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  Our Teachers 

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Mary Joy Nelson

Dr. Nelson is the Founding Executive Director of InnOVATION Arts Academy. Previously, she founded the Academy for Creative Excellence Preparatory program and Broadway Bound Summer Camps at the University of Kentucky, where she completed her DMA in vocal performance. Dr. Nelson has prepared children's ensembles to perform for former president Bill Clinton (Lexington Sight and Hearing Event) and Laura Bush (St. Mark's School Literacy).  She also served as the Youth Performance Corps Director for the World Equestrian Games Opening Ceremonies in 2010.  She currently works as a performance coach for professional child actors, and many of her students (Emily Hoder, Audrey Bennett, Brooklyn Shuck, Kyla Carter) have landed roles in Broadway productions and tours. She earned her undergraduate degree in music education (University of Regina) in 2001, and has been teaching youth and children in the performing arts for over 20 years. At InnOVATION Arts Academy, Dr. Nelson serves as an administrator, producer, director and music director.  Dr. Nelson believes in developing students as 360 degree performers, offering them training in every aspect of the theatre.  She invests in her students holistically as people and as artists, and is committed to their long-term development and training.  Dr. Nelson works with young performers in Lexington, New York, LA, and Florida, specializing in voice, acting and audition techniques.

Christina Haffler

Christina has always had a passion for creating and art-making. She studied at the University of Kentucky (UK), where she worked in the UK College of Fine Arts costume shop. She graduated from UK in 2015 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Art Education and Art Studio. After graduation, she began teaching art at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary School. She was an art teacher for 6 years and absolutely loved creating and working with her students. In the summer of 2023, she was an apprentice in the Wardrobe department at The Lexington Theatre Company (The Lex) for their productions of The Sound of Music and Memphis and discovered her passion for theatrical costuming! She assisted InnOVATION with costuming Seussical Jr. in the fall of 2023, which was her first show as a professional costumer. Recently, she has gone on to work as a stitcher/dresser for The Lex's Wardrobe team for their holiday production of White Christmas. In her spare time, she works on independent sewing and costuming commissions. In the future, she hopes to continue costuming future shows with InnOVATION and The Lex, as well as teach sewing and costuming classes. When she is not costuming, she is working as InnOVATION's Associate Program Coordinator. Christina is so thrilled to join the InnOVATION team!

Stephanie Valentino

Stephanie Valentino has been dancing, singing, and performing in Lexington, KY for the majority of her life. Stephanie has taught dance and choreographed at the Academy for Creative Excellence, Stage Right Acting, and Innovation Arts Academy. She has also worked on countless productions at many of Fayette County's public schools. During the school year, she teaches English Language Learners at Yates Elementary. Some of her favorite performance credits include Margot in Legally Blonde the Musical and Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. Some of Stephanie's favorite choreography projects include Xanadu Jr., Matilda, and 13 Jr.

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Erin Tuttle

Erin Leland Tuttle has been teaching music and theatre to young artists for over 20 years. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Music Education and a Master's Degree in Education with an emphasis in music and theatre. Over the years she has taught in elementary music and theatre classrooms, in her own music studio, in local theatres, with special needs choir groups, and as a contracted musical theatre director and director in local theatres and schools. Erin and her husband, Mike, have two bands: Station 22 ½ (their successful cover band that performs all over Central Kentucky) and Her Clever Machine (their originals band). They have two sons: Xander, who performs with Innovation Arts and writes/produces his own music and Addison, who attends The University of Kentucky in the Musical Theatre program. Erin loves working at Innovation and with the Innovation Arts Academy family! 

Courtney Smith

Courtney Smith is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky with a BA in theatre and an interdisciplinary arts minor. Despite being more music oriented, she fell in love with theatre after being in her high school’s production of High School Musical: The Musical, which kicked off her

involvement in various shows including The Music Man (Maud Dunlop), Xanadu (Euterpe) with the Appalachian Arts Center, and many more. Her time at UK can be well defined by her versatility- being involved in choral programs such as the Women’s Choir, Choristers, the auditioned Chamber Choir, and the auditioned acapella group Bluenote, being involved in theatre productions such as Bright Star (Mamma Cane/Ensemble), and involvement in the Opera Program’s productions of Showboat, It’s a Grand Night for Singing, and Bounce: The Opera. Courtney was the librarian, section leader, and co-president of the UK Choristers during her time there. She also performed at KMEA with Choristers and at ACDA with the Women’s Choir in the spring of 2022. Courtney wishes to connect with and inspire others through music and theatre and can’t wait for what the future holds!

