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Disney Channel star thankful for early days in Sebastopol

Passing her in a Sebastopol coffeehouse, you might think Alyssa Jirrels was just a high school student, stopping for a little caffeine and a head start on homework.

You’d be wrong. The 15-year-old Sebastopol native, daughter of Pam Koppel and Skip Jirrels, just returned from Vancouver, where she was working on the second season of the science fiction television series “Mech-X4” that premiered on the Disney Channel last November.

Alyssa’s interest in acting began at age 5, when she saw her actor mother performing. “I loved being up on stage before and after her plays, and I wanted to be on stage during plays.”

So she auditioned for an ensemble role in a production of “Rumplestiltskin.”

During the next eight years, she appeared in shows with Cinnabar Theater’s Young Rep in Petaluma, 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park and what’s now Main Stage West in Sebastopol.

“Broadway was my goal,” Alyssa said, “but then I saw (the film) ‘Girl, Interrupted’ and I became hooked on drama.”

Three years ago, she was talking with her friend Guy Wilson. He’d moved from Sonoma County to Los Angeles and his theatrical career was doing well. “I asked him how he got so successful,” Alyssa said, “and he said he had an amazing manager and agent. He put us in contact with his manager.” The manager was interested, Alyssa said, but it was a problem that she didn’t live in Los Angeles.

So she and her mother moved there and she began auditioning for television pilots.

The decision to leave Sebastopol was hard. “It was just my mom and me. I wouldn’t see my dad a lot. We didn’t really know anyone in L.A. and we didn’t know what we were doing. I wasn’t sure I was completely invested. It was so new, so daunting. But once I got there and started auditioning, that switched. It was monumental to be there, surrounded by people with the same goal. That’s what I’ve felt ever since.”

In those early days, though, “I didn’t have a perspective on the audition process. I thought I’d go down there, book a role, then book another role - easy.”

She didn’t book anything, though she was second choice for one role. “I loved almost getting there. And, not getting there was another push.”

It was tough, she said, “to accept the reality of how the industry works, dealing with rejection, falling on your face, building that resilience, learning to accept if you’re not right for the role.”

More auditions and close calls followed. “Then, last spring, I booked my first two roles. And it’s been crazy ever since.”

Her first role was in “Girl Meets World” on the Disney Channel.

The second was as a guest star on “Mech-X4.” She learned that in the Sebastopol coffeehouse. “I was sitting there,” she pointed across the room, “and my parents came upstairs and said, ‘We’re going to Vancouver.’ I got my passport, we flew up and were there for eight days. An incredible learning experience.”

She was invited back for more episodes in season two. “The role could not be more perfect. My character’s name is Veracity. It means truth and authenticity.

“She has a dry sense of humor, similar to mine. She’s been the biggest pleasure to play because she is so complex. I feel lucky to play a character who can be explained in more than three words.”

“L.A. is now home,” she said, so she’ll return to Los Angeles, and continue to audition. Alyssa doesn’t yet know if “Mech-X4” will be picked up for a third season or if her character will continue. She doesn’t even know when the second season will air: possibly this fall.

She is grateful for her early years in Sonoma County theater, saying “Spreckels was my home. I love that theater.”

Theater manager Gene Abravaya was like an uncle, she said, “putting me in different shows, being part of a great company, people who were my theater family.”

Alyssa also credited Petaluma’s Dezi Gallegos, the young writer, director and actor, who three years ago gave her the opportunity to play the damaged, disturbed Ellianne in his play, “Hamlet’s Orphans.” “He expanded my mind and concept of life and of where I could go in acting. The role took me to a place I’d never been before.

“It was the most profound experience I’ve had. It made me so thirsty, sinking so deeply into another human, so broken, then coming back to myself. When I stopped playing her, it was like breaking up. I loved her so much; she was so much a part of who I was, though in a negative way. It was like losing someone dear to me.”

In addition to acting and theater, Alyssa enjoys history and writing. She also, like much of the country, is obsessed with the hit musical “Hamilton,” appreciating how the show’s creators have meshed art and history.

For someone so young, Alyssa has a great deal of poise and self-esteem. For this she credits her parents. “I was raised in a remarkable way, able to have self-awareness and maturity but not needing it to survive.” She added, with a grin, “I’m in a nice period of being self-centered right now, because I’m a teenager.”

But then she returned to her thought, saying, “There’s never been a moment when I wanted to do what I’m doing for myself. I want to make a difference, give voices to people who don’t have voices. Telling stories that mean something to people. I see my career going across the board, wanting to do independent stories, raw acting and emotion, being a versatile actor and learning every day, never stopping the education process.”

Alyssa Jirrels’s first appearance on “Mech-X4” is Monday on Disney XD. Check cable listings for time. Episodes are also available on Disney XD YouTube, VOD and the Disney XD app.

Katie Watts is a freelance writer in Petaluma. She can be reached at goodegg2004@gmail.com

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