Theatre people, every single one, can tell you when it happened. When the work of the stage—as viewer or participant—changed their lives.

For Michael Gatzendorfer, it was as a Ballston Spa seventh grader. He was cast as a student reporter in the school’s Troupe production of the 1960 rock and roll musical “Bye Bye Birdie.”

“I will never forget it,” he says, his eyes widening. “I will take it with me to the day I die. It was the first time we were all sitting on the stage together. We were about to begin a full rehearsal of the show. As soon as the lights came on for the first time, I was mesmerized. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve found home.’ Really. I remember that brief moment, just being on the edge of the stage, having those bright lights hit me and thinking, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

“Gatz” is youth programs manager at Proctors Collaborative. He’s been with the organization’s education department since 2013, involved with, among other things, School of the Performing Arts classes; the C.A.S.T. program for student volunteers; Broadway Tech; media and film-making initiatives; art exhibits; and a yearly theatre festival.

He also directs an annual production at Gordon Creek Elementary, his first alma mater, under the auspices of Proctors.

“Everything I do when I walk into Proctors is for the kids,” he says. “That’s my motivation, and no money can buy that. No money can put a smile on a kid’s face.”

But Gatzendorfer’s role in youth theatre, prompted in large part by his younger brother Nic’s urging, stretches much farther back than just the past six years, or the time he spent, in prior teaching positions, at Little Ones Childcare Center in Clifton Park, Guilderland High School, Scotia’s Glen-Worden Elementary and Schenectady ARC.

School was hard for Gatzendorfer, and he feels that his own experiences have helped him relate to young people at all levels.

“I struggled big time in school, and I hated everything about it because of that,” he says.

A stint as Jacob Marley from “A Christmas Carol”, which found Gatzendorfer—who eventually became senior class president—striving to learn the meaning and pronunciation of a typically Dickensian speech, made a fundamental difference.

“It turned my life around, truly. I wanted to do good in school. I wanted to learn. I wanted to read to the best of my ability. By the time I was in tenth grade, I had become declassified because I turned everything around. I don’t know where I’d be today (without theatre).”

Clearly, the stage allowed Gatzendorfer—who was initially fascinated by film—to find a more comfortable way to relate the world. While Nic (“he’s my world, he’s my rock”), pursued acting, Gatz soon trod a backstage path, eventually becoming a producer, director, lighting designer and all-around hand.

He is quick to credit others for helping him along the path, but in conversation it’s plain that Gatzendorfer—so intoed in his youth that he had to briefly wear steel leg braces—is driven by his own desire, néeneed, to be making art and putting it to use.

He spent many years with Schenectady Light Opera Company, beginning at its old State Street location with a 2009 production of Stephen Sondheim’s darkly quirky “Assassins.” He played anarchist steel worker Leon Czolgosz, who shot President William McKinley at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition in 1901, singing “The Gun Song.”

Soon, he was directing large ensemble musicals for the group; he spent six years as technical director; and was named artistic director at the current Franklin Street location for two years.

But Gatzendorfer, 35, who holds a bachelor’s in history from Empire State College, with a theatre minor, is best known for a project quite dear to his heart: the summer Youth Theatre Company with Ballston Area Recreation Commission (which was recently acknowledged in Viola Davis’ book “Corduroy Takes a Bow”).

He launched the program 17 years ago—as a 19-year-old—and has steered it ever since, giving young thespians a chance to experiment, stretch and, in many cases, to become artists themselves.

The early years were tough, with Gatzendorfer surviving his parents’ divorce and navigating budgets, scheduling and egos.

But he forged ahead.

“I just wanted to give the kids what I was given,” he says humbly.

Pursuing his gig at Proctors was actually prompted by BARC students gifting him with a Proctors subscription.

“This summer’s show is going to be ‘Wizard of Oz,’ which I’ve loved since I was a little kid and which I’ve wanted to do for a very, very long time,” he beams.

He’s hoping someone will come out of it equally wide-eyed.

“After reaching over a thousand kids, if I have just one whose life was changed in some positive way, that will be, for me, what it’s all about.”

By Michael Eck 

Proctors publishes The Collaborative. All content featured in the Proctors Collaborative section is written by employees of the organization.