Danielle Hughes

Danielle fell in love with theatre at the age of five after performing in the Music Man in Woodford County, leading to a childhood of performing shows all over the Bluegrass. After earning her Musical Theatre degree at Berry College in Rome, GA, she earned a contract with the California Theatre Center, allowing her to tour professionally all over the west coast. She returned to Lexington in 2010 and transitioned into teaching, earning her certificate for K-5 at Asbury University. More recently, she has also been able to focus on directing and giving back to the younger theatre generation through various outlets. Favorite performance credits include: The Secret Garden (Mary Lennox), The Tempest (Ariel), and Bus Stop (Elma). She recently directed: You Can't Take it With You, The Curious Savage, Charlotte's Web, and Father of the Bride. Danielle loves teaching acting classes and sharing her passion with all of these wonderful Innovation students.

Grace Hensley

Grace Hensley discovered musical theater in 3rd grade thanks to Mary Joy. Now Grace is starting a double major in Theater and Elementary Education at the University of Kentucky, with a Musical Theatre Certificate. She attended the KY Governor’s Scholar Program with a focus on Dramatic Expression (2020) and graduated from TCHS with a Full International Baccalaureate diploma. Grace has studied dance (ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop) since 2011 and was on the TCHS Dance Team for four years. As a student choreographer, Grace choreographed “Dear Edwina” in 8th grade (TCMS) and “Madagascar Jr” for JTF. Fun fact: Grace has attended JTF every year Mary Joy has taken a group—10 years straight!—and can’t wait to take her own company one day! Favorite roles include Jojo in Seussical, Ariel in Little Mermaid Jr, and Kira in Xanadu Jr.

Ava Wallett

Ava Wallett unlocked her love for musical theater at the age of 7 in a production of Lion King Jr, directed by MaryJoy Nelson. She is now a junior at Lexington Catholic High School and apart of the Exemplar Scholars Program with a major in Voice. In the summer of 2022, she was blessed with the opportunity to be casted in the iTheatrics Choreography Video Shoot which took place in NYC. She has studied dance for five years at InnOVATION Arts Academy (musical theater, jazz, tap) and has been on the LCHS Dance Team for three. As a student choreographer, Ava has choreographed Christ the King’s Seussical Jr. and is currently working on Finding Nemo (CKS). As a member of InnOVATION Arts Academy and a high school intern, Ava is so excited to have an opportunity to teach something she loves - dance.

Matthew Burney

Matthew T. Burney was born and raised in NY, but relocated to Lexington, Kentucky at the end of 2019. He is the CEO and Founder of Matthew Burney Studios (MBS), where their vision is seeing people’s lives changed in a moment by using the arts as a powerful tool of outreach. Everything they do falls under this umbrella. Matthew T. Burney is a trained actor with two degrees: an Associates degree in performing arts, studying at Dutchess Community College, and a Bachelor’s degree in musical theater, concentrating in acting at Long Island University-Post Campus. Additional to training in the arts, he has been working in childcare for 12+ years. Matthew now enjoys teaching students principles he has learned in his journey, that he wishes he had the opportunity to learn at such a young age. Mr. Burney is also a model, dancer, and traveling Spoken-Word poet. He thoroughly enjoys sharing his gifts with the next generation!

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Margo Buchanan

Margo Buchanan is an Equity actress, teacher, director, and playwright who has worked as an actor in Chicago and in regional theatres around the U.S. As an associate artist with AthensWest Theatre Company in Lexington, Margo directed the musical "Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge" and Sarah Ruhl’s "In the Next Room". Her career has taken her from directing The Catholic Action Center’s production of "Please Don’t Call Me Homeless", performed by the people of the streets of Lexington, to an appearance in the feature film "Miracle on 34th Street", where she interpreted for and acted with Lord Richard Attenborough.   An acting teacher with more than four decades of experience, she also holds an MFA in Playwriting from Spalding University. Margo’s plays include a historical drama entitled "Invisible Ink"; as well as "Outside Our Doors", featuring the stories of the marginalized people of Winchester, Kentucky.  She co-wrote the book and lyrics for "Last Call", a musical about recovery and most recently co-wrote and directed a play about Madame Charlotte Mentelle for the Kentucky Humanities Council Chautauqua Program. Margo is also a member of Central Kentucky Improv. 

Dakara Cooper

Dakara Cooper is an undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky majoring in Theatre with a Musical Theatre Certificate. She was recently on the last season of American Idol as well as the University of Kentuckys production of “Shakespeare in Love”. Her past in music directing with Mary Joy has shown her love for music and teaching, and she is excited to continue sharing her passion with others.

