The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals

Thinking Out of the Box

Carolyn Miller

Company General Director

Musical Theatre Works, San Francisco, CA

Profile by John Kenrick

Many school districts have seen their music and arts program budgets slashed or completely eliminated in recent years. In most cases, theatre has disappeared from the lives of school age children. The good news is that it doesn't have to be that way.

Although San Francisco has more than its share of outstanding performing arts companies, MUSICAL THEATRE WORKS has become a treasured jewel in that city's cultural crown. Since 1998, they have presented juvenile amateur casts in two fully staged musicals per year. From Oliver and Annie to such surprising choices as Les Miserables, West side Story and Titanic: The Musical, MUSICAL THEATRE WORKS has won acclaim by giving students from grades 2 through 12 a chance to shine in polished productions. The amazing thing is that MTW is not affiliated with a school or other youth organization.

As company founder and General Director Carolyn Miller explains, "When I started, I wasn't aware that there was a need for something like this. There was just the inner passion that inspired and energized the idea. I was teaching middle school and very content, loving the challenge of working with the students. And I certainly loved working on Broadway musicals as part of my curriculum. Then I went into teaching voice privately, and I soon realized that working with individuals didn't energize me in the same way working with groups had. Finally, one of my students suggested that I start a theatre company for school age performers. I said, are you kidding? Do you have any idea what that would involve? But then I thought about it, and decided to see if I could do it."

Miller took a quick and systematic approach. She says, "I started by obtaining a mailing list and sending out a feeler, asking if people would be interested in their children taking part in a tuition-based theatre program. I got a great response, and four months later we were doing Oliver with foam-core sets."

MTW'S goal was not just to produce a great musical, but to guide each student on a creative journey. Participants go beyond learning the words and music, learning about the background of each show, the characters and time period, and each show's importance in the history of musical theatre. Instead of presenting the usual Musical Theatre repertory, MTW tries to focus on shows that offer special learning experience for the students. "It's not about the final production", Miller explains, "it is more about what you learn from the production that matters. If I am going to spend five months of my life working on a show, it has to have something to say and offer something from which we can all learn. The 'journey' is so much more important than the final product. The journey means taking the time to learn about the characters and what motivates them. We work with the students, asking them to research their character and learn what the character is thinking and why they do what they do. We challenge the students by asking 'how can you bring your character to life, engage the audience and take them on this journey with you?"

From the start, MTW took a unique approach to the audition and rehearsal process. "We rehearse for five months, starting with three weeks of pre-audition music rehearsals. These three weeks give the students a good opportunity to become better acquainted with the music, the play and the characters as well as helping them become more comfortable with the audition process. This approach benefits the students, as well as the Director's in that the students become more confident and do a better audition which, in turn, gives the Directors a much better idea of each student's capabilities."

"After auditions and casting we have four full months of rehearsals, working three to four days a week. We begin rehearsing with a masking tape outline of the set, blocking each scene in sequence and working on every element and bringing it to the highest possible level of quality. Eventually, other set elements are brought in, and by the fourth month all set, lighting and prop elements are in place."

At MTW, there is a conscious effort to teach the students about various aspects of the theatrical arts. "Most of our designers, at one point or another, come to a rehearsal and talk about what they're doing for the production," Miller says. "Just last week, our scenic designer visited rehearsal and brought the set model, ground plans and drawings. It was an amazing time for the wide-eyed, curious students to learn, first-hand about how those wonderful sets that surround them on stage are created."

Adding theatre professionals to the MTW team has boosted the quality of productions. "I loved teaching the students, but not teaching adult volunteers," Miller says, "so I started hiring professionals to work on the production team. The challenge is finding people who are not only highly proficient in their fields, but who also have genuine understanding, affection and respect for young people. We currently work with a team of 25 professional directors and designers."

There is also a conscious effort to build a trusting, co-operative company. "If the students realize that they can trust you," Miller says, "then they are more willing to take a risk and try something new. A good theatre company will try to build a solid ensemble, where each and every actor is an integral part of the production. At MTW, a student in an ensemble role is given the same attention and expectations as the student in the principal role. This company is about the camaraderie and respect that come from being part of an ensemble."

As with all amateur theatre groups, funding is an ongoing concern. Miller explains, "Tuition covers only about one-third of our expenses. We have several fundraising projects, and we also depend upon individual contributors and foundation support."

She has learned first-hand what a challenge it is for non-profits to build a working board of directors. "For the first seven years," Miller says, "we had a board of great people who didn't have a clear understanding of the role of a Board in a nonprofit organization - namely, support the Director's artistic visions for the Company, provide guidance, support and a strong fundraising presence. Now we have a dynamic board that is taking our fundraising efforts to a new level - with galas, champagne events, student dances and more."

"We're finally earning to do serious fundraising and it has been hugely successful. We've begun to reach the point of doing serious fundraising and working with a grant writer, and it is beginning to be very successful. We're finally able to project a budget, and we work very hard to stay within that budget. Of course, it is always great when an 'angel' comes along and offers much-needed and appreciated support. They can be real lifesavers."

Not willing to limit participation in MUSICAL THEATRE WORKS to only those who could afford the tuition, Miller found additional funding to create "Stage Link," a program that links MTW with other academic organizations and offers full scholarships or some financial assistance to low-income students. "But we don't just accept anyone," Miller says. "I insist that every student in this program be highly motivated, with excellent marks in school, and a strong desire to participate in our Company. We currently have 26% of our students in MTW through this program, and all of them are real achievers.

"Creating and sustaining a solid financial assistance program is very important in a Theatre Company, as it not only provides access and opportunity to low-income students, but it also assures that your Company has a diverse population. In exchange, a well-diversified Company offers tremendous opportunities for all of us to understand and learn to accept students' cultural and socio-economic differences."

Miller's final advice to those making amateur theatre happen in their community is as theatre-saavy and practical as she is - "Break a leg, and remember to breathe!"

On to: Curt Ebersole

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