By Wade Coggeshall
AVON — Jeff Van Paris has been active in local musical theater for more than 25 years, much of that in volunteer community groups. Now he's filling a void and sharing his passion with younger generations.
Along with Craig Whitcombe, Van Paris has opened The Biz Academy of Musical Theatre. They're offering dance, voice, and acting classes for youths ages 4 to 18.
"There really is nothing on the westside like this - where you can sing, dance, act, and take lessons year-round," Van Paris said as he walked through his new business, which is at Prestwick Pointe.
The idea for The Biz started a year ago. Van Paris directed a production of "Willy Wonka Jr." for Hendricks Civic Theater that had a cast of 55.
"The kids did really well and had a great time," Van Paris said.
Their parents evidently liked it too. After the production ended, many asked Van Paris when the next youth production was. He didn't have anything scheduled until next summer, when he hosted an annual musical theater camp with his daughter Alex, who graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor's degree in theater. No one else in the area really was offering anything of the sort either.
"The interest is really exploding because the area's growing and kids are being exposed to it more through TV shows like 'So You Think You Can Dance' and 'Glee'," Van Paris said of the performing arts.
Indeed, when he and Whitcombe followed "Willy Wonka Jr." with a production of "Aladdin Jr.," 110 children auditioned. That was a revelation for them.
"I think these kids were ready for the next step," Van Paris said.
Initially he considered conducting classes in churches, but decided he wanted someplace permanent. Van Paris found this location, which is in unit 207 at 5201 U.S. 36, while eating at a nearby restaurant.
It was missing some components, most conspicuously a dance floor. Van Paris installed a rubber floor covering and mirrored walls for this portion of the studio.
"I wanted a place where kids could see themselves," he said. "When you're a dancer, you need to see where (your body) goes for muscle memory." They've also added a separate room for acting lessons and a voice studio. Each part is soundproof so as not to disturb the others.
For now performance classes are only open to youths ages 4 to 18. The Biz does, however, offer fitness and wellness classes for adults.
"We want this place used not just by us," Van Paris said. "We want it busy a lot."
He credits his wife, Jan, for helping on the business side of The Biz. Van Paris and Whitcombe considers themselves the artistic ones.
"We're the right-brainers," Van Paris said. "We start thinking creatively and get off track easily. (Jan) has to keep us focused sometimes."
At 51, the fourth-grade teacher admits that it's a little scary to start a business at this point in his life. But it's work like this that keeps him young.
"I tell people all the time when I'm in a production, I'm in a world of something I love and time goes away," Van Paris said. "I'm in my mode and can't stop."
He wants others to feel the same. The sooner the better, especially when school budget cuts have adversely affected such programs.
"The arts are so important to kids," Van Paris said. "Even if they don't become performers, it gives them confidence and poise that you really can't get anywhere else."
For more information on The Biz, including class schedule, call 386-8969 or visit the website thebiz-academy.com.