Lydia Grace Goldie

Lydia Grace Goldie, soprano and actress hailing from Danville, Kentucky, received both her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from The Juilliard School studying under the tutelage of Marlena Malas. Lydia recently relocated to Lexington and made her company debut with The Stephen Foster Drama Association in Bardstown, KY this summer in their productions of The Stephen Foster Story and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. She has performed with MetLiveArts, the New York Philharmonic, Chautauqua Opera, CHQ Symphony Orchestra, Buglisi Dance Theatre, and the New York Festival of Song in venues from Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall to National Sawdust to The Kennedy Center. Lydia is a true collaborator and sought-after vocal partner to composers and collaborative pianists alike and has debuted over ten new song cycles, one-act operas, and musicals in the past five years. In the summer of 2022, she established her own Private Voice Studio for students of all ages, children and adults, to receive instruction in healthy vocal technique to be used in all genres of music, specifically classical and musical theatre singing. Lydia is excited to join the InnOVATION team this fall as Sight and Ear Training Specialist for Advanced classes!

Bekah Knight

Bekah Knight is a professional vocalist based in Lexington, Kentucky. She finds her passion and purpose in music and has been heavily involved in the fine arts from a young age. Since the start of her career, Bekah has made a point to be in as many shows, professional choirs, and ensembles as possible. Some of her current endeavors include being a member of the Kentucky Bach Choir, as well as performing in her jazz duo, The Velveteens. Bekah believes that music is a language that anyone can understand and communicate through. She's both grateful and excited to train the next generation of performers, and help them hone the essential ear training and sight-singing skills they need to succeed!

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Mary Grogan

An alumna of the University of Kentucky, Department of Theatre, Mary Christopher Grogan is currently an active theatre director and educator in central Kentucky.  She holds an MA in English Education (2006) and an MA in Theatre (2014).  Beginning her undergraduate studies and career with a focus in stage management, she eventually found additional passions in educating and directing.  Some of her favorite directing credits include:  Our Town,   Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story,  Beyond Therapy, Radium Girls, The Odd Couple: Female Edition, and Into the Woods. Additionally, she is extremely passionate about arts education and literacy.  She has taught theatre, as well as English courses,  at UK, KYSU, EKU, and BCTC.  She currently teaches Theatre, Film Studies, and AP English at West Jessamine High, where she served as Artistic Director of their theatre program from 2018-2023. She is excited to return to working part time with Mary Joy and the rest of the InnOVATION team, especially since her ten year old daughter Addison has been part of the company since she was just three years old.   She hopes to continue her love of theatre by returning to her work as an acting and technical theatre coach/teacher.

Colleen Ireland

Colleen Ireland comes from the Garden State of New Jersey. She has performed throughout the United States and internationally, showcasing her talents in a variety of styles of dance. Highlights of her professional career include sharing the stage with Andrea McArdle who played Annie in the original Broadway cast; As a professional dancer, Colleen starred as Cleopatra at Caesars Palace in Atlantic city, New Jersey and opened for The Apprentice in Atlantic city. Mrs. Ireland has shared her love of dance showing love in orphanages in Russia, China, and Jamaica. She has taught dance and has choreographed for the Northern Kentucky Theatre and Dance Department, The Cincinnati Ballet Academy and the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington, KY. Colleen holds her Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Northern Kentucky University. She has spent summers training at the Boston Ballet and Ballet Magnificat in Jackson, Mississippi.

Chelsea Russell

Chelsea is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky, with majors in Theatre and Arts Administration, a Mathematics minor, and a Musical Theatre Certificate. While she is primarily an actress, she also has experience as a director, stage manager, fight director/captain, teacher, and arts administrator. She is certified in 6 of the 8 weapons offered by the Society of American Fight Directors, and is a certified Actor Combatant with the SAFD. Favorite performance credits include A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Hermia), The Watsons (Laura), Cabaret (Kit Kat), Into the Woods (Milky White/Little Red u/s), and The Wolves (#2). She is honored to have worked with companies like the National Women's Theatre Festival, Distilled Theatre Company, Merit Theatre Company, Studio Players, UK Opera Theatre, and UK Department of Theatre and Dance. She is currently based in Lexington, KY, works as a Project Manager for Storyboard Media (Durham, NC) by day, and serves as the Director of Operations for the National Women’s Theatre Festival (Raleigh, NC), Associate Program Coordinator for InnOVATION, and holds a variety of other freelance positions.

Isaac Jones

Isaac is a Lexington-based music director, vocal coach, director, pianist, and choreographer. In addition to spending 9 years in the high school classroom and in the church as a choir section leader, he has conducted and supervised a number of shows in the central Kentucky region since 2013. Currently, Isaac is focused on music composition and arranging, with an emphasis on table top and adventure role playing games. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, he is very excited to join the staff of InnOVATION Arts Academy and looks forward to working with promising young talents!

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