Aviva Meyrowitz uses her theater and acting school to help young people build confidence and express their creativity. Ans she has her students dreaming bigger and thinking broader than she ever imagined.
Behind a set of red curtains, a dozen 5- and 6-year-olds sheath plastic swords and adjust their eyepatches and bandanas, desperately trying to keep quiet as they wait to take their places for their performance of the Little Red Pirate. Nervously fidgeting in the wings is a group of 4th- to 6th-graders dressed as Depression-era orphans, in raggedy clothes and “dirt”-smudged faces. A few of them hum “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” while they wait their turn to take the stage. Farther back, several preteens lean awkwardly against the wall, hair slicked back or perched in high ponytails, as they anticipate their chance to hand-jive, sing, dance—and act—to a few big numbers from the musical Grease.
Over the next few hours, some kids will shine like the top of the Chrysler Building, some will forget their lines, and some will sing too loudly into the mics, causing parents in the audience to suppress their giggles. But how much they embody their roles or nail their dance moves is beside the point at Aviva Meyrowitz’s acting school, Lights! Camera! Acting! (LCA). The kids are there to challenge themselves, to express their creativity, and to experience the excitement (and sheer terror) of live theater.
Before they can begin, 36-year-old Meyrowitz steps up to the mic to introduce the show. As always, she thanks her staff and the parents for their support over the past 3 months while each group of kids worked on their performances. Then she talks about the children and how much they’ve accomplished in the short time she’s had them. And that’s when her emotions get the best of her.
Tears well up in Meyrowitz’s eyes because moments like these make all the years it took to build her business and all the late-night hand-wringing so worthwhile. Driving her on was a certainty about how empowering it is to learn how to perform in front of a crowd. It was a belief born out of her personal experience as an awkward 10-year-old girl who found her confidence in acting. In fact, as a child, she barely opened her mouth until she performed “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid at overnight camp. It was a moment that created a seismic shift within Meyrowitz and helped her figure out how to move through the world.
At the start of every acting-class session, hundreds of kids pour into Meyrowitz’s studio in Bucks County for classes in improv, musical theater, and comedy. While some of them have real acting and singing chops, many of them sign up because their parents want an activity that helps draw their children out. As antithetical as it seems, many of these kids are shy. Awkward. Different. And Meyrowitz scoops them all up and teaches them to channel their fear and uncertainty into acting. And along the way to putting on a show, the kids build confidence and a sense of self. “I understand how they feel,” Meyrowitz says. “After that first performance, I felt special, and acting became my thing. My friends say they remember me always having a clipboard. That’s who I was. It felt good. I was a little chubby and a little awkward. I wasn’t the prettiest girl. I wasn’t the most popular. Acting gave me something I could be, and it felt right. And so now I tell these kids, even if you’re different than everybody else, embrace it. Be different.”
Even when Meyrowitz gets choked up introducing the end-of-session productions, it only endears her more to her audience. She offers a watery grin and says, “Thank you for the group-therapy session, but this is really about your kids, these special little people who have worked their hearts out. And without further ado…” She pulls it all together. After all, it’s showtime.
The Old College Try
As a teenager, Meyrowitz performed in every school play and musical she could, and even landed the lead in her high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. The role of Golda offered her an opportunity to show what she could do. Since she went to a big high school in Long Valley, N.J., the drama program was able to bring in an acting coach to help. “I remember we were doing that scene where Golda is in the kitchen ordering her daughters around, and [the acting coach] stopped us and said, ‘You’re not doing the scene. You’re just saying the lines,’” she recalls. “He told me, ‘You’re the mom. You have five daughters. You have nothing. Every day, you’re surviving, and you need to show that.’ He taught us acting.”
After high school, Meyrowitz went on to get a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Rutgers, as well as a master’s degree in education so that she would have a back-up plan. From there, she put her acting skills to the test on the biggest stage—New York City. Between roles in small off-Broadway productions, she waitressed at a restaurant in Hoboken, but she never gained the kind of momentum that leads to long-term success. “I don’t think I ever got the feeling that I was on the cusp,” Meyrowitz says. “I got a couple of auditions at big agencies, but I got tired of hearing, ‘You’re a little too thin to be the friend, but a little too big to be the lead.’ That’s when I started asking whether this was really what I wanted my life to look like.” She knew in the back of her mind that acting wasn’t going to be her path: “Every audition was all about what I looked like, and that didn’t feel right to me.”
