At four years old, Val Zvinyatskovsky was putting on his own ballet productions for his family in their living room. By the age of eight, he was confident that theater would be his passion for life. Now, at sixteen, he’s one of the Bay Area’s most active student actors.
Zvinyatskovsky, a junior at the School for Independent Learners, has pursued a variety of crafts within theater, including vocal coaching, stage lighting, managing, composing, writing, directing and teaching his own drama class.
He currently serves as Artistic Director for Upstage Theater, Music Director at Sunnyvale Community Players and a Lighting Designer and Stage Manager at Peninsula Youth Theater. He also occasionally puts on his own original productions and recently taught a theater elective at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School.
Zvinyatskovsky credited his ability to balance commitments to the flexibility of the SIL, which he said is designed for students with heavy extracurricular involvement.
“My teachers know me and they know that theater is currently my life and that I care so much about it,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “It’s really been a blessing and I don’t think if I were at any other school, I would be able to maintain this schedule that I built for myself with theater shows.”
Zvinyatskovsky’s entrance into the offstage theater world — where he spends most of his time today — came by coincidence, during PYT’s 2018 production of “Stories on Stage.”
“I was called in at some point because someone wasn’t able to [operate the lightboard] and I was called in to do it instead,” he said. “About two years later, an opportunity eventually presented itself at Upstage Theater to be their lighting designer because they didn’t have anybody at the time. I said yes, and ever since then, I’ve been doing [lighting design] consistently.”
It was also around this time, in 2018, that Zvinyatskovsky met who would become one of his closest friends and peers in the local theater scene, Roni Gal-Oz, who was just getting her start at PYT. Although she was three years older than Zvinyatskovsky, Gal-Oz — now a freshman at Barnard — said she immediately looked to Zvinyatskovsky as a role model.
“When I started, [Zvinyatskovsky] was the most professional person in the room, no matter what,” Gal-Oz said. “I was steadily following his lead on things, even though he was younger than me. He was completely on top of things, and his mind was running before everyone else’s on the show.”
About two years later, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zvinyatskovsky became a resident editor at PYT, a role in which he edits sound and video elements from various productions. Zvinyatskovsky said the free time he gained from the pandemic helped him diversify his offstage involvement.
“When the quarantine started, a bunch of theaters jumped into virtual productions, and different cabarets and videos,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “Each show taught me more and more, and then at some point, I took the position of one of the resident editors. Before the quarantine, I couldn’t even imagine the stuff you could do with just a Zoom meeting and a script and a good editing software. So honestly, thanks to quarantine, I am now in that field as well.”
PYT President Mike Cobb said that Zvinyatskovsky has come a long way in the world of technical theater, but even from the very get-go, behaved and was treated like an adult staff member.
“When Val first started doing stage tech, l think we all looked at him and said, ‘This is a really great teenager to have in the mix,’” Cobb said. “He’s worked with many of our professional light designers in that kind of mentor-mentee role. They all look the same way we look at him, as an up-and-comer in the field of technical theater.”
The pandemic also gave Zvinyatskovsky the time to pursue some of his own creative projects, including a podcast about state landmarks called “California: Hiding in Plain Sight,” and the “Shelter by Fireplace” cabaret, an entertainment form performed while an audience eats or drinks.
“I remember after the first few days in quarantine my father told me ‘People need a little bit of joy. You should entertain them,’” Zvinyatskovsky said. “So we brainstormed a little bit, and came up with this 30-minute cabaret where I would be by my fireplace, playing a few songs on the piano and singing.”
In the years since the pandemic started, Zvinyatskovsky has independently produced several other cabarets. These include the “Partners in Crime: Duet Cabaret,” “An Evening of Songs” and “Tales from the Scrapbook,” all of which were performed at local cafes.
Although Zinyvatskovsky’s life is now centered in the world of entertainment, the theater space was initially uncharted territory for his family.
“I grew up in a household where neither of my parents nor my grandparents were heavily into theater or musicals or anything like that,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “However, I did grow up on two very distinct DVDs, ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’”
Drawing inspiration from the DVDs, Zvinyatskovsky staged performances for his parents. He recalled “turning his living room into a theater” and sitting his relatives down for renditions of the “Nutcracker” ballet and random songs. He had also begun taking piano classes. Noticing his interest in musical arts, his mother signed him up for an introductory theater camp when he was nine years old.
“In one particular session at camp, we happened to [perform] a song from the musical ‘Wicked,’ which happened to be touring in San Jose then, and so we went to see it,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “My mother told me that after seeing the show, I said concretely, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to create this kind of art.’”
After the experience, Zvinyatskovsky’s mother enrolled him in audition-prep classes at PYT, which helped him land his first ever on-stage role in the theater’s 2015 production of “Once Upon a Mattress.” From there on, Zvinyatskovsky began performing on stage consistently.
Zvinyatskovsky said he learned many of his skills in composing and writing music in Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School’s band and choir, which he was very active in during elementary and middle school.
Recognizing that the school had no theater program during his time as a student, Zvinyatskovsky returned in 2021 to teach a drama elective, in which he ran a semester-long class and undertook “an experience like no other.”
“Working with middle schoolers was exhilarating and tiring,” he said. “But also, it was eye-opening, and it taught me so much about how to be a better director and collaborator. I would say the word that comes to mind is educational. … It was super fun to come back to Hausner.”
Gal-Oz said she believes that Zinyatskovsky’s impressive work ethic — one of the first things she ever noticed about him — will propel him to a successful future.
“Things weren’t necessarily handed to him,” Gal-Oz said. “I would talk to him and he’d barely slept because he’d been writing and editing productions. He spends his free time practicing conducting musical scores. I don’t know anyone else like that. He’s developed such strong skills in almost every field, so I know he’s going to flourish.”
Zvinyatskovsky said he is constantly asked about his post-high-school plans. The truth is, he said, he’s yet to figure that out. But one thing remains clear to him, even amid the uncertainty of the future: theater, his greatest passion, will remain an integral part of his life.
“I want to discover new ways to make art, and I just want to meet new people,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “I want to hear other people’s stories because listening is also a credibly important part of being both an artist and a decent human. I just can’t wait to see what’s down the road because although I really don’t know what’s coming, I know that I will always continue to try my best to make fulfilling art.”
And Zvinyatskovsky’s love for theater — and the community within it — makes every moment working worthwhile, he said.
“When you get to work on something you love with people who you love, that is the definition of heaven on earth,” Zvinyatskovsky said. “The theater companies I work with, we’re not Broadway, we’re not playing the biggest theaters in the area, but it’s still important to maintain because we can be just as good. And so I hope the work that I do shows you can enjoy theater … and it doesn’t have to be like what society defines as the pinnacle of that certain art form.”