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08/23/2023 06:46 AM

AJ Belbusti: The Stage is the Place to Be

AJ Belbutsi sees that theater is inspiring for both himself and others who want to pursue their passions. Photo by Aaron Rubin/The Courier

One of the most meaningful aspects of participating in the performing arts is allowing kids to exercise their talents when their interests may not align with those of their peers. On top of that, there is the satisfaction of doing with others who feel the same way. Spotlight Stage Company performer AJ Belbutsi sees that in himself and his fellow actors.

“I don’t really like sports or anything like that, so theater is kind of my thing.”

AJ played the role of Prince Charming in Spotlight’s recent youth production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, his first lead role after now being with the North Haven stage company for four years. Given his time with the group, he felt it was time to climb the ladder and take on the exciting challenge of landing a lead role.

“It’s my first time getting a lead role, so it’s really big for me, and it’s really fun, too,” AJ says. “I’ve done shows before; I figured maybe it’s time for my first lead.”

But regardless of what role he has played in past productions, the support and camaraderie felt amongst the cast is one of the reasons that has kept him with Spotlight for a few years.

“It’s a lot of fun this entire process. It’s why I’ve done it over and over again with all these different shows,” AJ says. “Everybody gets along with each other; we talk whenever we can, joke around. We also helped each other rehearse. Me and...Kobe, the one who plays the king; we practice our lines with each other all the time. It kind of helps make a bond, too.”

Theater gives AJ the chance to fully express himself and hopefully inspire others, including kids his age along the way.

“It’s kind of a form of expression. You can really show your talents, what you can do, to a wide audience of people who maybe don’t know you so they can see…all these kids, they can really do something.”

He points to actor Jack Black as inspiration in being oneself.

“He puts so much into every role, and it’s just really inspiring, seeing that could be me one day. It could be any of the people here one day. It’s just him being him. No matter what role he’s doing, he’s being himself.”

When it comes to preparing for a role, AJ plays the memorization game for his lines and is something he practices at any time of the day or night.

“I just read it and memorize it. I’ll reread a line over and over again until I memorize it.

I’ll be alone in my room, just start singing the song, put on the music, just whenever I can. Sometimes I’ll just be laying in bed, and I’ll say my lines to myself—just make sure I got to keep drilling them, get them memorized.”

But his process for getting into roles is not limited to memorization. AJ also enjoys creating backstories for his characters and Prince Charming in this year’s production. It helps him better connect with his role, their background and motivations, and how those shift as the musical progresses.

“I’ll put myself in his shoes and think about what’s going on with him, why he’s doing this, why he’s saying these lines, what he’s trying to get across,” says AJ. “He’s always been very proper because he’s royalty. When he meets this girl, it’s all just thrown away because he’s still in love. It’s all just completely gone, everything he’s always known because of this girl.”

AJ sees a difference in delivery when switching between acting and singing modes. While one is a bit more strict in how lines should be delivered, the other provides more free territory for expression and drama.

“Sometimes when singing, you really have to just stick to the vocal parts of it. But with acting, you can just put so much energy into each line. No matter which line it is, you can always put something special into it.”

AJ has taken Spotlight’s audition classes since he became a part of the company.

“It got me used to performing in front of people, so now it’s kind of no big deal for me to go on stage and start dancing.”

Like his co-lead, Kiana Stevens, AJ took voice lessons with Michelle Bonavena at Performing Arts Studio BE.

“She’s a huge inspiration. I’ve been with her for a year or two. My dad too. We listen to music all the time together.”

AJ has found a sense of belonging at Spotlight and in its productions like Cinderella and hopes that audiences who attend performances recognize the talent of the young performers. It’s why he got into theater in the first place.

“I’d say just the talent of everybody here...The reason I started theater [is] I saw my older sister doing it when I was younger. I started just following my older sister’s footsteps. Just seeing other people on stage performing can really give somebody an idea, ‘Hey, I want to do that.’ And that’s really one of the main reasons I do theater. It can help other people find that passion.”