Interview: HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL Series' Tim Federle Talks the Power of Theatre Teachers, the “Best Little Secret in the South,” and More
He may be the showrunner for Disney's hit musical theatre love letter, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES on Disney+, but Tim Federle is a self-professed "theatre dork" at heart. And this weekend, he joins thousands of theatre kids just like him right here in Atlanta.
iTheatrics hosts the annual Junior Theater Festival in Cobb County, welcoming over six thousand students to perform, collaborate, and celebrate theatre. Federle is no stranger to JTF, having released his best-selling BETTER NATE THAN NEVER there before the book was available to the public. He returns to Atlanta this year, bringing with him HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES stars Joshua Bassett and Olivia Rodrigo to perform.
Below, check out our conversation with Federle where he shares why he finds JTF so special, how his theatre teacher changed his life, and more.
We're excited to have you here for JTF, Tim!
I'm excited to come back to Atlanta! I came to Atlanta when I was in the tour of A CHORUS LINE, and we played the Fabulous Fox. It's the most beautiful theatre in America! And I danced in the 2000 SUPER BOWL halftime show at the Georgia Dome! I have a soft spot in my heart for the good people of Hotlanta. JTF is the most exciting place in the world if you're a theatre person. It's like 10 Broadway opening nights at once.
I'm so excited. Last year when I went for the first time, I was blown away. I don't know how I didn't know about it before!
It's the best little secret in the South. It's a place where a lot of high-level theatre people dip in and say, "Well that just gave me a pep in my step!" You know, it's thousands of theatre dorks in one auditorium hearing and singing along to Caissie Levy.
I'm so grateful to Tim McDonald and his whole team for creating a place for everyone who loves the same stuff to come together. What iTheatrics has done with JTF is pretty legendary.
"Legendary" is such a good word for it, because it's unlike anything!
I know! It's the TONY AWARDS with acne cream.
So what will JTF look like for you this year?
Well, we're going to do a little Q&A with the great Tim McDonald, who himself is a great writer. I love what he did on JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH with Pasek and Paul. Josh and Olivia are going to sing a couple songs from our show. And for me, what JTF represents and what we try to capture with HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE MUSICAL: THE SERIES is the power of theatre teachers. That's what it's all about.
Were it not for the "nameless" theatre teachers that are all over this country and all over the world who are changing kids' lives just by seeing them and giving them a place to come, a lot of people would have much sadder lives.
The message of my show and the message of my theatre teachers growing up is not, "If you work hard enough you're going to be Olivia Rodrigo, or you're going to be viral on Tik Tok, or you're going to go to Broadway." It's a nice benefit if it happens, but the message is, if you treat each other with dignity, and if you learn to take the note, and if you show up on time, and if you keep going even when you mess up and your voice cracks, you can have a happy adulthood.
I think the Junior Theater Festival is a gigantic celebration of the unsung heroes of the arts, which are all of those teachers who empower their students to be their best selves whether by using their voice or disappearing into a character when you're the age where you don't even want to be yourself. Junior Theater Festival and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL are love letters to the adults who change kids' lives.
I love that that is your emphasis.
At the end of the day, the spirit of the show is, a group of kids walking and talking in place putting on a show. And by the way, one thing that cracks me up about my series is the opening night performance of HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL is pretty dorky. It's not that accomplished. Miss Jenn doesn't have the best ideas, and yet I had theatre teachers growing up who didn't need to live in New York, or Los Angeles, or one of the coastal cities that we think of as being the beacon of entertainment.
They lived in small-town Western Pennsylvania, and they gave us a place to go after school every day where we could just be ourselves and jam out on the piano and be dorks and fall in love with each other and fight and still have to go on stage and play off each other.
Hearing you say that is so sweet, because I can relate to that! As a theatre kid growing up, my favorite summers were the ones spent at the theatre, and there was frequently some interpersonal drama between kids. But we had to continue with the show anyway.
It's such drama. And yes, that is what the theatre teaches you. No matter what, just go on with the show. At 8pm, you gotta get out there, and you gotta give a performance. I think it's pretty good preparation for life. Even when you don't feel like doing it, there are certain things you have to do, like pay taxes.
Are there any memorable moments or even sweet moments that you drew on to work on the show?
Oh my goodness! All of them, is the answer! I had this acting teacher in Pittsburgh named Jill Wadsworth who was also Gillian Jacobs' and Zachary Quinto's acting teacher, and she's sort of a legend in our community. She pulled me aside when I was 14, and I was not out of the closet yet, but I was developing the signature sense of humor of the quick-witted gay kid.
I was sometimes cutting my classmates down in class because it got me a laugh, and I remember Jill pulling me aside and saying, "You're talented, and you could actually do this for a living, but your reputation starts today in my class. If you form your personality around being the guy who makes fun of people, that's going to follow you for the rest of your life." And I remember it completely changed my life.
It sounds like your heart is in the right place to be involved in JTF this year.
Well thank you! It's such a venue! I mean, Darren Criss, Pasek and Paul, they get such big people, and I feel really lucky that they've made the space for us. And Olivia and Josh may be big stars now, but the truth is they share DNA with everyone who's attending Junior Theater Festival and everyone who wants to be noticed and has a story to tell.
We might not all grow up to have the same presence as Josh and Olivia, but what I want the attendees of JTF to emulate more than anything is the grace and kindness that Josh and Olivia show their cast members and their fans. And the humility! Olivia's written arguably the biggest breakout song from season one, and she's barely old enough to drive. Her attitude is, "If you never have me write a song again, I'll still be grateful for this opportunity." And that's something I hope every kid at JTF will bring back to their schools, which is a sense of gratefulness for what you're given and the opportunities you're handed.
Photo courtesy of Disney