William Daniel Mills was just 16 when he died in a boating accident in May of 2020. Now his spirit is guiding a program that gives a hand to young people pursuing a future in the arts. The first participants in the Garden Theatre’s William Daniel Mills Apprenticeship Program will present their debut production Feb. 8-9 at the Winter Garden theater. “This is a great representation of him being with us, even without being with us,” said longtime friend C.J. Rosado, a program participant who lives in Yalaha.
Daniel Mills, who went by his middle name, and Rosado attended the Montverde Academy’s Theatre Conservatory together and had known each other since elementary-school days. “He was a kid you suspected was a nerd — quiet and laid-back — but when you got to know him it was like ‘That’s the smartest guy in the room right there,’” said Rosado, now a Montverde senior.
At Montverde, Daniel earned awards and honors for his performances in shows such as “Mamma Mia,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “She Loves Me” and “Into the Woods.” After Daniel’s death, his parents wanted to honor his memory — and his passion for theater. Harold and Rosy Mills approached the Garden Theatre with the idea of an apprenticeship program with an eye on diversifying the arts. The theater’s leaders jumped at the chance. “This was an opportunity for us to create the next generation of artists,” said Nick Bazo, education director at the theater.
Roberta Emerson had taught Daniel at Montverde Academy before joining the Garden Theatre as its associate artistic director. “He was an incredible young man. … He never stopped asking questions and seeking fulfillment and was the definition of a true artist,” she said when the program was announced in April of 2021. “I hope that through this wonderful program, other students can realize what it means to seek truth through art in the way that Daniel strived to do.”
The theater received almost 100 applications for the chance to attend classes, observe professional rehearsals and participate in other learning experiences at no cost to them; 30 between ages 13 and 22 were selected after interviews or auditions, Bazo said. The apprentices could focus on specific theatrical areas, from acting to technical and design work to education. But the program also offered experiences in playwriting, the business side of the arts, choreography and theme-park-style design. When Tony-winning actress Kelli O’Hara visited the Garden in September, she held a master class with the apprentices. “We’re trying to give them the full breadth of the theater world,” Bazo said.
In addition, the apprentices had the opportunity to pursue paying gigs on Garden Theatre productions. In the past two months, apprentice Matthew Zenon understudied the role of Martin Luther King in the theater’s acclaimed production of “The Mountaintop” and played the part in a performance. “I like making the connections,” said Helena Sanchez, a Rollins College graduate who shadowed the theater’s box-office manager and served as apprentice stage manager for the Garden’s holiday-season production of the musical “Big.” “That’s really important to me.”
Nicholas Querino, a senior at Olympia High School in southwest Orlando, sees the benefit of the program’s comprehensive approach to theater training. “People who do theater, we have to learn as much as we can,” said Querino, who was part of the acting ensemble in “Big.” While Querino has performed in musicals such as “The Little Mermaid” and “Chicago” at his high school, he’s new to devised theater — a practice in which the performers themselves come up with a show’s concept and script. “16 Chairs,” the program’s inaugural production, will be a devised-theater work. The apprentices have drawn on their own experiences to create a show about the search for personal identity — and, how a community can support that self-discovery. It’s right up Sanchez’s alley. “I love devised theater,” she said. “I’ve always liked experimental theater.”
The supportive nature of devised theater is also appropriate in light of Daniel Mills’ personality, Rosado said. “He would be blunt with you when you were freaking out, he would lift you when you weren’t feeling great, he would push you to go further,” said Rosado, who also remembered Daniel’s “kind heart” and “quick wit.”
“In my head, this has been a final goodbye to him,” Rosado said. “It’s touching to experience all these kids here growing their knowledge of theater under Daniel’s name.”