Filichia Features: Junior Theater Festival ’13 Continues!

Filichia Features: Junior Theater Festival ’13 Continues!

Live! From Atlanta! It’s Saturday afternoon!

At Junior Theater Festival ’13, Saturday morning saw 4,200 students head to 11 pods where they performed 15-minute excerpts from their musicals. And now that the teachers have congratulated their kids, they are now off to various workshops.

Some attend one hosted by Playbill. On the scene are the magazine’s president and publisher Philip S. Birsh, its editor Blake Ross as well as Adam Hetrick, one of its ace staff writers. They’ll demonstrate to attendees how to provide better Playbills for their shows.

Too often in school productions, photocopied sheets are all audiences receive from ushers. Baby Boomers will remember when their “playbills” were single mimeographed pieces of paper. Yes, the aroma was intoxicating, but the light purple print that cited cast and crew conveyed amateur night.

True, college, high school and community performers are amateurs. But the word “professional” doesn’t solely mean that your people are paid; it also denotes the way that they conduct themselves.

If you have professional-level actors and staffs on hand, why not have professional-looking programs, too? Your show will automatically seem better even before the curtain rises if theatergoers are holding a sharp-looking product. And don’t underestimate how much more local merchants and well-wishers will purchase ads once they’re see that your programs don’t look slight and light.

Hence, there’s, from which you can create Playbills that appear as if they just came from one of their yellow trucks. Although you can have the show’s logo on the front, your audiences won’t judge the books by their covers. They’ll be too impressed with what’s inside: a title page that credits everyone; a cast listing with character names; “Who’s Who” biographies that can even include headshots. In other words, create a genuine Playbill that could pass for Broadway.

Not only that, Playbill has a special feature that allows an e-blast that sends a “Save the Date,” so that Uncle Walt and Aunt Evelyn can know in advance where they must be when you open your show.

A printable edition costs $50 – but Playbill donates that money to such charities as The Actors Fund, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and UNICEF. Should you prefer to compose a virtual Playbill, you won’t be charged a dime.

There’s another benefit, too. Says Ross, “The person who’s put in charge of arranging this Playbill may be one of your theater-centric kids who doesn’t act or do tech. It’s still a role that he or she can play.”

The three also have advice on how to promote productions. Hetrick suggests show-related activities, such as a food or winter-coat drive to mirror Annie’s Depression setting. Later, Hetrick mentions that he writes about local shows, which make for some broad smiles from the crowd. He’ll be hearing from them.

Ross says, “What’s better than a story about a kid who was lost until he found theater?” Birsh also mentions that if the show does a performance in a senior center that’s also publicity-worthy. Better still, getting a local sportscaster to pre-record the play-by-play for Damn Yankees will not only prompt people to attend in order to hear their beloved sportscaster, but also will improve business after the announcer plugs the production on a broadcast.

Afterward, the function room next door is overflowing with people sitting on the floor wondering “How did you get to be you, Mr. Calhoun?” That’s Jeff Calhoun, who has one musical on Broadway (Newsies) and will soon have another (Jekyll & Hyde).

Calhoun, a vigorous and entertaining speaker, won’t give a self-aggrandizing biography. He’s here to dispense advice.
“When I started directing,” he says, “I wanted to be a friend to everyone in the cast.” The crowd moans, knowing where this is going; most everyone here has learned from bitter experience that a director must be a despot, even if he’s a benign one.

“A good director can’t simply be a judge of talent,” Calhoun insists. “A good director must be a judge of character as well.” Many nod, as they recall dealing with divos and divas, not to mention absent-minded actors who were absent for last night’s dress.

“I’m a firm believer in being honest with my actors,” Calhoun says. “When a performance disintegrates, I take the actor aside and say, ‘How can we get you back to where you once were?’” Eyebrows raise, indicating that others take a more castigating approach. Now they see the possible error of their ways.

