BWW Previews: KAAC Kids Grow Up with SPRING AWAKENING
The kids behind Kids Acting Against Cancer are growing up.
It has been 15 years since Whitten and Jaclyn Montgomery gathered their friends in their basement for a production of "Annie" that raised $200 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The company they formed, Kids Acting Against Cancer, has put on many more shows and, as of their last production, raised $350,000 in the battle against cancer.
They were producers and charity supporters before they could drive. And they've done more to support the fight against cancer than most people ever will.
Now, they're embracing their maturity both onstage and off. They've taken on a new show with seriously adult content: the award-winning folk/rock odyssey "Spring Awakening," playing through Sunday in the Martin Experimental Theater at the Kentucky Center for the Arts.
For KAAC, putting up "Spring Awakening" is, in a way, a step backward. The company's three 2013 productions were all of the non-musical variety, from the Agatha Christie-penned "And Then There Were None" to the hard-hitting black comedy "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza and finally David Lindsay-Abaire's drama of loss and grief, "Rabbit Hole." The company has returned to musical theater - but "Spring Awakening" is no "Annie."
"Spring Awakening" is the 2006 Broadway musical about youth rising up against an oppressive culture to discover love, sex and themselves. The show, featuring compositions by 1990s pop star Duncan Sheik, adapts the 1891 German play of the same name which, in its time, was banned for its frank exploration of such taboo subjects as homosexuality, abortion and suicide. The musical won eight Tony awards and receives its local premiere with this production.
"It's severely R-rated," says Remy Sisk, KAAC's co-executive of artistic direction, who plays Melchior in the show. "We're not kids anymore."
Whitten Montgomery, co-executive of developmental direction, says the directors of the company also wanted to grow in the way they approached the show. As producer, she wanted to step back to give more focus to the business side of KAAC and give more people a chance to be involved in the nonprofit organization. The company evolved from casting by invitation to holding open auditions.
Sisk also wanted to step back - but the pull of one of his favorite musicals was too great.
"This is a musical everyone our age can connect to," Sisk says. "The older ones don't necessarily appeal to anyone. The character of Melchior tries to fight against society and inform society to make everyone at peace with knowledge and human existence. That's something anyone our age can relate to."
"Spring Awakening" is a non-traditional musical in many ways. Beyond Shiek's punk and folk-infused music, the songs themselves don't serve to advance the story. Instead, they function like internal monologues, taken by the characters to ponder their fears, curiosities and place in the world. Fitting the expressive "emo" style, half the songs in the show are done like a rock concert, microphone in hand.
"I really didn't like musicals. This is unlike any musical that has ever been," Sisk says. "Who can't relate to angst, loneliness and sexual trauma?"
As with previous productions, KAAC will donate the profits from the show to charity. "Spring Awakening's" earnings will go to improving in-patient quality of life on Kosair Children's Hospital's pediatric oncology floor. Sisk says the donations may go to new equipment or games for the patients - whatever makes their treatments easier.
Choosing a show that depicts the maturing process from youth to adulthood reflects the journey its producers find themselves - and their company - taking. Montgomery says that, after 15 years in business, KAAC faces a struggle in doing the shows they want to do. So, the company is growing, too.
"These new shows are not inappropriate, but not necessarily family-friendly," she says. "These stories need to be told. Awareness of them is crucial for our ability to get out to the city and reach a new audience."
In order to fulfill their mission while telling their stories, Kids Acting Against Cancer is growing up: it will soon drop the "K" to become Acting Against Cancer, while starting up offshoot programs partnering with school drama programs to assist them in producing Broadway-level shows, keeping Kids Acting Against Cancer alive and growing further. Their plan is to fund performance rights and production for schools to do top-quality musical theater, with AAC receiving ticket sale profits in return. They have approached schools in Nashville and Indianapolis with the program and will pitch to local schools starting in March.
"The rebirth of KAAC is on the horizon," Montgomery says. "We're looking at how the company can evolve and kids can do what I used to do: take part in a learning experience and learn what they're working for."