Leigh Ann Cannady was in New York this past April to get new headshots by a college friend who is a professional photographer, and Cannady’s friend invited an acquaintance to tag along.
In walked Betsy Struxness. That didn’t mean anything to Cannady, the owner and artistic director of the Forsyth Academy of Performing Arts (FAPA), but the two quickly got along. Throughout the day, Cannady learned more and more about Struxness’ background on Broadway, most recently as one of the original cast members of the smash-hit musical Hamilton.
That gave Cannady a unique opportunity.
“I said, ‘I’d love it if you could come down and work with my students some time,’” Cannady said.
And so there was Struxness on Saturday, spending the day with Cannady’s students to teach them choreography, coach vocals and answer questions about the life of a Broadway performer.
Struxness studied dance at the Juilliard School, and she’s appeared in Broadway productions of “Wicked,” “Memphis,” “Leap of Faith,” “Scandalous,” “Matilda” and, of course, “Hamilton.”
That background made her visit to FAPA so appealing, Cannady said. The local academy has a regular rotation of teachers who lead classes and workshops on a wide variety of performing arts like acting, improv, musical theater, technical theater as well as film and television. A few times a year, Cannady is able to bring in a notable performer, usually from among those who work in the industry in New York but are based in Atlanta.
Struxness’ appearance was the first by a New York-based performer for FAPA.
“I wanted them to have the experience of interacting with someone who does that full-time for their career,” Cannady said, “to hear kind of the good, the bad and the ugly.”
In the morning, Struxness held a dance workshop where she taught the students original choreography from Hamilton. In the afternoon, she held a vocal master class, coaching students through songs they have been working on for upcoming auditions or performances.
Then Struxness opened up time for a Q-and-A session with the students and their parents, and Cannady was impressed by the quality of questions from the group. Parents were most interested in how Struxness navigated city life. The students brought more light-hearted requests, wondering about Struxness’ favorite Hamilton song and what she’s working on next.
But Cannady felt the most valuable portion of the session was Struxness’ insight into the tenacity it takes to “make it” in the performing arts industry. She shared stories about nightmare auditions and mistakes. She also impressed on the group the value of being persistent despite regular rejections, and being “a good human being” and maintaining positive relationships in the industry, a message that Cannady felt dovetailed nicely with FAPA’s mission.
“Educational theater can sometimes feel really competitive and cut-throat, and that’s not what we’re about at FAPA,” Cannady said. “It was really, really special to have someone who does this for a living come down and reiterate the fact that it’s about making connections and building bridges between people and staying positive, even in the face of feeling like everything doesn’t always go your way.”
Cannady also admired the way Struxness interacted with the students. She was patient in answering questions, meticulous in teaching choreography and thorough in vocal coaching.
It made for an all-around experience Cannady hopes FAPA can do again in the future.
“People like that, they’re just a treasure,” Cannady said, “and it was really, really neat for the kids to have that experience.”