Joshua Powers as Phoebus and Elle Dodaro as Esmeralda
Joshua Powers as Phoebus and Gabrielle Dodaris as Esmeralda, in the Living Light Theatre production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Photo by Peter Campagna

Conventional wisdom has it that, when you begin a new venture, you should start small and build up.

None of that for Austyn Myers, whose new theater company’s inaugural production is the epic musical, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Myers, 23, an actor, director and the artistic director of Living Light Theatre, was fast off the starting line. His theatrical bent began early.

During his years at Explorer Elementary school, “I’d be like staging a play in the schoolyard. I was always in love with the story of Peter Pan,” he reports. “One day, I got called into the Principal’s office, and I thought maybe I was in trouble. Turns out, the principal said, “The school is doing a production of ‘Peter Pan,’ and the teachers and I want you to be Peter.’”

Austyn went on from Pan to play Gavroche, the street urchin-turned-revolutionary in “Les Misérables,” at the local California Youth Conservatory (CYC). From there, at age 9, he was catapulted into the national tour of Les Miz.”

“I didn’t search out theater,” he admits. “I wasn’t bit. It bit me. I was kind of thrown into this life. Being where I was at age 9, I figured, ‘I guess this is what I’m gonna do with my life.’”

When he returned to San Diego after 11 months on the road (the tour was closed so the show could be re-mounted on Broadway in 2009, where Austyn got to play Gavroche several times), he performed in other CYC productions, and with the J*Company in La Jolla, as well as appearing at Moonlight Stage Productions, North Coast Repertory Theatre, the Lyceum, Lamb’s Players Theatre, San Diego Civic Light Opera, the Barn Stage Company in Temecula, and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Later, he would be onstage at The Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse.

When he attended High Tech Middle School, he met Rebecca Myers (no relation), who has remained his friend and theater colleague, and now serves as the new company’s managing director.

“I’m the dreamer,” says Austyn. “She’s the pragmatist that knows what we can do. We couldn’t have done this without her and her family.”

In her day-jobs, Rebecca directs the theater program at Mt. Everest Academy and serves as associate producer of the Jewish Arts Festival at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. She was production manager for her large college theater group at Brandeis University.

In this production, she portrays a Gargoyle (“Low comedy, lots of fun,” she says); her brother has a major role in the show; her father plays the cello in the orchestra; and her mother, who teaches at the University of San Diego, where the show will take place, “has been enormously helpful,” says Austyn, “offering storage space in her office and rehearsal space at home.”

It’s a family affair all around.

Austyn’s mother is helping make and find costumes. His middle sister, who attended USD, is dramaturge. His youngest sister created the logo and posters, and his nephew is playing horns. His dad, who travels a good deal for work, remains wholly supportive.

“This is a group you’ll continue to see phenomenal work from,” says Rebecca, also 23. “I think the artistic leadership, this project, and the group in general, will be a group to watch. We need theater in unexpected places. Each creation will be new and exciting. This production is very bare-bones, pared down a lot. But that’s what’s really exciting about it.”

Origin of Living Light Theatre

Austyn attended “online high school, because I traveled to L.A. so much for film work,” including appearing in “Meet Dave,” with Eddie Murphy. This was followed by two Neil Simon plays and the premiere of “October Sky” at The Old Globe and “Kingdom City” at the La Jolla Playhouse.

He went to Mira Costa College before transferring to UC San Diego, from which he recently graduated with a degree in theater, emphasis in directing.

When he was working on “Kingdom City” at the Playhouse, the director, Scott Schwartz, who had directed him twice at The Globe (Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Lost in Yonkers”), noted that Austyn had an eye for directing. Schwartz invited him to be a summer intern at Bay Street Theatre, the director’s theater company in Sag Harbor, New York.

“That’s when I started getting all these ideas about site-specific productions,” says Austyn. “I knew that was what I wanted to do. I imagined directing musicals at various sites around Balboa Park, Liberty Station, and other great San Diego locations.”

Austyn actually started Living Light Theatre when he was 13, launching with a starring role in a challenging production: “Master Harold … and the Boys,” the searing drama by South African playwright and sometime San Diego resident, Athol Fugard. It was a line in that play, about “how the living light of theater has guided his life and art, the spirit that lives inside all of us,” Austyn says, that inspired the name of his theater company.

“I felt, at that time, I had to find out who I was as an adult actor,” Austyn continues. “’Spring Awakening’ at UCSD, a show about young people finding themselves, helped me find out who I was.” Throughout his life, he’s been fortunate to be able to support himself exclusively as an actor — at theaters, Legoland and other local venues.

Another influential production in his development as a director was “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a spare, ingenious prequel to ‘Peter Pan’ in which he performed at the Barn Stage Company.

“That’s the kind of theater I love,” he says. “I’m not a spectacle director. When I directed ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at UCSD, I took it back to its roots and story. I fought against the super-spectacle. I was motivated by ‘Starcatcher’ — and also by the imaginative work of the [New York-based] PigPen Theatre Company, which has been showcased at The Old Globe. We’re doing similar stuff.”

