Arts program sets stage for students to entertain different career paths

Story by Janie Magruder
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine

Whoever said, “Opportunity knocks but once,” was never a student in the College of Fine Arts and Production at Grand Canyon University.

Now in Year 6 since resurrecting its theatre and music programs after a four-year closure, the college is peppering students with myriad chances to learn everything in their respective arts fields, which now also include dance, digital film, digital design and advertising design.

It’s rare to find a COFAP graduate who can’t tap-dance, sew a seam, build a set, memorize lines, demonstrate perfect pitch, light a stage, direct other students, choreograph, make a film, design a web page and style Bride of Frankenstein hair — or at least hasn’t had occasions to try.

“This is a laboratory of education that has a public audience,” said Dean Claude Pensis, who started and was a leader of the arts program for 20 years before it was shuttered in 2006 because of the University’s economic woes. The administration reopened it in 2010, with Pensis at the helm.

“The goal is to work with students in such a way that minimizes shortcomings that may occur, while maximizing their successes,” he said.

Pensis said COFAP has been blessed with talented, smart, hard-working students who are drawn, at least in part, because of the reputation the University has built for its commitment to Christian values, educational excellence, expanded athletics and a heart that beats loudly for the community and the world.

“People from other educational institutions or other theatres remark that there’s a buzz here, an excitement, and that extends to the arts program,” Pensis said. “There’s an electricity around what’s going on.”

And growth: At the April 2016 commencement, more than 160 COFAP students are expected to graduate, a twentyfold increase over five years ago.

They will face a challenging job market, but there is hope and precedent. GCU’s 2015 theatre and dance education graduates fielded multiple offers from schools, its musicians and actors are working onstage and backstage, and its film students are transferring their skills to jobs in journalism — yes, journalism!

Let’s meet five of them:

Maria Anderson, teacher, Verrado High, Buckeye

 When COFAP’s doors swung back open in 2010, Maria Anderson was among the 30 students who walked in.

“You needed to do everything — build sets, be in the shows and get great grades,” Anderson said. “The seniors said you had to keep pushing on what they’d started, and so there was definitely a sense of pressure to let the program bloom.”

Anderson acted in shows, directed other students and was a founding member of Alpha Psi Omega, the honorary theatre fraternity.

GCU alum and theatre instructor Michael Kary assured Anderson she would find her calling, and he was right: teaching. She did her student teaching in Paradise Valley High’s drama program, which was built by COFAP alumna Joan Colson, applied for dozens of teaching jobs, and had three offers before graduating in 2014 with a theatre education degree. Anderson chose the young drama department at Verrado High in Buckeye, Ariz., where in addition to teaching classes she directs three plays a year and is the improv coach, afterschool director and auditorium manager.

“That’s the beauty of this program and what I’m trying to bring to my program. They teach you to be a successful artist, whether you get into a show or not,” said Anderson, 23. “There are still 20 other things you can do. You’re always employable.”

Jeff Dykhuizen, videographer, 1013 Communications, Phoenix metro area

Jeff Dykhuizen never attended journalism school, but you wouldn’t know it by watching him work. Dykhuizen, who produces stories for the East Valley Tribune and the Daily News-Sun, soaked up technical knowledge from his COFAP experience and good story skills as a GCU Today student worker.

“I got a lot of hands-on training at GCU,” said Dykhuizen, 28, a 2014 digital film graduate. “I had really good people around, and I watched and listened and learned.”

He was researching film degree options online when he noticed GCU’s programs. Enrolling as a junior, he wasted no time drawing attention to his work. A film on which he collaborated, “Zoey,” earned the best picture award at a GCU Film Festival and also won him best director at a 48-Hour Inter-School Film Challenge.

As a professional videographer, Dykhuizen often works alone, fanning out across the Valley, camera, bag and notepad at the ready. Among his favorite stories (viewable at are the Miss Senior Arizona pageant, a Luke Air Force Base fighter jet pilot and Phoenix Zoo elephants.

