July 14, 2014

Tomorrow’s stars are onstage now in youth theater programs

N.C. Theatre, PlayMakers and other theater groups train the performers and audiences of the future at their summer youth conservatory programs

Holding forth from stage-left, the singer had everyone’s attention as he declaimed his warning with high drama.

Listen to that howling mob of blockheads in the street

A trick or two with lepers and the whole town’s on its feet!

A half-dozen other members of the cast listened and answered back, chorus-style and ominously – He is dangerooooooous – before the “cut” signal came. Director Tito Hernandez approached to give some technical pointers about tone of voice and body posture.

“It’s a fine line between stoic and desperate,” Hernandez said, running through subtle details including the angle of the actor’s hip. “O.K., are we good for that? Are we all right?”

There were nods and murmurs from the actors onstage at NC Theatre. Whether it’s a bunch of wizened veteran pros or enthusiastic young amateurs, the rhythms of rehearsal are pretty much the same. This group – members of NC Theatre Conservatory’s Summer Master Theatre Arts School, ranging in age from 12 to 18 and rehearsing to perform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Woodstock-era rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” – falls somewhere in between.

NC Theatre has had youth programs throughout its 30-year history, going back to the days when Broadway actress Lauren Kennedy and “American Idol” star (as well as current congressional candidate) Clay Aiken cut their performing teeth while growing up in Raleigh. For the last decade, those programs have been focused on a summer conservatory run by artistic director Ray Walker, whose own career includes acting in four Broadway shows.

Other summer offerings at NC Theatre include a theater art school for younger kids and a “Boot Camp” to prepare aspiring young actors to prepare to audition for NC Theatre’s 2015 staging of “Billy Elliot.” But its most attention-getting program of the summer is this production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“The conservatory has classes for everyone but really excels at pre-professional training,” Walker said. “We’ve been doing it 10 years, which is not a long time to really see the fruits of our labor. But we’re already producing people who are viable working talents, getting into the top BFA programs and working on Broadway. We have an alumnus (John Arthur Green) with ‘Matilda’ on Broadway, and Reed Shannon is on the national ‘Motown The Musical’ tour.”

‘Into the crucible’

NC Theatre, which has 33 participants enrolled, is one of the most established such programs in the area. There’s also the similarly styled PlayMakers Summer Youth Conservatory’s “Theatre Intensive” and “Theatre Tech” programs in Chapel Hill, where 43 kids are putting on “Hairspray.”

Aspiring participants have to audition to get in, and they’re held to a high standard. Depending on the place and program, costs to attend these and other similar programs generally fall in the range of most summer camps, several hundred dollars and up.

“The core of the program is the idea of putting young people into the crucible of a professional rehearsal process,” said Jeffrey Meanza, PlayMaker’s associate artistic director. “They work with a stage manager, are kept on an Equity schedule and are held to the same standard as any of our other productions.”

It’s demanding work, because they’re putting on plays that are well-known as well as challenging. In NC Theatre’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the part of Judas – played by Ahmad Ratliff, a junior at Ravenscroft in his third summer at the conservatory – is one of the toughest male sings in theater because it involves improvisation in a high key. Then there’s Jesus.

“Jesus is very hard to characterize,” said Collin Yates, a Millbrook senior who is playing that part. “You have to remember not ever to be really angry. When you’re acting, it’s easy to go straight into anger, but Jesus was never like that. So you’ve got to put aside those thoughts, go into more of a teaching kind of thing.”

‘Valuable experience’

As valuable as the experience of acting in professional-caliber productions is – and many summer-conservatory veterans do make the jump to NC Theatre’s main-stage shows, where they work alongside professional actors – grooming the next generation of Broadway stars is not necessarily the primary goal.

“It’s more about focus, concentration, team-building, developing the creative side of yourself,” said PlayMaker’s Meanza. “The benefits are greater than training the next Broadway star. We do have a lot of people who have gone on to programs at Harvard, Michigan, places like that. It’s valuable experience.”

It’s also a way for area theater companies to develop future audiences.

“NC Theatre was sort of built upon the backs of the parents of students in summer theater programs,” Walker said. “They were the first subscribers and ticket-buyers, and that has continued. A lot of kids do just come in, take a class and don’t stay. They still get the life skills that will help them get up in class, speak in front of people. But yeah, we like to utilize students as much as we can on our main-stage shows, and the summer conservatory is where a lot of them come from.”

All of this summer’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” lead actors have also appeared in NC Theatre main-stage productions.

Yates, whom Walker calls “a mega-talented superstar,” appeared in “A Christmas Story” a few years back and “Les Mis” earlier this year. Ratliff was also in “Les Mis” and will soon begin rehearsals for NC Theatre’s main-stage show “The Little Mermaid,” opening July 28. And Kendall McCarthy (Mary Magdalene), an Apex High School senior in her fourth conservatory summer, appeared in “Legally Blonde” as well as “Les Mis.”

‘Passing down a torch’

For young actors interested in theater as a career, the opportunity to work with seasoned professionals is enticing. PlayMakers has brought in veterans from San Francisco and New York to direct and choreograph “Hairspray.” Grady Bowman, who produced “Billy Elliot” on Broadway, is overseeing NC Theatre’s “Boot Camp” for that musical.

“It’s such a luxury to get to work one-on-one with people who have so much professional theater experience,” said McCarthy. “It’s almost like they’re passing down a torch.”

Walker, who is 50 but doesn’t look it, has lots of “Jesus Christ Superstar” experience to pass along, having played Judas on Broadway, in Europe and at NC Theatre in 2006. Hearing a recording of the latter performance helped draw current Judas actor Ratliff to the role.

“Not many people have a vocal teacher who’s been on Broadway and knows what that’s like,” Ratliff said during a rehearsal break. Then he looked over at Walker and mentioned the recording of his NC Theatre Judas performance.

“It’s so good,” Ratliff said. “Your voice has not changed at all.”

“You’re kind,” Walker said with a laugh. “But I could not do that eight times a week anymore.”

As part of his voice-saving regimen this summer, Ratliff has been limiting his speaking. He and fellow cast member McCarthy went to see Katy Perry’s concert at Raleigh’s PNC Arena last month, and Ratliff did not speak the entire evening.

Walker has also done some unusual things to prepare the cast. One of their first activities took place outside the theater, doing a high-ropes course at N.C. State as a trust-building exercise to “create that tribal sort of ’70s hippie feeling” of the play.

“Theater is like folklore,” Walker said. “The only way to really pass it down is by people who have done it. This is a natural way of progressing theater to the next generation. We’re obligated to hand it down, pay it forward and teach it.”

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