This past January I got an interesting phone call from Good Counsel alumnus, Rolando Sans. About five years ago, he and his brother, Kris, started an organization called Young Artists of America which trains middle and high school students in the greater DC area in musical theatre, opera, and instrumental music through mentorship with professional artists such as Stephen Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown, and Kristen Chenoweth, to name a few. I have had three GC students who have been involved with YAA productions and really admired the organization’s emphasis on professionalism and positivity in the rehearsal hall. Rolando and Kris’ goal “to provide gifted and committed students unique performance and educational opportunities in a professional, nurturing and collaborative environment,” aligns seamlessly with my philosophy. So when Rolando called you can bet I picked up the phone fast!
This year YAA implemented a middle school group called YAAJunior. Led by Paul Heineman, the group of 18 students range in age from eleven to fourteen. While normally this group supports the high school group in key moments of their major performances, this spring they got the opportunity to perform The Lion King, Jr. at Strathmore’s AMP theatre; Rolando called me to ask if I was interested in directing and choreographing the performance.
Boy, was I! He quickly filled me in on the details of the show: one month of rehearsals with only 2 rehearsals a week with one performance on May 20. We’d be performing at AMP, which is a new Strathmore space, which features a narrow stage, grand piano, LED video screen. They typically use the space for comedy acts and smaller musical groups–like jazz combos. The space has a beautiful bar and features flexible seating. This however, was going to be their initial attempt at a theatre performance in the space.
YAA focuses primarily on musicianship in their productions, resulting in absolutely amazing concert versions of shows like Children of Eden with Stephen Shwartz and devised productions, such as The Songs of Tim Rice and West Side Story + Romeo et Juliette. While some of the numbers are fully staged and choreographed, most of the scenes are performed in a stage reading format. However, Rolando gave me the option of how to stage the piece and I suggested fully staging the piece in a minimalist format.
Instead of using full costumes and scenery, I thought we could utilize my classroom Wenger rehearsal boxes in various configurations to set each scene with the assistance of actor-scenery. That coupled with the LED video screen allowed us to set each location very clearly. We decided to follow the YAA tradition of black pants and a colored shirt for costuming, color coding each actor’s primary character to help indicate who they were playing. For instance, Simba and Mufasa wore orange while Zazu wore blue. Rolando had the brilliant idea of bringing in a make up artist, Kim Reyes, to help bring the animalistic side of the character’s to life. She and I discussed some initial ideas inspired by the make-up design of the show by a friend of mine, Colleen Novosel, who had just designed the show, but wasn’t available to work on this production.
Meeting the kids in February for auditions, I came in as the outsider, but immediately felt welcomed by the students and the team of adults. Paul had prepared students impeccably with key numbers, “Hakuna Matata,” “They Live In You,” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” We had asked the students to prepare one of these songs and a choice of a few key scenes in the play. I was amazed at the vocal talent and preparation of these students. There were a few students who were on the shy side and really just wanted to be in the ensemble, but the majority of the group couldn’t wait to show of their talents. It was refreshing to see so much energy and freedom among these young performers. They definitely made casting challenging. But after consulting with Paul, we put together a stellar cast that allowed for every student to have a moment to shine.
I have to admit that I was initially very concerned with the amount of rehearsal time we would have. The students were accustomed to rehearing for 90 minutes twice a week. My rehearsals at GC run from two to three hours four to five days a week. So I knew that I would have to adjust my expectations. I set aside one to two hours prior to each rehearsal to prepare by planning out initial ideas for blocking and notating the choreography.
I elected to go with more simplified choreography because of the short amount of time we had to teach, refine and perfect the entire show. With only eight rehearsals, I didn’t want to bog the students down with difficult moves. But to create choreography that was simple, yet visually interesting it became vital to utilize varying formations. It also helped to make videos of the choreography that the students were able to watch at home to continue practicing on their own. With only two rehearsals a week, that on-your-own practice time was crucial to the success of the performance. Below you can watch a video of our rehearsal of “He Lives In You.”
Not every moment was always sunshine and rainbows. While the kids were all incredibly talented and more prepared than your average school production, we were still dealing with children. We’d go back to a number we had learned the previous week and it would be mostly forgotten. However, a few ‘come to Jesus’ moments from Paul and I had students motivated to nail their scenes. When they weren’t being worked with they would go into another room or out into the hallway and drill their choreography or run lines. That maturity really impressed me.
Looking back on rehearsals, I wish that I had spent more time on the scene work. When directing/choreographing a show I usually block in a two part process. If blocking a scene, I’ll start with the primary actors and then add in the background ensemble members, but if I’m choreographing a number I usually teach the ensemble part first and then insert the lead into the number. Generally though I will start overall with choreography, primarily because this gives the largest number of students something to review on their own as I work with a smaller group. However, I got too bogged down in choreography land and wasn’t able to get to most of the scenes in the second half of the play till the last few rehearsals. Despite the lack of time, the students stepped up again. They came in with their lines already memorized and, for the most part, a solid understanding of the scene and their objective. That preparation allowed for some tweaking of blocking, inserting of stage combat in places, and adjusting of character interpretation.