LAFAYETTE — The Christian Youth Theater is making sure kids know how to make an entrance.

An after-school theater arts training program for ages 4-18 that was founded in 1981, CYT has become the largest such organization in the country, enrolling 18,000 students annually. Lafayette and Baton Rouge are two of 40 locations in 26 different cities.

“We learned about the program from my brother, whose children were involved in CYT Houston,” said Go Media owner Gerald Broussard, also executive director and founder of CYT Lafayette. “I have three daughters in dance, and they lit up watching the children singing and dancing.”

Broussard felt like Lafayette needed family oriented theater that provided a safe environment and content.

“We use theater as a tool to help kids in life — Christian first, youth second, theater last. It’s to help them have a spiritual foundation, present themselves better and be more confident,” he said.

There’s a basis for Broussard’s beliefs. According to IBM, a survey of global CEOs found they view creativity as the most important leadership quality for the future. A significant number of studies on arts education and specifically the theater experience report correlations between thinking on one’s feet, effective communication and collaborating as a team. Social and cognitive scientists cite the development of empathy in youngsters.

CYT Lafayette offers three 10-week sessions — fall, winter and spring — that teach drama, voice and dance, as well as specialty workshops and summer camps. Students have the opportunity to audition, perform and work behind the scenes in a Broadway-style musical performed for the public.

Preschool teacher and Bayou Church member Lauren Keating directs "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," with performances Feb. 3-4.

“It’s been quite a learning experience,” she said. “It’s a very strong show and requires a lot musically and acting-wise.”

Based on Victor Hugo’s novel and the Disney animated feature, Keating describes the stage musical as darker and more mature.

“People make assumptions, and we want to make sure the message we send is the right one. The material may raise some eyebrows — yes, there are hard themes — but the main message is Christ-like. Humans have faults, do unto others," she said. "It’s not super-in-your-face, but the morals are there.

“The best thing to watch is real character development. We pride ourselves on a positive environment, but it’s also good theater. It emanates on the stage.”

It also emanates from 15-year-old understudy Emma Guidry, learning the lines for male character Clopin Trouillefou.

“That was actually a big surprise. That’s going to push me out of my comfort zone. I need to practice my manly voice,” she said with a laugh.

Guidry, who plays a gypsy also, says the best part is watching the show build.

“We think we’ll never be ready for this, and it always comes together," she said.

Her mother Amy is helping with sets.

“Emma shines her light on stage,” she said. “She was never one to try out for sports, so we’re glad for this outlet. I can’t even express my gratitude.”

Emily Roy is directing a cast of 72 under age 12 in "The Lion King," also in production for performances Feb. 22-25. A former CYT actor herself, Roy says the children are pros and, yes, they’ll sing “Hakuna Matata.”

“They sing quite a few songs in African,” she said. “It’s phenomenal what they can do.”

Costuming is a creative combination of bought and homemade.

“There’s a lot of Pinterest involved,” Roy said.

Roy has a team that assists her — a wardrobe mistress, music director, choreographer, stage managers and light crews.

“It’s a huge group effort,” she said. “We try to have a higher standard to give to Lafayette. It can be done.”

Show coordinator Brandy Batiste, whose son Kylan Williams will play one of the Simbas, says it’s more than environment.

“It’s a physical interaction with Christ at work. There’s a devotion before every show. They see it being done,” she said.

“There’s a little pressure, but it’s an honor to play the lead,” said 12-year-old Kylan Williams, a student at St. Genevieve, who aspires to appear on Broadway.

Christian Youth Theater in Lafayette

WHAT: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

WHEN: 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4

WHERE: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Angelle Hall

WHAT: The Lion King Jr.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Feb. 22-24; 2 p.m. Feb. 24-25

WHERE: The Grand Opera House of the South, 505 N. Parkerson Ave., Crowley

TICKETS/INFO:, (337) 258-2349

Christian Youth Theater in Baton Rouge

WHAT: Disney's "The Little Mermaid'

WHEN: 10 a.m. Thursday, March 8; 7 p.m. March 8-10; 2 p.m. Saturday, March 10; 3 p.m. Sunday, March 11

WHERE: LSU Shaver Theater, Music & Dramatic Arts Building, Dalrymple Drive