On February 22, after a year of planning and four months of rehearsals, between eighty and ninety Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School students will take the stage at the Clark Center in Arroyo Grande for two performances of the musical, Beauty and the Beast. For most of the students, ages six through twelve, it will be their first appearance on stage and their first public singing and dancing experience.
One might ask, “What sane person would attempt to prepare eighty elementary school students for such an ambitious undertaking?” The answer, for the fifth straight year, is musical director Angela Nelson, whose lifetime of education, teaching, and performance more than qualifies her for the role. The mother of teenagers and San Luis Obispo High School students, Clio and Max, Angela quickly identified the reward for her: “To see that look on their faces when they realize what they can do.”
Angela was born in Pueblo, Colorado. Her father died “in a horrible construction accident,” Angela said, five months before she was born. “It’s always just been my mom and me.” When Angela was three they moved to Arlington, Virginia, so her mother, Julia Ogden, could attend graduate school at Georgetown University. By the time Angela was eleven, Julia had graduated with a law degree from George Washington University.
“Knowing my father was dead affected every part of my life. It was painful and confusing, but in some ways beautiful because I knew what it meant to lose someone, to hold space for friends and classmates who had that experience.” Julia worked for non-profits, and at the end of her career she was the CEO for Habitat for Humanity in San Luis Obispo County for nine years.
Angela always had an inquiring mind and, early on, “I showed a proclivity for the arts. I loved singing. Learning instruments and reading music came easily. It was a language that made sense to me. Music is the one concept where I’ve been able to hold my voice. Whenever I’ve doubted myself or gone through dark periods, music kept me buoyed.”
After graduating high school in Arlington, Angela attended a music conservatory, Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, where she wrote music, sang, and learned to direct choirs and instruments. “I struggled with low self-esteem as a result of childhood trauma, so criticism was hard for me to take, but my voice and love for music got me through.”
Angela met her husband, Patrick, in 1997 while working on a battle-of-the-bands production, and they married in 1999. With a degree in arts management and vocal performance, Angela saw possibilities in Phoenix, where the L.A. music industry was looking to expand, so they moved there after their marriage. “The music industry didn’t expand to Phoenix, so Patrick went into communications cabling, and I went into nonprofit work, mostly marketing and public relations.”
In 2005, two years after Clio’s birth, Angela and Patrick felt they needed a change, so they sold their house, Patrick sold his share of his business, and they bought an Airstream and went on the road. “Our goal was to visit every state and figure out where we wanted to call home. We loved the outdoors, but we’d never had an RV, so we learned everything while we were traveling.”
They found San Luis Obispo during their journey and decided to move here, where Patrick’s sister had moved for a job at Cal Poly. “The town was beautiful, the schools were good and we didn’t want to go back to the east coast. The trip had been a hair-raising experience, and by the end, I was ready to have an address.” Four months after they settled in SLO, Max was born.
During their travels and after, Angela stopped singing, writing, being creative. She felt she needed to stop “having flights of fancy” about a career in music so that she could help strengthen her marriage and “dive into being a mom.” Patrick owned his own communications cabling company, but by 2011 they decided to split. They were separated for over two years. “We grew up in those years, learned what we could do better as parents and as a couple, and we reunited in 2014.”
While separated, Angela found music again. “I realized that silencing my voice was unhealthy. My kids asked me what was my favorite song and I couldn’t answer them. I didn’t know. I thought, ‘Where am I? Where did I go?’It was my choice to give it up so it was up to me to change it. I found a teacher and started singing again, started redeeming myself.”
Angela’s teacher, Gina Sala, specialized in Kirtan music, Indian call and response folk music that … “Focuses on how it makes you feel and how it connects the whole group,” Angela explained. “It was about singing from your heart, what brings your heart joy. This is what music was supposed to be, the connection of human beings. Music came into my life again.” She would soon become a vocal coach and open her business, Radiance Voice Coaching.
Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School has had an active theater program for almost twenty years. In 2015 the new director of the program, Sarah Rijnen, wanted to expand to include students in more grades and to enlist other experts in the community to assist with music and choreography. Angela was hired as music director for The Lion King, with a cast of 106 K-6 students.
“Sarah and I just hit it off. I was so excited about working with the kids on African chanting. Our teaching philosophies gelled, first and foremost that everyone can sing. I borrow from the methodologies that I learned. The parts I like are the ones that build people up. What do you have to start with? Work from strengths to develop your authentic voice.”
Now in year five, Angela has also worked on Into the Woods, Aladdin and Mary Poppins. This year she is also co-director with choreography director, Josh Ekblon. “We’re really passionate about being experiential. Everyone who auditions gets in. We cast on the talents they have and the talents they can grow, and where those talents best fit in the show. I’m in my pocket as a teacher if I can take you wide and deep.”
Angela enjoys watching the transformation that occurs in the students in the four months from audition to performance, both in those who perform once and those who come back year after year. “We teach them the experience of theater. We have audition workshops so they understand what’s expected of them. We have callbacks so they understand what that looks like. Once rehearsals start, they’re learning acting, singing and dancing skills from go. They learn the whole process of staging a play, right up to a dress rehearsal at the Clark Center on the night before the performance.”
This year’s performances will be at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. “We sell out every year, including the dress rehearsal,” Angela said. Tickets can be purchased online through the Clark Center or at Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School in February.
Angela estimates that she logs about 20 hours a month for eight months and 15 hours a week once rehearsals begins. She receives a stipend, but the real payoff happens when the kids realize “what they’ve accomplished, what they’re capable of. If I can look up at the stage, and all eighty or a hundred kids have that look in their eyes, of ‘Yeah, I did that!’, then I know I’ve done my job, that we did it. That’s the payoff.”