tony sanders BFA '87 (Theater)

In an evening phone call from California with his young daughters giggling in the background, tony sanders BFA '87 (Theater) – who stopped capitalizing his name in college – described his passion for Shine! Youth Theatre, the award-winning company he founded and leads as artistic director.

"Performance can be a great gateway to art, literature and self-esteem building for kids," he says. And as he plans to expand his operation to other California cities, he builds on a history of success.

Among its recent recognitions, Shine! was awarded the 2010 American Alliance of Theaters and Educators Winifred Ward Award for Most Outstanding New Children's Theater in the U.S. The company was also recognized by the City of West Hollywood "for creating an environment in which they entertain and enrich the lives of Los Angeles youth." On the floor of the U.S. Congress, Congresswoman Diane Watson introduced a Certificate of Special Recognition of Shine! for "outstanding and invaluable service to the community."

In addition to his youth theater, tony has an impressive array of theatrical experiences as an actor. Among those he's worked with are fellow UArts graduates Janice Mautner BFA '89 (Acting) and Esther Goodstein BFA '88 (Theater) on "Ron and Laura Take Back America," an indie mockumentary about the Tea Party. He also finished a national tour of "The Gift of Peace" written by UArts alumna Stacey Martino BFA '91 (Theater). The documentary, "A Change is Gonna Come" was shot during the tour.

His newest solo project, "Mojo de Negro: a Modern Minstrel Show" is being considered for the Sundance Theatre Lab. And through his new company BLINK Productions, two new projections are in pre-production for a web series, "Landslide," as well as a feature titled "Flip."

tony's creative path began with early forays into singing and performance, and included some inspirational mentors along the way. Though he was born in Philadelphia, his family moved to rural New Jersey when he was 6. The town had "one stop light, no fast food places and was kind of a farm town. Eleven years of living in the suburbs drove me crazy," tony said.

He started performing in church choirs and in middle school got his "first taste of what this performing thing could be." There was a successful audition for a boys' choir in New Jersey, but not enough money to pay for tuition to join. Then, in a high school production of "Bye Bye Birdie," he had the first tenor note in a song. "I hit that note and everything stopped in the room," he remembers.

As a mentor to young talent, tony has looked back to his own mentors and remembered the influence they had on him. A teacher, Gordon Compton, at Clayton High School in Clayton, N.J., "sensed that there was something there and took me under his wing."

From that experience, tony learned that he could memorize lines and had a mind for plot. But among the theatrical lessons were a few on the realities of the era in which he lived: when his school put on a production of "Mame," his teacher told him he couldn't cast a black man against a white woman. He was cast in a smaller role but “stole the show” from there.

Though tony was accepted to Penn State, his father balked at the idea of sending his son to the school, saying, "I’m not going to pay for a football helmet." In fall of 1983, tony became the third student admitted to the new theater program at what was then the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts.

Today, tony says, "It was the exact place I needed to be at the right time. It was so rich with opportunities. I needed to be immersed in an arts community that would allow me to explore." And Walter Dallas, creator of the school and a great mentor, helped him start that exploration. "Dallas was my savior, my surrogate father, made it OK for me to fail, pushed and nurtured me," he explains.

tony was to stay on as the production coordinator for the School of Theater after graduating and three months later would work at the newly formed University of the Arts. But friends who had moved to San Francisco lured him West. Years later, Walter Dallas continues to influence his life; he sits on the Shine! advisory board, and tony credits him as "a mentor, teacher, friend – and the biggest influence I've ever had." UArts alumnae Camilia Monet BFA '89 (Theater) and Laura Bryna BM '01 (Voice), also sit on the Shine! Board.

He had non-theater corporate success in San Francisco, but found himself missing the stage. He left the corporate world, took his money and formed his first theater company – SOP Productions, which stood for "statement of purpose" or "seat of our pants," depending on the moment. The company performed racially charged pieces and did two solid productions with him as a producer. But tony tired of the strains of "keeping the doors open" and would eventually move between L.A. and New York, collecting more acting and theater management experience along the way.

In New York, he worked in ticket sales, running the box office at Theater Row Studios. "I had to create a team, train them, and get it up and running," he explained. When he had accomplished all of this, a friend told him, "You are ready to run your own company."

When tony returned to L.A., he came to realize that a children's theater company would make a great contribution to the city's offerings. He and his wife, an actress, attended some children's theater performances and found them terrible. So he set out to open a training theater, which would bring students in on scholarship and teach them singing, acting and stage craft. These lucky kids would also get to benefit from another part of the organization, an adult company, which meant they'd be on stage with adult, professional actors.

The organization has parents working the box office, so staffing needs are minimal. "If your child is involved, you're going to be involved," tony says. In their sixth year, tony is addressing staffing, marketing, directing, and is bringing in corporate grants along with starting a capital fund to develop a permanent, new home.

Today, tony splits his time between Fresno, where his wife's family lives, and L.A. His children are enjoying the extra time with their extended family and tony looks forward to expanding his youth theater operation to Fresno. In the meantime, he stays very busy between the two towns, building on his dreams and all of his creative projects.