ST. PETERSBURG — The Royal Theatre Arts Academy is a greenhouse for young artists, a place where they can learn, play, perform and hone their budding talents.
It's also now home to the first artist in residence working within the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast, Alexander Harris.
Harris and his five brothers make up A7, an inspirational soul music group. In addition to being the driving force and lead singer of the group, Harris is also a classically trained vocalist and professional stage actor.
Originally from Manchester, Ga., he comes to the Royal Theatre after attending Boston University and Harvard University and founding 360 Creative Arts, a student and artist alliance aimed at inspiring academic success and artistic development.
His main job at the Royal Theatre will be to lead and develop a similar program, the Senior Conservatory, a group of area high school students who are also talented artists, singers, poets and dancers.
The Senior Conservatory was founded last year and has about 17 students from area high schools. They come to the theater to develop their artistic skills, but also to learn about other steps to adulthood like leadership abilities and the importance of a secondary education.
"I want to make sure parents understand that it's not just arts, it's also education," said Harris, who is focused on helping his students transition to college. "It's my intent through my time here to encourage that academic development piece."
Harris has plans to integrate the Senior Conservatory with some of the institutions he is affiliated with, like the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and Boston University. He also hopes to develop an exchange program with a music institute in Seoul, South Korea.
The Senior Conservatory students also perform, and Harris is helping them prepare for A Royal Holiday tour. The tour begins in November and proceeds will go toward the theater's Art Scholars Fund, a scholarship fund that sends Senior Conservatory students to prestigious performing arts and music schools for summer training camps.
The students have taken note of Harris' approach and its impact on the program since he took over in mid September.
"It was a substantial base, but it had nowhere near the definition that it has now, and the goals, you can tell he has a vision," said Blaine Krauss, a senior and performing arts major at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.
Shanoah Washington, 16, attends Osceola Fundamental High School and is a member of the theater's Poetic Coll'age Youth Society poetry group. She said Harris has brought a new level of professionalism to the program.
"He teaches us more about the business aspect of our art," Shanoah said. "We're no longer just friends inside the Royal, we're trying to work as colleagues now and we have to be more professional about what we do."
Harris is also leading recruitment efforts.
"We're working toward 40 students next summer that typically would not have this type of support in both the arts and education," said Herbert Murphy, the Royal Theatre's director.
Murphy and Harris are looking to double the number of high school students and recent grads by next year, and auditions are being held weekly.
"We really don't turn anyone away. We try to help them discover their strengths," Harris said.