When Sandra Webster-Worthy first came to the Sooke School District with her background in dance, a degree in theatre arts, and training as a high school drama teacher, she was determined to make a difference.
She saw the availability of existing theatre arts for the division’s students and realized that a broader platform was needed – one that would engender a love of music and theatre and build confidence and skills that would last a lifetime.
“In traditional high school musical theatre, and amateur theatre in general, if you’re not already good, you won’t get a part. At best you’ll get stuck in the back, in the chorus, while the stars are centre stage,” Webster-Worthy said.
“I wanted something different; something better. I wanted to open up a program for all ages and abilities where young people could grow and find their unique genius as they learn and develop.”
That’s when the Program for Academic and Creative Enrichment (PACE) was born.
It’s a program that has operated under the umbrella of the school division and, twice a year, has staged two spectacular musical reviews to sold out houses at the Isabelle Reader Theatre. The program, since 2017, has operated as an academy for what Webster-Worthy describes as purely administrative reasons.
It provides students in grades eight to 12 school credits for their work in the program and, although there are arguably less time-consuming ways to earn those credits, the students will tell you that they do it for the love of the program. The same is true of the scores of students from kindergarten to Grade seven who, though they do not receive school credits, nonetheless give up countless hours for practices and rehearsal, simply for the love of PACE.
“When I started the program in 1986, I went to the musical revue format so everyone who cared to participate would have the chance to perform. The philosophy was, and is, that no matter what your natural talent may be, you’ll be given a chance to shine at some point in the program. Everyone gets their time at the front of the stage and you never know which of those kids are going to surprise you,” Webster-Worthy said.
She recalled one young man, five years ago, who had been with the program for a few years and had never really stood out.
“One day I heard this little voice during a rehearsal and took him aside and asked him to sing a solo. We worked with him a bit and, that year, when he sang Oh Holy Night at the Christmas show, he brought the house down. It was amazing. And I’ve seen that over and over again. The young people in the program blossom in their own time and every one of them discovers the magic inside their soul. Every one of them will have their moment, and it’s a moment they’ll remember forever.”
But the true magic of the PACE program is something even more intangible.
Webster-Worthy has created a community; one in which the 350 to 400 student participants are supported by a veritable army of parents, grandparents, and volunteers who are as close to one another as any family could be.
“The program couldn’t operate without these wonderful people’s support. They make it happen and they are truly like a family, responding to tragedies and challenges within the group. They support one another, and treat every young person in the program as one of their own,” Webster-Worthy said.
“We have a group of 400 cast members, from four year olds to young adults in Grade 12 and we never have a discipline problem. We have cast members with special needs who are seamlessly accommodated and who blend into the group without any problem. And we have the older students taking the young ones under their wing as “little buddies” and guiding them through their early years. Some of those relationships last forever.”
Webster-Worthy’s son, Calum Worthy, regularly returns to help MC the spring PACE concert, even though he now enjoys a successful career as an actor, writer and producer in Los Angeles.
“He was born in 1991 as we were working on the spring show. We had production meetings in my hospital room and, when I returned to rehearsals a few weeks later, Calum was in his basket under the production table,” recalled Webster-Worthy with a chuckle.
Calum regularly jokes about having been born in the wings of the theatre, but credits much of his success to the program. He also counts some of the his PACE friends as his closest and most enduring friendships.
“This program is about everyone being able to participate. We have never excluded anyone who couldn’t pay the minimal fee and we never will. And we’ve never told anyone they weren’t good enough,” Webster-Worthy said.
“And, oh sure, we could go to a format where students would have to audition, and have us select only the most accomplished performers, but we never will. If we did that, the program would lose its soul. It’s not what we are about.”