Gavilan apprentices get course credit for theater arts in full-scale show

Nicole King Yarbrough as “Ariel” and Ken Christopher as “Prince Eric” in the production of “The Little Mermaid.” Photo courtesy Portraits by Rebecca

By Kaylee Arca

Something fishy is happening at Gavilan College’s theater stage. Local performers guide audiences under the sea to an enchanting ocean kingdom in the classic Disney story “The Little Mermaid.”

Opening July 28, the show tells the tale of Ariel, Sebastian, and their aquatic friends embarking on a musical adventure complete with glittering costumes, an enormous sailing ship, and a cast of talented local children and adults bringing the beloved characters to life. The new nonprofit Broadway South Bay, in partnership with Gilroy’s Little Theater Productions, is performing 10 shows over three weekends.

The all-ages Broadway show follows “Ariel,” a young mermaid played by Nicole King Yarbrough, who faces a series of trials after encountering the charming “Prince Eric,” played by Ken Christopher. Falling in love with him changes her life so she longs to enter the land-based human world, which creates problems for the Underwater Kingdom.

“The Little Mermaid” is Broadway South Bay’s inaugural production. The nonprofit is funded by the Christopher Foundation founded last year by Christopher, grandson of Gilroy garlic farmer Don Christopher.

Christopher loved theater as a boy. However, he chose to stop acting at the age of 22 to grow his professional career. In 2022, 15 years after his last theater role, he auditioned for South Valley Civic Theater’s production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” The first in-person production as South Valley emerged from the pandemic, the successful show featured Christopher as “the Beast,” reinvigorating his love of theater.

Nicole King Yarbrough as “Ariel” in “The Little Mermaid.” The Disney-based show opens July 29 and runs through Aug. 13. Photo courtesy Portraits by Rebecca

“I really felt like something was missing and I wanted to get back into the arts,” he said. “We saw all of these kids and families beaming from ear-to-ear seeing ‘The Beast,’ ‘Belle,’ and everything they know come to life from the classic animated tales. After our final curtain call, I knew we had to find a way to support the arts in the South Bay.”

The production includes a cast of 70 local actors ranging from age 6 to 60, and 11 Gavilan student apprentices.

Many of the people who joined the audition workshops had never performed on stage before. This includes the actresses cast as the mer-sisters. They turned out to have incredible, lush voices, Christopher said.

“I’m so happy we can give them that opportunity,” he said.

Broadway South Bay also worked with Dr. John Lawton Haehl, director of Gavilan’s theater arts program, to create an apprenticeship program. Christopher’s main reasons for creating the nonprofit were to continue his passion for theater and create education opportunities for students, bringing out their creativity and energy, Haehl said.

“We wanted this to be more than a fun project,” Christopher said. “We wanted education to be at the core. In partnering with Gavilan, all of their apprentices are also getting course credit for theater arts for learning how to put on a full-scale production.”

Haehl assigned apprentices to different departments, including costume, stage management, lights, sets, and sound.

“The idea was based on old-fashioned medieval apprenticeships, where you learn by working with professionals,” he said. “Most of the students have already taken the technical theater class where they learned the nuts and bolts of production. Now, they are taking what they learned and building actual sets. It’s a chance for students to learn and be paid at the same time.”

The apprentices get hands-on experience and learn everything needed to run a show.

The crew includes Morgan Hill resident and 2023 Gavilan graduate Catherine Drayton and dual-enrolled high school and Gavilan student Phoebe Monger. They learned stagecraft as the show’s costume apprentices. The two helped build the mer-sister crowns. They also alter the costumes to fit the performers. The trove of glittering costumes is on loan from a production company in Texas.

“I love creating something I find beautiful and being part of something bigger than myself,” Drayton said.

“I really love the whole atmosphere here,” Monger said. “It’s a very good company. I love all the singing and dancing. It’s very lively.”

Apprentice stage manager Noxifer Maack has been in theater for almost 10 years. He analyzes the show for mistakes to ensure a seamless performance between all departments.

“It’s great to see all the background work and see the production come together,” he said.

Putting on a complex show with so many elements requires creative coordination from all people involved in the production, Maack said.

“Making sure everyone is on the same page can be difficult. It’s a lot of people to coordinate,” he said.

“The Little Mermaid” serves as an excellent opportunity for South Valley that generally is further away from the theater scene in the Bay Area, he said.

The student and college involvement has been one of the most rewarding parts of the project, Christopher said.

“I see it as the critical tool for future large-scale productions in South County,” he said. “They are fantastic, enthusiastic students who are giving our production their all.”


Kaylee Arca is a Morgan Hill-based freelance writer.