As 40 young actors rehearse in a small garage at a Farmington Hills home on a recent Saturday afternoon, the word "neurofibromatosis" pops into view on the blackboard behind them.
The Actor's Avenue theater troupe, founded and directed by Mel Byrd-Sheatzley, is preparing for a series of shows in April, May and June that will both entertain and raise awareness about the condition, which affects Avery Rausch, a North Farmington High student who is an Actor's Avenue member.
The condition has caused tumors to grow on Avery's spine. His mother, Terri, also has the condition.
"Right now, there's no cure," said Avery. "My tumors are so small, there's no treatment ... it doesn't affect me." His mother has had surgery to remove tumors that affected her hearing, he added.
That Avery's acting friends have rallied for the cause is no surprise; children and parents who belong to the new group, formed in January, agree it already feels like family.
Byrd-Sheatzley said she came up with the idea for The Actor's Avenue after leaving a job with a theater company. "I knew I wanted to do something with kids," she said.
"We wanted to have an elite group," added friend and co-organizer Marci Bean. "We had to have kids we knew and trusted, who had a commitment to theater."
Sisters Joey and Kacy Rankin say they love coming to rehearsals. Both have been on stage many times, but say there's something special about The Actor's Avenue group.
"They give a lot of parts, at least 10 people are in each song," said Kacy, age 6.
"People help you no matter what," adds Joey, age 9. "It's kind of like acting with your family."
Parent Jennifer Camens said the love and support her 7-year-old daughter Carli receives from the group's organizers and actors is "amazing. The confidence they give her is priceless."
Bean said actors range in age from 6 to 18; the group's choreographers are also students, North Farmington junior Jordan Sheatzley and Harrison senior Rachel Hollander. The older "elites" often work with the younger actors, she said, and entire families – parents and siblings – are involved.
"Of course we love to perform," Byrd-Sheatzley said. "But we also like to have a close-knit group."
The spring musical revue, featuring songs from Broadway hits like Wicked, Footloose, Legally Blonde, Grease and Les Miserables, will be held April 7 and 28 at Genitti's Hole In The Wall in Northville, April 14, May 5 and June 9 at Iroquois Club in Bloomfield Hills, May 19 at The Townsend Hotel in Birmingham and will wrap up June 20 with a grand finale at Glen Oaks Country Club in Farmington Hills. For more information or tickets, call 248-231-2760 or find the group on Facebook.