BWW Exclusive: Jennifer Young, Josh Wechsler, and Matthew Moore on Zach's Pre-Professional Program and BROADWAY ROCKS
There are a few performances that I've seen in my lifetime that have stayed with me for years. Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard? Unforgettable. Michael Crawford in Phantom? I was six when I saw his performance, and I still remember it.
But a private serenade by Zach's Pre-Professional company during one of their rehearsals for Broadway Rocks? That has to be one of the coolest.
The Pre-Professional Company, now in its first year, is an audition-based program for young performers ranging in age from elementary school thru seniors in high school. The program differs considerably from other theater education programs in Austin, including other programs available at Zach. While there are countless programs that offer classes and training for young performers, the audition-based model of the Pre-Professional Company is unique.
"We realized that we needed a company of dedicated young performers," says Jennifer Young, Zach's Pre-Professional Manager, "And we needed to give them class time and training and opportunities to perform. We want it to be an intense training program where students can take a variety of classes, work hard, and get the technical foundation they need to be stellar performers."
In addition to being an intense training program, it is an elite one as well. 160 young performers auditioned for the Pre-Professional company this past year, and only 57 were accepted. The 57 accepted performers are then placed into one of three groups. The Junior Company is comprised of beginning and intermediate students, grades 4-8. Students in grades 8-12 are placed in either a Senior company for intermediate students or an Elite group of advanced performers.
According to Josh Wechsler, who serves as a Voice Teacher for the Pre-Professional program, "The company is pre-professional only in name. We hold our performers to professional standards and treat them like professionals. The only difference is how often they rehearse." Juniors rehearse three hours a week, and Seniors rehearse four hours a week.
In addition to the classes and rehearsals, the company is heavily involved in special events and performances throughout the year. "It was important to me that we do events where we give back to the community," says Young. "We've performed at events for organizations like Dell Children's Hospital and The Boys and Girls Club, but we've also done other events that they would typically do later in their professional careers, like parades and like Zach's annual gala. Broadway performers do events like that, and we want to give these kids that professional experience."
While the program is clearly designed to help young performers hone their craft, Young has noticed other benefits as well. "A parent of one of the Pre-Professional members told me the other day, 'My daughter has so much confidence right now. She's at this horrible, vulnerable age where kids are mean and bully each other, and yet my daughter is just the most confident human being. She feels encouraged in this program, and she has this sense of community.' As an educator, that means so much to me. I am so proud of that, and I wish I had that when I was a kid."
The program has also helped performers like Matthew Moore prepare for college auditions. "Josh and Jen were very supportive through the whole college application and audition process," says Moore. "I'm in such a small bubble in Austin, so to go into an audition process where you're competing against thousands of kids for 12 to 30 spots was really mind-opening. There were some points where I was like, 'What am I going to do? I'm not going to get in anywhere.'"
Moore was accepted into several different programs across the country and will be attending Elon University in the fall. When asked what he felt helped him successfully prepare for college auditions, Moore immediately mentioned the Pre-Professional program and his instructors. "I feel like the Pre-Professional program taught me how to take what's thrown at me."
Though the program focuses on education and training, the company performs for the public several times per year. Broadway Rocks, a revue of songs from rock musicals, is one such performance. The show enters its second and final weekend this Friday.
"Anybody who likes watching people who love what they do should come see this show," says Wechsler. "The music ranges from Hair to Matilda to Jersey Boys to Beautiful." While the performers may enjoy singing more contemporary musical theater songs, Young and Wechsler still utilize the material as an educational opportunity. "We really try to give these kids an exposure to music and an understanding of the history of musical theater," Wechsler says. "Musical theater is an American institution, but we don't have a culture that explores that history. Glee may do "Singing in the Rain," but they don't talk about who was in that movie or why it was important. Supposedly, Barbara Streisand's Goddaughter saw a video of Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl and said, 'Why are you singing a song from Glee?'"
Young points out that there's a practical reason why performers need to know their theater history. "It's important, because if they go into an audition and someone says, 'sing it like Carol Channing,' they need to know what that sound is."
BROADWAY ROCKS, starring Zach Theatre's Pre-Professional Company, plays the Kleberg Stage Friday, 5/23 at 6:30pm and Saturday 5/24 at 2pm and 6:30pm. For tickets and information, please visit http://tickets.zachtheatre.org/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=2531
For more information about the Pre-Professional Company, please visit http://www.zachtheatre.org/education