BWW Interview: LUKE & BLYTHE KIRKWOOD Put Spotlight On Collaboration Between Students & Professionals in SUMMER SING-THRU SERIES

BWW Interview: LUKE & BLYTHE KIRKWOOD Put Spotlight On Collaboration Between Students & Professionals in SUMMER SING-THRU SERIES

What do you get what you cross two solution-minded musical theatre lovers with a need to create and a love of collaboration? Husband-and-wife team Luke and Blythe Kirkwood are the prime example of artists that saw a need in the Houston theatre world, and took it upon themselves to fill it.

After noticing the wealth of musicals that rarely get to be produced because of their technical challenges or size, the Kirkwoods found a way to bring Houston audiences their favorite musicals in a different form of performance. The result was Summer Sing-Thru Series: a one-night-only concert event that brings all the musical wonder of your beloved Broadway soundtracks to life, with full orchestration by both professionals and high school to college-aged students.

The Summer Sing-Thru Series is a relatively new project, with your first production being Titanic in Summer 2017. Could you tell me about how you came up with this idea, and what drove you to create it?

LUKE: The idea for the Summer Sing-Thru Series came from two significant experiences for me. The biggest part of the idea came from my experience with a local professional theatre. The director said that we would rehearse Monday through Thursday of the first week, but on Friday, we would have an audience of guests who had made donations. These audience members would be coming in expecting to hear the full script read, and every song performed, knowing that we had just begun rehearsals. The cast held their books, read through the entire script and sang every song, and the audience loved it! I was blown away at realizing how there is an audience that doesn't need the fancy sets, props, and costumes to enjoy a show.

The other significant "light bulb" moment for the Summer Sing-Thru came from my experience in playing keyboards for the touring productions that come through Houston. I have played the keyboards for several touring shows downtown, and the local orchestra members only get one real rehearsal before they perform. By putting these two experiences together, I realized a show could be produced as a high-quality concert in a very short amount of time.

BLYTHE: Luke and I have been performing arts educators in some way, shape, or form for the last 10-11 years. We knew that the Summer Sing-Thru Series would be a unique way to provide an experience that allowed student performers and musicians a chance to perform alongside professionals.

Additionally, we have always heard so many singers and performers talk about shows they would love to do, but no one ever does them because the size of the orchestra, or complicated set issues, or the cast size is just too big. So, with the Sing-Thru, local performers are getting to do shows that most likely have not been done by professional companies in Houston for several years, if ever.

BWW Interview: LUKE & BLYTHE KIRKWOOD Put Spotlight On Collaboration Between Students & Professionals in SUMMER SING-THRU SERIESWhat about this idea to you made it worth investing in as a reality? What inspired the choice to have Summer Sing-Thru Series be structured as a concert series, rather than as traditional musicals?

LUKE: To me, the Sing-Thru's value is in the educational experience we are providing for the high school and college participants. As far as I know, there is no other opportunity in Houston for a high school instrumentalist to play their instrument amongst a group of players who play with the elite companies in Houston (Houston Ballet, Houston Grand Opera, Theatre Under The Stars). Our cast rehearses at a professional level...this means that the young performers are getting a glimpse into what it means to be a professional performer and musician.

BLYTHE: We are especially aware of the many parents we have in our cast, Luke and me included, who have young children. Many of them have felt the need to put their performing careers on hold, or have had to out of necessity. With the minimal rehearsal schedule of the Sing-Thru, these parents are able to commit to us without having to plan a month or two of child care. We've even had a few rehearsals with children running around.

It's who we are, family people. We want our kids to be exposed to our musical theatre world and we want others to feel that they are welcomed and not ostracized for having kids. I'll never forget an artistic director we worked for who really discouraged us when we expressed interest to them about wanting to start a family. S/He basically shamed us for thinking that we could still be involved in the performing arts while starting a family. We never want anyone to feel like that. And let's face it, us music and theatre performing parents need an artistic outlet, even if it is just once a year.

BWW Interview: LUKE & BLYTHE KIRKWOOD Put Spotlight On Collaboration Between Students & Professionals in SUMMER SING-THRU SERIESTalk to me about your background in musical theatre. Where did you both get started? Do either of you have a show or production that got you hooked on musical theatre at a young age?

