Windermere residents Harold and Rosy Mills are working with the Garden Theatre to turn a nightmare into a dream.
In 2020, the Mills family's lives changed forever, when they lost their youngest son, William Daniel Mills, in a boating accident.
“Daniel was probably one of the most liberated people I have ever known in the sense that he accepted others no matter who or what they came with,” Harold said. “It was never a case of if someone had a weakness or a deficiency. He never said, ‘Let me ignore your deficiency.’ Instead, he said, ‘Let me celebrate it. This is who you are, and this is your contribution to the world and that’s what should be celebrated.’”
Now, the family is honoring their son in the way they know he would have wanted — not through grief but rather by creating opportunity for others.
Harold and Rosy started the William Daniel Mills Apprenticeship Program at the Garden Theatre for young artists ages 13 through 22 in 2021 to celebrate Daniel’s legacy and his love for theater.
This year’s inaugural class of the apprenticeship program includes 30 students. The apprentices will spend the next season at the theater preparing for a career as a performer, director, educator, playwright, stage manager or designer.
The yearlong program includes a variety of master classes and workshops. The apprentices recently enjoyed a master class with Kelli O’Hara, Tony winner and Emmy and Grammy nominated actor and singer. To honor Daniel, the theme of the main-stage season is “identity.”
So far, some of the apprentices have worked on plays at the Garden Theatre such as “The Bodyguard,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Looped” and “Big.”
Harold said Daniel loved the world — mostly because of the humans in it — and thought everyone was fascinating in his or her own way.
“He always created this environment for people where they felt like they belonged,” Daniel’s father said. “He was someone people always knew they could come to and trust and find a listening heart where they felt welcome.”
Daniel’s love for theater started with his sisters, who both were involved. Harold said his son loved the work involved with theater and the dedication that came along with it.
“I would always compare him to a baseball card kid in the sense that he knew actors, performers and their statistics from years and years ago,” Harold said. “We would go to Broadway every year, and he would talk to these people about a performance they did six years ago, and they would be so surprised.”
Garden Theatre Education Director Nick Bazo said one of the theater’s main goals is to engage and impact the community and the apprenticeship program embodies that concept perfectly.
“The goal is to provide artistic training and professional opportunities for young artists in our community,” he said. “The apprentices each follow their own individual track, based on their interest, as well as a group track.”
Harold said the students selected all share similar qualities but are uniquely different.
“Theater kids are sometimes thought of as a community of misfits, and I mean that in the very best way,” Harold said. “You hear their personalities and their different backgrounds, but when they get on stage, they’re all the same. They share a deep passion and love for theater, and their differences are set aside as they step into their roles and come together.”
The apprentices are led by Bazo, Associate Artistic Director Roberta Emerson and Artistic Director Joseph C. Walsh.
“The Garden Theatre, and particularly those three people (Bazo, Emerson and Walsh), have just been amazing in leading this effort,” Harold said. “They’ve turned our dream into a reality.”
“It is such an honor that the Mills family entrusted us with this program,” Bazo said.
‘OUR NEW DREAM’
A month before Daniel’s accident, he auditioned for his first professional role at the Garden Theatre. The Millses later learned Daniel would have gotten the role.
Daniel was particularly close to Emerson, who served as his theater director and his sister’s director, when he attended Montverde Academy. They later worked together at the Garden Theatre.
Harold said Daniel loved to learn, and Emerson pushed him to work hard.
“Daniel was one of the nicest kids I ever met,” Emerson said. “He was one of those people that always stood up for others and he wanted ‘fair to be fair’ no matter what. He was funny and silly and smart — almost too smart for his own good. He was very stubborn in the way that he was passionate about things he felt were important and he always pursued those passions.”
Emerson said she worked with Daniel since he was in eighth grade.
“Even qualities that some people would perhaps consider negative about a person — he used those qualities to transform them into something he could do good with, for the betterment of himself and others,” Emerson said. “He had one of the best smiles ever, and he changed the energy of the room no matter what was going on. If Daniel was there, somehow it was better.”
The Mills family said they hope to grow the program in the future by hosting multiple sites across the region to give more students the opportunity to pursue their passions.
“(Daniel) was such a blessing,” Harold said. “I’ve always felt like I learned more from him than he learned from me.”
Daniel’s parents said in the past few years, they have learned the large number of people who Daniel had an impact on and who, for example, even came out to him.
“This is what I mean when I say, ‘Turning a nightmare into a dream,’” Harold said. “That fulfillment of knowing we are going to build a legacy for Daniel, which is part of our new dream, while also building a dream for other students in a field they love.”