AURORA | A lot has changed in the Gateway High School theater department since Michael Kingsbaker was a student there nearly 20 years ago.
There have been expected, pedestrian adjustments, like the departure and addition of staff, and slight tweaks made to when in the year productions take the stage.
But there have also been fundamental metamorphoses in the quality and caliber of Gateway theater. For Kingsbaker, who is a Gateway alumnus, the most notable change has been where in the Aurora school the department’s two or three annual productions take place.
“This place is … wow,” Kingsbaker said during a recent visit to the school’s professional-quality auditorium.
The school constructed the theater space, which can house more than 500 patrons, in the mid-2000s — several years removed from Kingsbaker’s graduation in 1998. When he was a student at Gateway, productions were set on a retractable stage in the school’s hectic commons area.
“It was different type of feel when I was a student. They had lights and things and made the most of it, but it’s certainly a different game over there now.”
Despite the improved amenities, there is one aspect of student life at Gateway that remained unchanged since Kingsbaker, now 35, was a spry 17-year-old cruising the halls: The desire of dozens of budding actors, singers, set designers, directors and writers to pursue a career in show business.
And that’s why Kingsbaker returned to Gateway last week.
Kingsbaker stopped by Gateway on Feb. 10 to speak to several classes of drama students in an attempt to shed some light on what led him from Aurora to a successful acting career in both Los Angeles and New York City, and how he managed to break into the notoriously guarded industry. He has been back in his hometown this winter to act in a local production with Curious Theater company entitled, “Sex with Strangers,” which is running in Denver through Feb. 20. Now a nearly full-time resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., Kingsbaker manages The Shelter, a Manhattan-based, off-Broadway theater company he helped co-found in 2009.
While talking to an array of theater and choir classes at Gateway last Thursday, Kingsbaker touched on myriad topics tethered to the entertainment industry — from how to find local agents to his favorite movie of the summer.
One of Kingsbaker’s biggest points of emphasis was encouraging students to provide themselves options for life after high school — a luxury he wasn’t afforded upon finishing at Gateway when he was just 17 years old.
“I got into lot of trouble and I wasn’t the best kid around,” he said. “I was lazy and figured everything was going to go my way. Because of that, my options were limited.”
A self-described trouble maker, Kingsbaker didn’t have the grades to make it in college, so upon graduating from Gateway, he moved to Los Angeles and began working as an actor in commercials. Soon after arriving in L.A., Kingsbaker said that his naive, rose-colored view of the industry quickly wore off.
“It’s kind of like getting hit in the face when you’re the precocious, kind-of-talented kid going out to New York or L.A. because every precocious kid from every small town in America is in those cities and a lot of them are more talented and better looking than you,” he said. “Really all you can control is how you prepare for that. I kind of got hit int he face by seeing how hard kids were working, and, frankly had to play a bit of catch up. In the end, it’s just figuring out how you stay in the game.”
In order to prepare for the rough road of pursuing professional art, Kingsbaker urged current Gateway students to get involved with clubs, sports and pursue internship and apprenticeship opportunities at local theaters like the Aurora Fox Arts Center.
“Get involved with everything, do every club and find different ways to get inspired,” he told the students. “It’s great if you can find ways to get out of the state, but be sure to do as best as you can while you’re here so you’re giving yourself some more options.”
He added that many theater companies are in the throes of a generational, gray-haired exodus, which is causing theater owners and producers to do anything they can to fill seats with thicker heads of hair.
“I was definitely trying to push them to the theater companies in town and intern and surround themselves with professional working people,” Kingsbaker said. “Theaters are dying to get young people to go to the theater because the whole thing is funded by a bunch of old people and they’re really scared that all of those old people are going to die soon and no one’s going to go to the theater anymore.”
Jarrett Rivera, theater arts director at Gateway, said that he appreciated Kingsbaker’s sentiments regarding the need for students to buckle down and realize that breaking into the theater industry is no easy task.
“He mentioned that he wasn’t on the best track at fist and he realized that other people were kind of passing him, so I think that’s a great reminder for my kids,” Rivera said. “At some point, you have start thinking about what your future’s going to look like and realize that if you’re going to make it in this industry, you have to get your head on straight.”
He added that having his students glean advice from a fellow Oly helped keep the sometimes helium-filled topics relatable.
“The biggest thing that I think is so cool about him coming here is that he went to this school,” Rivera said.
Kingsbaker also attended Tollgate Elementary School and Mrachek Middle School.
Chloe Flynn, a junior at Gateway said that she aspires to teach drama like Rivera, and that she found Kingsbaker’s story inspiring.
“The talk really helped me because I do want to become part of the theater myself,” Flynn said. “It’s more encouraging than anything because I want to become a drama teacher just like Mr. Rivera.”