When Blanchard Creative Group CEO Jaselyn Blanchard witnessed the local talent in the Las Casas Foundation's program, she was determined to create a brighter spotlight for students looking to pursue a career in performing arts.
Since 1988, the Las Casas Foundation has dedicated its efforts to "the development of the performing arts through education and scholarships and the restoration and preservation of historic theaters," according to its website. In 2009, the nonprofit added an annual scholarship program, which culminates in the Joci Awards, a talent showcase of San Antonio's up-and-coming performing artists.
Every year, the foundation awards scholarships to the tune of $100,000 to student artists based on their performances in approved local high school productions. Las Casas' is the only scholarship program that is strictly talent-based, and awards are given out in singing, dancing, and acting categories.
Blanchard was first drawn to working with the Las Casas Foundation after she attended its annual fundraising gala last spring. Despite attendees' ample enthusiasm and support for the arts program, she quickly began imagining ways to further improve future fundraising efforts.
Why was it that the gala didn't showcase the very talent it was raising money for, she asked herself.
Blanchard recruited some of the scholarship students to entertain the audience at the 2017 gala, which eventually led her to partner with Las Casas to direct and produce the 2017 Joci Awards.
Determined to create a one-of-a-kind awards show that would thrill audiences, Blanchard also aimed to give students the real-life experience of being a professional performer.
“The thing that’s most exciting about all of this is showcasing San Antonio talent in a way that hasn’t been done before," she said.
Blanchard and her producing partner, Tony Award-nominated Christopher Ketner, have racked up numerous producing credits, including several Super Bowls and U.S. Open tennis tournaments, concerts by Carrie Underwood, Usher, Blake Shelton, Ariana Grande, and national tours of renowned musicals such as Elf and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, among others.
Las Casas' Operations Director Doren Fein emphasized the program's short- and long-term benefits.
“We try to build a foundation for students not only to hone their craft, but to improve on life skills that will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” she said. “As long as students have a passion, they are eligible."
Every year, two scholarship students are selected to advance to the National High School Musical Awards. Fein lauded not only the student's talent, but also the dedication and work ethic they display in preparation for their performances.
“You forget these are high school students because they’re so professional, hard-working, and talented," she said. "The scholarship program is to foster the talent of today to [its] full potential.”
Actress Keila Gonzalez didn’t let the fact that she lived several hours away, in the Rio Grande Valley town of Donna, stop her from auditioning for the scholarship program. Her efforts paid off: she was awarded $3,000 in the acting category after performing a dramatic monologue.
“I learned about the Las Casas program through my high school theatre director," she said. "What I like about the foundation is that it presents a financial opportunity to students such as myself to pursue our dreams in theater.”
Performing arts students who don't apply are missing out, she added. “I say to those students who doubt themselves, be bold and invest yourself by applying.”
Travis Anderson of San Antonio won a $4,000 scholarship for his lead performance in NESA’s production of Phantom of the Opera.
“The foundation is wildly beneficial to young performers on many levels," he said. "For one, providing scholarship awards to students like myself helps us ... afford the costs of going to performing arts colleges, most of which are incredibly expensive."
Whereas cities like New York or Los Angeles offer more support and opportunities for performing arts students, scholarships like Las Casas' are few and far between in smaller markets like San Antonio, he added. "The industry professionals that Las Casas brings in for students to work with makes the foundation invaluable."
Darrin Newhardt, a liaison to the local musical theater community, has worked as a musical director on shows at The Playhouse, The Classic Theatre, and the Woodlawn Theatre, among others.
“I really enjoyed the Joci Awards," he said. "I now realize how amazing the local talent is. These kids are talented enough to go to Broadway, and some of the past winners have done so. People should support this because it helps kids in the arts get much needed college scholarships."
Blanchard believes her experiences studying and performing in New York helped prepare her not only as a producer, but as an opportunity provider for the next generation of talent.
“They’re the future. Anybody in this group could be the next Kristin Chenoweth or Idina Menzel," she said. "Their talent will absolutely blow you away.”
News 4 WOAI will be airing a 30-minute special on the Joci Awards and the students involved on June 10th at 6 p.m. To learn more about the Las Casas Foundation, click here.