When questions are sought, one attendee expresses admiration for Calhoun’s Big River for Deaf West Theatre, in which hearing and non-hearing performers shared the stage. “They offered me $250, and I said I’d need a night to think about it. I’m sorry that I delayed. I should have said yes right away. When you’re offered a unique opportunity, accept it and don’t worry about what you’re getting. Do a good job, and the bucks will come later,” says Calhoun, who has the money rolling in from every performance of Newsies and J&H.

After dinner comes the New Works Showcase that Disney Musicals has sponsored. One girl, en route to the MTI ShowSpace, expresses her admiration for one of tomorrow’s judges: “I want Skylar Astin to autography my face.” Her friends all think this is an excellent idea.

They enter the hall and see video footage from this morning’s shows. Even kids who have appeared on TV in the past have never been immortalized on a screen that’s bigger than an Act Two Audrey II. One girl who sees herself is so honored and surprised that she doesn’t say this era’s de rigueur “OMG,” but reverts to the old-world “Oh, my God!”

Just as the Tonys have the Isabelle Stevenson Award for various achievements, the Junior Theater Festival also celebrates off-stage accomplishments. Nick Manos, a festival co-founder, lauds fifth-grader Eli Medof. The lad sympathized with the plight of Rhame Avenue Elementary School in East Rockaway, New York and its students after Hurricane Sandy hit. Medof went to work, raised over $5,000, got a matching grant from an anonymous donor, some addition funds from the student council, all resulting in a $12,208.80 check that he sent up north.

As Medof gets his award, on the screen is projected words the kids recognize from Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax”: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” Yes, a song called “The Lorax” was dropped from Seussical, but its sentiments enjoy a renaissance here.

First up is “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” from The Aristocats Kids, performed by New York’s PS 124, Yung Wing Elementary. What I hear from many is that this group was good last year – even very good – but this year, it’s taken a quantum leap. Others note that the school started out as a subsidized school, but has done so well that it’s now self-sustaining. (In other words, it’s better than Cats.)

Next Theatre under the Stars Humphreys School of Musical Theatre in Houston did the Dual Language Edition of Aladdin. Before it started, however, we were introduced to Joseph Ruelle, who had the honor of playing the first Spanish-American Aladdin. “This was the show,” he says, “that took me off the streets and into college.”

At the end of the presentation, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine must kiss. Usually when this happens in TYA shows, the many immature kids in the audience come out with sarcastic “oooohs” or, worse, silly and vulgar kissing sounds. Not here. The average age of a Junior Festival Theatergoer may be low, but the kids’ ability to behave maturely is high. That’s what happens when kids watch a good deal of theater.

Xanadu, Jr. is performed by the Academy for Creative Excellence from Lexington, Kentucky. Even these kids’ grandparents weren’t alive when boogie-woogie was the dominant music of the day, but here they are, keeping it alive through a big production number. The looks on their faces when they finish are just as bright as when The Harris County Carver Middle School concludes The Pirates of Penzance, Jr. Safe to say that with more than 4,000 in the house, none of them has ever heard applause this loud.  (Nice, too, that the kids learn that long before there was “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here,” Gilbert and Sullivan wrote “Come, Friends, Who Plow the Sea.”)

The Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois then offers a cutting from Hairspray, Jr. Girls wear beehives so high that they’re capable of housing 13 colonies of queens, workers and drones; the boys are clad in deliciously bad plaid. Even before “Welcome to the ‘60s” blends into “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” the audience is clapping in rhythm – and not because an actor has marched downstage, stared at the crowd, put his hands over his head, clapped with all his might and demanded that the crowd join him. Everyone here instead applauds because each feels the music that’s as powerful as the motion of the ocean. Gwendolyn Brooks’ presentation is so amazingly professional that one assumes that “middle school” must mean that its performers are in the middle of graduate school.

Finally, the composer of so many shows and songs that every human being in the house knows makes an appearance. Now the cheers and applause is decibel-torturing. Says Alan Menken, “I love you all for who you are and who you’re going to be. I’m proud to be a part of your future lives, and not just the lives of the actors, but the designers and directors, too.”

He’s not the only one.

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