His fearless approach to film often is seen in journalists.

“I look at every single point as a potential pitfall, and that keeps me on my toes. I feel incredibly lucky and a sense of obligation to get it right,” Dykhuizen said.

Gavin Ely, master’s student in choral conducting, University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music, Tucson

Gavin Ely dabbled in Spanish, pre-med and biology before figuring out that music was his purpose, and he could find it at GCU.

Ely mesmerized audiences with his tenor voice in the Ethington Theatre opera, “H.M.S. Pinafore,” and in four other big plays there. He sang in three GCU choral groups and held leadership roles in two choir organizations.

A busy life — Ely and his wife, Cadie, have three children ages 3 and under — got even busier after he graduated with a vocal performance degree in April. He’s enrolled in the master’s program in choral conducting at the University of Arizona, from which he intends to graduate in 2017.

Ely, 27, largely credits COFAP’s faculty for his success. Pianist Mark Fearey “knows everything, plays everything and is a fantastic role model.” Dr. Juan Hernandez, COFAP’s assistant dean and director of music, “knows the music and its historical setting.” Dr. Sheila Corley, a GCU vocal instructor, helped him decide to become a conductor.

In Tucson, Ely has soloed with the University Community Chorus and sung with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra Chorus, among others.

“Vocally, my education definitely gave me the skills and confidence to really go for it, to not be afraid, to not hold back,” he said.

Devyn Garrett, Carpenter, Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

Devyn Garrett grew up working in her grandparents’ hardware stores in Tucson, but until she came through COFAP, she didn’t know how to use even a hammer.

Not a problem now for the new carpenter at Phoenix Theatre. Garrett, 23, started there in August, a few months after graduating with a theatre degree, and has since worked on “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Toxic Avenger” sets.

College theatre was eye-opening for Garrett, who acted with Christian Youth Theatre as a teen. She dove into Ethington’s set design shop and auditioned for a small role in “A Christmas Carol.”

“It was so humbling,” she said. “It made me realize how important every role, every entrance is.”

Garrett grew as an actor, delivering a memorable performance as Ado Annie, the incorrigible red-haired flirt in COFAP’s big “Oklahoma!” last spring.

She also learned to hammer, sew, light and do basic electrical work. She can even tap dance, which will pay off later this month when she fills in for GCU dance senior Corinne Tachuk at two shows at Theatre Artists Studio in Scottsdale.

Garrett was Phoenix Theatre’s first intern, a program established by COFAP assistant dean Bill Symington. With his pull and her skills, it’s no surprise she was snapped up when a job opened.

Her backstage workspace is piled high with pieces of wood and metal, tools and enough sawdust on the floor to make you sneeze. “I love that I get to wake up and come here,” she said.

Cori Hailmann, teacher, Raymond S. Kellis High, Glendale

 Some of the 80 students in Cori Hailmann’s dance classes at Raymond S. Kellis High knew very little about dance when they first came to the studio. That’s OK, because she didn’t start dancing until high school, either.

“I tell my students, I don’t care if you are the best dancer in here, but if you are the hardest worker in here, you are going to be successful,” said Hailmann, 23, who graduated in April with a dance degree and seven job leads.

Hailmann worked hard at GCU, catching up with other students who had years of dance experience, performing in and choreographing shows. She was concerned about the job market before graduation, but the faculty was always encouraging.

“They said, ‘There are options out there,’” she said. “‘Don’t think about what you can’t do, think about what you can do.’”

Hailmann carefully observed Susannah Keita, dance department director, and other professors during her time at GCU.

During a recent class, she demonstrated her way with students as they warmed up with yoga stretches and jumping jacks. That day, she’d had to inform students whether they’d made it into an upcoming performance.

“I’m proud of every single person in here,” Hailmann told them. “Come talk to me so I can tell you what you can do to modify your dance and try again. Please, please, please re-audition. It’s always better the second time.”

After all, opportunity always knocks more than once.

Contact Janie Magruder at (602) 639-8018 or [email protected]


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