Satisfied that she had given an acting career a full-throated effort, Meyrowitz moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to live with her boyfriend (now husband), Sam, with whom she would later build a family. “I don’t have any regrets about my time in New York,” she says. “I tried. I didn’t fail, but I realized it wasn’t right for me. But if you have a real passion and don’t follow it, then you’ll always wonder.”
The Show Must Go On
In 2007, the couple moved to Bucks County, Pa., and Meyrowitz found a job as a kindergarten teacher at a local daycare that gave her the freedom to add acting to the curriculum. The director charged her with developing a summer theater program, and she started dreaming about running an acting school of her own. The idea sent a thrill down her spine.
But it wasn’t until Meyrowitz had a miscarriage that she felt propelled into action. “I was devastated. It changed things for me,” she says. “When I started to feel better, I wanted to start the business I had been daydreaming about.”
In 2009, she set to work looking for a space to launch her business, eventually settling on a dance studio that had available time slots. From there, she worked every marketing angle she could think of. “The mantra of those early days was fake it till I make it,” Meyrowitz says. “I had a logo made. I went to DelVal University’s A Day in Doylestown and talked to hundreds of people. That week I got 350 emails, which eventually turned into 60 students at LCA that summer.”
But behind the scenes, the idea of creating a business was panic inducing, and she nearly retreated on several occasions. “In the beginning, there was so much self-doubt,” she recalls. “I’d wake up one morning and feel awesome and say, ‘I’m totally doing this.’ The next day, I’d wake up and wonder what in the world I was doing. One day, superwoman, and the next day, I was consumed with self-doubt.”
Despite these moments of uncertainty, in the 8 years Meyrowitz has been running LCA, her business has thrived, with hundreds of kids coming through the doors every year for acting classes, birthday parties, and summer camps. Mostly, it’s brought joy to her life, though the stress has been difficult to manage. “Everything about my life and my business has been totally organic,” she explains. “At times, I’ve lost money. At times, I’ve made mistakes. But I’ve always kept positive people around me, and I have a supportive husband who always treated this like something important.”
The unwavering support of her family, her staff, her friends, her daughters—7-year-old Lilah and 3-year-old Sadie—and especially her husband is more important than ever, she says. Last spring, Meyrowitz was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called scleroderma that afflicts connective tissue and causes hardening of the skin, blood-vessel problems, and inflammation, and is associated with an overactive immune system. It was a devastating diagnosis—emotionally and physically painful because scleroderma is a lifelong condition with no definitive cure. While the disease has, at times, slowed her down and required her to ask for help and support from loved ones, it’s also reaffirmed the value of what she’s created at LCA and her commitment to it.
But the kids at LCA—including her daughter Lilah—have also cemented Meyrowitz’s certainty that she’s making a difference. Just last summer, she gave the part of Ariel to an incredibly shy young girl in one of her Little Mermaid camps. “She cried on the first day. She was so quiet. Then we heard her sing, and we thought she could be Ariel,” Meyrowitz says. “But the dress rehearsal was a kind of mess, so I took her outside before the show. I told her, ‘Whatever you do out there, it’s going to be OK. Your parents will be so proud of you. I saw something inside of you that is very special, and that’s why I picked you for this.’ And as soon as she walked out on stage, she was a new person. I saw that kid transform and become truly amazing.” Now, Meyrowitz says, that young girl is taking private lessons and believing in herself much more.
“That kind of experience changes you because it helps you see that fear holds you back from being everything you want to be,” she says.
Meyrowitz plans to continue to grow LCA, adding classes and teachers year after year. But she also wants to take her show on the road and have the opportunity to speak to schoolchildren in the region and beyond about the value of acting and improv, which she believes can truly be a life-changing experience. “At the center of my business is always the passion for acting and theater and what it can do for children,” says Meyrowitz. “It’s at the center of what I am. It can help kids be their best selves.”