In the 2003 film “Camp,” a group of teenagers attend a summer performing arts camp where jealousy, competition, and intensity get the best of them. For many of us, movies like “Camp” are the only look we get into the inside world of acting, feeding into the narrative that the industry is a nasty one, and those who take part in it are mired by self doubt and pettiness.
While it’s true that the entertainment industry can be a difficult one, there are some who are working to make that world as welcoming as possible – a place that fosters talent, not stymies it. For 41 years, Atlanta Workshop Players (AWP) has been actively contradicting the stereotype that “Camp” and its ilk put forward.
Founded by Lynn Stallings, AWP is a nonprofit performing arts company that aims to provide performers of all ages with a healthy and supportive outlet for their craft while giving them professional-grade training at the same time.
Stallings said AWP grew out of a desire to offer young performers professional level outlets for their talents.
“We created a touring company, and the touring company was a paid company for kids,” Stallings said about AWP’s beginnings. “We toured hundreds and hundreds of schools all over the state doing socially responsible programming.”
The company performed original shows, featuring themes such as bullying, teen suicide, and other serious issues that kids deal with, said Stallings. Since AWP began in 1981, the performing arts group has expanded into the realm of television and film, and boasts numerous camps, classes, and over 22,000 trained students – many who are now working actors or have gone on to other careers in the industry.
Shannon Purser, who played Barb on “Stranger Things” and the titular role in “Sierra Burgess is a Loser,” Michael Provost from “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” and “Insatiable,” and Faith Salie from NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” are just a few of AWP’s notable alumni.
Salie, who started with AWP around 1983, said AWP was a large part of her formative years.
“It was so joyful, so wacky, so supportive,” said Salie, who is also a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning and has performed Off-Broadway. “We worked so hard, but it was so fun. That was the secret sauce.”
Salie said that now, as a mother of two, she has more respect for Stallings and the environment she is still able to create for young performers.
“She managed to figure out a way not only to let everyone shine, but to make us all feel like a team,” Salie said.
AWP’s motto is, “Kids changing the world, one audience at a time.” Stallings has tried to make that saying a reality.
“It’s rare to find people in this competitive industry who really, genuinely, are thrilled when someone else has a success,” Stallings said. “Because they realize that one person’s success is not their failure.”
Performers at AWP range in age from 10 to young adults. Its musical theater company, which just put on “SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical,” usually rounds out at about 40 performers, Stallings said. All of the company members came to AWP at different times and in different ways, but they all share a love of performance and appreciate AWP’s supportive atmosphere.
“It’s very welcoming, it’s very supportive and friendly, and you don’t see that in a lot of acting spaces,” said Reyn Graves, who started with AWP in 2016. “I think that’s something that we need.”
Ashlyn Stallings – who, as Lynn’s daughter, has been around AWP for her entire life and now serves as a teacher – echoed that sentiment. She added that whether you’re in the company, at a camp, or attending a class, AWP is a safe space.
“Because it’s such a safe community and everyone is so supportive, you feel comfortable trying these new things.” she said. “Even if you fall flat on your face, it’s not a big deal. Laugh it off, try again.”
To get into the company, you have to go through an audition process. The audition generally requires hopefuls to perform an upbeat song, a ballad, a roughly 30-second dance combination, and a monologue. For Rjai Jamison, 16, this is his first year. He decided to audition after attending camp this summer, where he said he learned a variety of new skills – including juggling.
“I learned to juggle. I thought that was really cool,” Jamison said. “I really like it because not only do I get to build my film and TV, I also get to build my musical theater.”
Joshua Tyrell, who also started with AWP fairly recently, has taken advantage of all the opportunities that have come his way in a very short amount of time.
“In only a year, I’ve done two camps, and a musical, and a year’s worth of classes,” Tyrell said. “I’ve learned so much, and I’ve met so many wonderful people.”
For a lot of these young performers, working with those wonderful people is part of what makes the AWP experience so unique. Katie Johnson, 15, started with the players in 2018. She, along with Graves and another performer, shared the role of SpongeBob in this year’s musical. Stallings said that most musical roles are double or triple cast, which lends the performers space to learn to collaborate.
“You get to branch off of what the other person does,” Johnson said about working with another actor, or her counterpart, as she called it. “What we would do is we would talk about our character, and what would this person do? What’s the best decision for them, what kind of move would they do in this part of the song? So you have to work together a lot.”
Because the coursework at AWP is so varied, the players have the opportunity to learn about different aspects of the industry outside of their own initial interests. Imaria Ayanna, who said she’s aiming to move into film and television acting, spoke excitedly about a voice acting workshop she had the opportunity to attend.
Ayanna said she didn’t realize how interested she was in voice acting until that workshop.
“I would love to be a voice actor in an anime,” Ayanna said. “You’re putting [your voice] to a drawing. It’s you, but it’s not your body, it’s not your facial expressions. So you have to get all of that out with the sound of your voice.”
Camps and classes at AWP encompass different aspects of the industry, and students even have the opportunity to make real, professional films. One of those films, a short film called “(Dis)Connected,” won the Audience Choice Award at the 2021 Diversity in Cannes Short Film Showcase, a showcase for short films that takes place during the Cannes Film Festival.
“They have industry pros that guide them, but they do it,” Stallings said about the movie making process. “Which is pretty darn cool.”
Two of the younger members of the company, Emma Powell, 11, and Rowan Walsh, 12, spoke highly of AWP’s Triple Threat class, which focuses on the three disciplines of singing, acting, and dancing.
“Every week, we would do something different,” Powell said. “We got to do the entire acting experience.”
Walsh said she appreciated the opportunity to grow in three different areas of performing with just one class.
“I learned some new dancing skills,” Walsh said. “I really got to extend my stage presence and grow my voice.”
Graves spoke highly of a slightly different, more niche course that AWP offers. The class is called “Xtreme Acting,” and gives students the opportunity to practice acting in situations that are a little outside the norm.
“I’ve never seen anywhere that had an acting class quite like it,” Graves said. “It’s about those extreme situations that you encounter in acting, like when you’re acting an extreme medical situation, or when you’re doing a skydiving scene … things like that, that you will encounter with acting that are very hard to do.”
Years after she stepped out of the AWP bubble, alumni Faith Salie still holds her experience there close to her heart. She said that Stallings was one of the first people she saw treat the arts with a strong sense of dignity.
“I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve gotten older,” Salie said. “Lynn treated us like … real live human beings, no matter what age we were. She treated us like people who were responsible, who deserved to be given responsibility.”
Most people who speak of AWP speak of it like you would about a family. For Stallings, many of the people she works with everyday are her family – her daughter and her husband, Don Stallings, both work at AWP – but the players feel like an extension.
And that extension only keeps on growing. Two years ago, AWP moved to the Brandon Hall School campus in Sandy Springs and partnered with them to do a performing arts program for the school. Stallings serves as the director for the performing arts department, and said the relationship has allowed many BHS students to participate with AWP.
“I have the best job in the world,” Stallings said. “I’m surrounded every single day by creative people who are amazing, and joyful, and care about each other – honestly care about each other. It is a joy to get up and go to work.”