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‘Ensemble before ego’: Behind the success of Dru Rabin’s theater school

Bill DeYoung



St. Pete MAD founder Dru Rabin, at right, working with students on a technique called Energy Gestures, "to develop each actor's character power pose, which becomes a tool to get into character and give them a root physical posture to branch from." From left: Students Bailey Sheridan, Emma Kind and Ayden Barrett. All photos provided.

He’s an educator, an entrepreneur, a corporate consultant and a community activist.

There was a time, though, when Dru Rabin wished for nothing more than to have Jessie’s Girl.

“I wanted to be Rick Springfield,” confesses the founder and artistic director of the performing arts academy St. Pete MAD (Music, Acting, Dance). “That was the bottom line. He was a pretty cool guy back in the day.”

Not only a spirited, good-looking rock ‘n’ roller with hit records, he was a respected actor (on the soap opera General Hospital). Girls threw themselves at him.

All very appealing to a young Louisianan who sang, played a little piano and a little guitar, and acted in community theater productions.

The rock-idol thing never worked out, but Rabin has been able to channel his inner Rick Springfield through MAD, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2024. Employing a diverse teaching team of instructors, all with formal college training, professional recording and performance experience, industry awards and accolades or a combination thereof, MAD has worked with, and graduated, scores of young performers in summer, spring and fall programs. Among Rabin’s key tenets: “Community above competition, honor process over product, ensemble before ego.”

He beams with pride when he talks about it. “It’s just amazing to see the skill-building. And the community-building.”

In 2022, St. Pete MAD had 482 student enrollments, and more than 2,500 people attended 18 performances.

And things are looking even better. For the first time in the company’s history, everything – auditions, classes, rehearsals, performances and general community-building – will happen under a single roof. In August the Sunflower School, 5313 27th Avenue S. in Gulfport, invited Rabin and the MAD gang to share the space.

That means, among other things, no more bouncing between different rehearsal spaces, and no more paying rent for a performance theater the company couldn’t even get inside until three or four days before opening night. That made building sets something of a logistical nightmare. “It was insane,” Rabin confesses. “It was burning people out.”

He calls having their own facility “a game-changer. It takes away so much of that extra logistics, which there is a lot of in the arts. This lets us now be more focused on the actual mission, and that’s serving our students and their families, and the community, through these arts experiences.”

“Mean Girls Jr.” was the Summer 2023 production from St. Pete MAD’s Encore Cast (ages 13 through 18).

The performing bug bit him as a small child. “The Harlem Globetrotters came through on a mall tour,” Rabin remembers. “They’d hype people up, give away some free tickets … I was 5 or 6 years old and Meadowlark Lemon pulled me from the crowd and spun basketballs on my head. When people got excited and cheered, I knew that it was for me.”

His mother, a professional stage actress, was encouraging. “The arts, he says, “were always my passion, my pursuit. I’m a singer; my run was to be in a band and go on the road.” Which he did, for a while between high school and college.

“Then I had everybody in my ear, telling me I had to get a real job and be serious about school and study. So I kind of backed away from it and did what everybody said.”

He holds a master’s degree in Education, another master’s in Recreation Marketing and Management, and a BA in Design.

Between 2008 and ’16, Rabin worked as Senior Learning Strategist, Business Development & Acquisitions for Booz Allen Hamilton, a Tampa-based consulting firm. He and his wife Jenine made their home in Washington, D.C. She was Campaign Director at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Rabins also have two daughters, which is why they left Washington in 2011 for Pinellas County. They simply didn’t want to raise their girls in a big urban city.

And here, Dru combined his two life passions.  “I’ve always loved teaching and coaching,” he says (he also coached high school football in D.C.).  “My mom was a ‘dame of the stage,’ but she ended up being a teacher and administrator in a township in New Jersey. And her mother came over from Scotland and became a teacher. So I am a third-generation educator.”

In 2012, Jenine became Executive Vice President of All Children’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, a position she holds to this day.

Both daughters were interested in performing arts, and Rabin wasn’t happy with what he found here, at the time, in the way of as far as arts curriculum and training for young children. “It initially started as a studio in Seminole with private music lessons. I was not a franchise, but it was like School of Rock. Then we expanded to a full performing arts center down on 1st Avenue S.” MAD’s curriculum included, and includes, classes in music, acting and dance (MAD).

He says he demands a lot from the MAD staff. “We are a team of educators,” Rabin explains. “I’ve always believed organizations are only as good as their people. My instructors have to be of the quality, both in character and skill, that I would have them teach my own kids. And that was kind of the recipe. To paraphrase Mother Theresa, you do small things and you do them great.”

In 2020, as the pandemic was raging, Rabin co-founded the St. Petersburg Food Truck Convoy with Blake and Amanda Clark of Radius Church. They delivered meals to homebound families not eligible for the free meals provided by Pinellas County Schools.

“I am a social entrepreneur,” he explains. “So the projects that I take on, I try to do so that they have good for the community. That’s really as the heart of our family. We feel very committed to serve the community. And, for both of us, young people.”

Rabin also works as a “performance consultant” for corporate clients, operating very similarly to the way he approaches his MAD curriculum.

“We all do better when we’re having fun,” he says. “I believe in work first, and I actually believe that you can present it so that it’s fun, and people want to do it. We get into that psychological state they call flow, and we forget how much time we have left because we’re super into what we’re doing.”

At MAD, he explains, “We gamify a lot of our curriculum, so that our students are constantly being challenged with exercises, activities and what seem like games. Which is beautiful in drama.

“The way I come at the things we do is very much like a project management approach. We have deliverables. We have three legs to it. And I think that’s very much a part of why we’ve been successful and built the kind of culture we’ve built.”

St. Pete MAD is currently in rehearsals for The Addams Family: A New Musical, the November production. For details on this, and the program itself, visit the website here.

Spring 2022: The Bravo Cast (ages 8-12) in “101 Dalmations.”





















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