists come back to teach, she said, students “realize that they can shoot for the stars. They can go for their dreams.”

The latest connection between the program’s students and star alumni couldn’t have come at a better time. Becky Gulsvig, the Moorhead native and Trollwood alumna-turned-Broadway pro, was at Trollwood last month to work with some of the students in the upcoming “Legally Blonde: the Musical.” She played the lead role on Broadway and on tour.

“I got so much out of it as a student and a teenager,” said Gulsvig, who is currently working on another musical in New York. “I love coming back and giving what knowledge I may have gained over the years.”

Gulsvig, 29, is one of about 4,000 people in Trollwood’s alumni database, Anderson said. The vast majority of them didn’t end up working in the performing arts, but those who did aren’t hesitant to give back.

Sony Holland, a California-based jazz singer and one of the program’s earliest alumnae, has returned in recent years to run vocal jazz workshops. Several performers in the local Musical Theatre Fargo-Moorhead troupe – all Trollwood alums – ran an audition workshop at the school last year.

Last summer, Timm Sharp, a television actor and another alumnus, taught classes at the school. Sharp, who co-stars in the HBO series “Enlightened,” was set to do so again this summer, but landed a movie deal that upended his schedule.

Michael Walling, a New York City-based director who has directed Trollwood summer productions for more than 20 years, said students look to alumni of such stature as “gigantic entities.”

“It’s like, this too could happen to them,” he said.

He also said alumni can offer valuable perspective on the realities of life in the performing arts.

“They get the truth,” he said. “It’s not always neat and tidy and nice. They get the fact that it’s a very competitive business, that it’s not a nice business a lot of the time, that there certainly will be more rejection in your life than you’ll ever get success, and that’s the nature of being an artist in this country. That doesn’t come from their high school classroom.”

The alumni aren’t just a boon to aspiring performers, they’re also a helpful networking resource for graduates looking for work. Regan said he recently cast fellow Fargoan Nicole Rodenburg in a show he’s directing – a throwback to the days when the two were doing “Les Miserables” together at Trollwood.

It’s not the first time he’s run into a familiar face on the professional performing arts scene – and in a business where who you know is a big deal, it’s no small thing, he said.

“There’s actually a surprisingly large number of us,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are really having real careers in the arts and in the theater specifically.”

Michael Gardner attributes the far-flung network of success to the attitude the school teaches students early on: Set your mind to it and you can do anything.

“It was taught to me that we could go, using our common sense, our intelligence, our education and our dreams, anywhere we wanted to,” said Gardner, a 45-year-old artist and costumer who currently lives in Los Angeles.

Gardner, who was a Trollwood student in the program’s first year, first took a turn in the New York fashion industry for a few years. He wasn’t happy there, but realized he could parlay the skills he picked up at the school into opportunities in theater and television.

He spent a dozen years working on Broadway before moving to California, where he’s now the head of wardrobe for a prominent Los Angeles theater.

He’s stayed in touch with a number of people from Trollwood, and credits the school for setting him on the right path.

“I didn’t have any fear about moving to New York,” he said. “I didn’t have any fear about doing what I want to do. I learned who I was, I learned my strengths and I learned my limitations.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502