Saudi and Shalyah Fearing were driving around with their parents when they saw the big purple letters of the Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and decided they wanted to check it out.
The Hudson siblings had performed in shows and played in bands at Music Matters in New Port Richey, but it was time for a change.
The siblings received scholarships and began participating in Patel programs this summer. Shalyah's most recent performance was Ursula in The Little Mermaid Jr.
"The people are so nice and welcoming here," said Shalyah, 13, describing her new experience at the Patel. "You can get along with anyone."
Now the siblings go a little deeper with lead roles in the latest Patel production, A Little Princess. The show centers on Sara Crewe, who is separated from her father, and the open-hearted people who help raise her when she is sent to a boarding school in London.
When Sara's father is reported dead and his fortune seized, she becomes a servant at the institution and the headmistress, Miss Minchin, mistreats her. Sara uses her imaginative powers to overcome her obstacles.
Shalyah plays Becky, another servant at the all-girls school who befriends Sara. Because the part requires an British accent, Shalyah watched Pygmalion to get into character. Saudi, 10, plays Pasco, Capt. Crewe's right-hand man who helps Sara escape from the school.
The play posed significant challenges: The actors are in grades 5 through 8 but the material is written for adults and calls for high-ranging vocal numbers. Director Jessica K. Scruggs says this is the most difficult play she has taken on. Scruggs, who moved to Tampa from New York a year ago, has to work with mature themes including parents going off to war, death, spiritual and cross-cultural references and make them relatable for the children.
In one scene, Saudi's character, Pasco, is about to be sold into slavery until Capt. Crewe trades his last source of protection, a gun, for Pasco's freedom.
Saudi and Shalyah grasp the story with maturity and understanding.
"There's an earnestness to them," Scruggs said. "I never have to tell them a direction more than once. They want to do everything perfectly."
The siblings have been active in the arts since they can remember.
Saudi remembers writing a song at age 4, called Break It Down, which he belted out in the meeting room at the Patel Conservatory, despite his shyness.
"I can be really shy, but it's easier to talk when Shalyah is around," he said, turning his head to reveal the star shaved into the side of his hair.
Shalyah agreed: "He's my brother. I love him. It's better when we work together because we communicate well."
At home Saudi and Shalyah are part of a family of 10, with siblings ranging in age from 1 to 14. All are homeschooled.
"We change diapers, feed them, put them to sleep, read lullabies, but it really prepares us for the world," Shalyah said of her responsibilities as one of the oldest.
"The four little ones are like, 'I want to be like Shalyah,' " she added with a laugh, her brown braids bouncing against her pink T-shirt.
"We all have our own talents too. My 14-year-old brother is so athletic, he just jumped on a bike and rode. He just jumped on a skateboard and did that, too. My sister does ballet and is a designer," she said.
"Yes, she even made a dress out of a pillowcase," Saudi chimed in.
Aside from acting, Shalyah plays the piano and sings. She even had the chance to record on The Muddy Apes new album, her first time in a recording studio. Saudi plays the drums, clarinet and also sings. His vocals won him $500 during a singing competition.
Being a part of such an outgoing, creative family has its benefits. But the best part, according to Shalyah, is that, "if the world lets you down, there are seven other people you can count on."
Though the siblings love working together, they both plan to go solo in the future.
"I want to be Bruno Mars-like," Saudi said.
At the end of their interview wtih a Times reporter, Scruggs told them they could go back to the theater for rehearsal.
Shalyah jumped up and said, "Yay, what I've been waiting to do all day."
Arielle Waldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.