Why start with “Hunchback?”

Austyn was strongly affected by the devastating structural fire last April at Notre Dame de Paris.

“I’m Catholic,” he says. “I always wanted to see Notre Dame. When I heard about the fire, I was working at the La Jolla Playhouse, with the people who had created the set for the ‘Hunchback’ musical there in 2014. They were sharing their memories of that big, spectacular production. By the end of the day, I’d called all my roommates — all have theater degrees, though they didn’t go to school with me — and I had applied for the rights to the music. That was the fire under my pants to get started. I had to do the show as soon after that as possible.”

Considering his interest in site-specific theater, Austyn immediately thought of USD’s stunning Immaculata Chapel, where he’d been baptized.

As luck would have it (and Austyn’s career has been one piece of luck after another), “one of my roommates provides office supplies to the chapel. He set us up with a meeting with Father Matt, who listened to our ideas and expanded on them. Instead of being on the small side of the church, as I suggested, he said we should set up on the big side. Then we could put people on the roof. That’s where the Gargoyle characters will be. And Father Matt suggested that we use the bell tower. That was amazing. Now, they’re as excited about this as we are. When we show up there, they say, ‘The Hunchback boys are here.’”

The grand-scale “Hunchback” musical that premiered at the Playhouse was based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo, with songs from the 1996 Disney Animation studios film adaptation. The music is by Alan Menken, the lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (acclaimed father of Austyn’s early mentor, director Scott Schwartz), with a book by Peter Parnell.

When the show ran at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, AM New York called it “an unusually dark and chilling piece of musical theater, which explores physical deformity, religious extremism, sexual repression and even genocide.”

The story, set in 1482 Paris, poses the musical/philosophical question, ‘What makes a monster and what makes a man?’

It juxtaposes Quasimodo, the good-hearted but often ridiculed and reviled hunchback bell-ringer, with Notre Dame’s mean-spirited and hypocritical Archdeacon, Claude Frollo, who took in the deformed orphan and virtually imprisoned him for life.

In a departure from Hugo’s original, Frollo’s narrative takes center stage in the musical, as he grapples with his own orphaned childhood, his wavering devotion to the church, and his simultaneous attraction to, obsession with and disgust for the striking gypsy dancer, Esmeralda. Quasimodo is also smitten by Esmeralda, and he does everything he can to protect her and her Roma community from Frollo’s depredations.

Austyn and his co-director, Gerardo Flores Tonella (also playing a Gargoyle), have assembled a strong cast, including Andrew Paiva, who was the lead in two shows Austyn directed at UCSD, as Quasimodo; and as Esmeralda, Gabrielle Dodaris, a “quadruple-threat” from Oceanside, who sings, dances, acts and plays violin.

Joshua Powers, who lives in Chula Vista and worked with Austyn at Legoland, as did Tonella, will play the knight, Phoebus. Adam Davis, an alumnus of USD, returns to his alma mater to portray the dastardly Frollo.

Daniel Myers (no relations to Austyn, but brother to Rebecca) plays Clopin, the King of the Gypsies and the show’s narrator.

The full cast includes 20 performers and an orchestra of a dozen musicians, under the musical direction of Cody Bray, another Austyn roommate.

Funding for the $5,000 production (the performance site is being provided gratis) is coming from sponsors and donations. The location, of course, is perfect for the musical.

USD’s 167-foot Immaculata Parish was dedicated in 1959, and built in a cruciform shape, with a bell tower topped by a 300-pound cross. The lawn can accommodate 199 seats (heat lamps will be present for the outdoor performance).

“We were originally going to raise funds for the Notre Dame cathedral,” says Austyn, “but the worldwide outpouring was enormous. Instead, we’re raising awareness of the refugee crisis here, and in France. In the show, the Romany people are discriminated against, like so many other refugees these days.

“This is also a good moment to raise awareness about our new theater company, and to get our name out there. It’s the beauty of art that brings us together. I want the company to be open to other people with dream properties. This isn’t just my dream any more; it’s our dream.”

What Are the Company’s Future Plans?

“My hope with Living Light Theatre is to do two shows a year for now,” says Austyn. “One in the summer and one in the winter, along with some staged reading and cabarets, as we get ready to do new work as well.”

Musicals on Austyn’s site-specific fantasy list include “Godspell,” “Into the Woods,” “Next to Normal” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Also possible: Shakespeare.

“Danny and Becca Myers and I all have strong background understanding of Shakespeare,” he says, “and how to make him accessible to younger audiences.”

Another commonality: Both Myers fathers are named Jeff.

“This theater company is something that I’ve been working toward since I was 13,” says Austyn. “Now, a decade later, every day a different part of it brings me joy. I’ve always found a lot of creative energy from this city. It’s nice to be able to use that and give back. I wanted to start big, to show what we can do.”

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the inaugural production of Living Light Theatre, will take place at 7 p.m. on January 4, 5 and 6, outside the Immaculata Parish on the campus of the University of San Diego
  •  For tickets ($10 each), information, or to support the production and the new company call  619-356-8004 or visit the website at livinglighttheater.com

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.

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