BLYTHE: My mother was a lover of musical theatre. I remember listening to classics like Oklahoma on her old record player and watching the great movie musicals on VHS. The first REAL live production I ever saw was a production of Gypsy that I attended with my mother and her sisters, I was probably around 11 or 12. During the song You Gotta Get a Gimmick, Mazeppa leaned over and played her bugle through her legs straight out to the audience and I thought my aunt was going to pass out from laughing so hard. I'll never forget that.

I remember telling a high school teacher once that I wanted to major in musical theatre and he really discouraged me, telling me that musical theatre majors don't get any respect in New York and that I need to get a vocal performance degree and double major in that and theatre. That sounded overwhelming and I ended up floundering around between a few different majors my first year of college.

That year I also performed at a local community theatre and got recruited into the Miss Texas America pageant system. I was competing in a pageant held at Sam Houston State and it was there that a musical theatre professor saw me perform in the talent section of the pageant and approached me afterwards. 'What are you majoring in?' he asked. At the time it was Education. He said, 'Noooo no no no no. You need to come to my school and be in the musical theatre program.' That was the late, great Jonathan Charles who was my constant champion throughout my years at SHSU. He made such an impression on my life and is really one of the reasons why I ended up as a teacher.

LUKE: For me, I remember listening to musicals in the car with my parents when I was growing up, and always loving the stories they told. Because of my parents introducing me to musicals, I remember from a young age loving the cast albums of Secret Garden, The Who's Tommy, Evita, The Scarlett Pimpernel, Titanic. I remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of a musical being performed as a concert was the 10th anniversary performance of Les Miserables. Around that same time, I saw The Scarlett Pimpernel on Broadway, and the national tour of The Lion King at Jones Hall. Those two shows are the shows that convinced me that I should pursue a career in conducting musicals.

BWW Interview: LUKE & BLYTHE KIRKWOOD Put Spotlight On Collaboration Between Students & Professionals in SUMMER SING-THRU SERIESHow do you go about selecting the shows that you produce for Summer Sing-Thru Series? Do you have any shows that you know you'd like to produce in the future?

LUKE: When picking shows, we start with shows that we know many of our performer and musician friends love but haven't had the chance to do. We typically like to consider shows that the biggest companies in Houston haven't produced within the last 5-10 years.

BLYTHE: We have several shows we are always thinking about and talking over with our company members, but nothing solid yet. We have to think about what our current patrons would like to see, what will draw in new patrons, and what is going to keep performers and musicians coming back to be a part of the Sing-Thru. We want to always remain true to our vision for the Summer Sing-Thru Series, no matter what.

BWW Interview: LUKE & BLYTHE KIRKWOOD Put Spotlight On Collaboration Between Students & Professionals in SUMMER SING-THRU SERIESI love the opportunity Summer Sing-Thru Series provides for newcomers and students to perform with Houston professionals. Could you tell us about the dynamic of having both student musicians and performers collaborating on this work?

BLYTHE: It has been really neat to watch the dynamic between students and pros. All of our professionals know going in that there will be students involved, and I really feel like the pros have taken a lot of ownership of that. I love looking out and seeing conversations happening during break between the students and professionals, or seeing the students lean over to the professional sitting next to them to ask a music question while learning a new number.

And you want to talk about special, I got to perform alongside three former students last year in Titanic, one former student in Children of Eden, and I have one in Parade as well. Such full circle moments for me. Luke has also had a couple of former students perform with us both this summer and last. It's really the heart of what we do.

LUKE: I'll echo what Blythe said for sure. Another cool moment during Titanic, the entire trombone section was essentially one professional and his private trombone studio (students that he teaches privately). During breaks he would be over there drilling them on a section of music and talking them through tricky passages. During Children of Eden, I had a student playing the bass come up and ask me a question about what a vamp (a musical term only seen in musical theatre) is. You could tell he was embarrassed to ask, but it was a perfect example of why it's important for students to be involved in this process. They are learning things they may not ever have learned otherwise. Not to mention, we have some crazy talented students in our show. Sometimes the pros are just sitting back, in awe of what these kids are able to do.

BWW Interview: LUKE & BLYTHE KIRKWOOD Put Spotlight On Collaboration Between Students & Professionals in SUMMER SING-THRU SERIESSeeing that rehearsals for the second Summer Sing-Thru Series production this summer, Parade, are already underway, what do you think audiences have to look forward to in this specific production?

BLYTHE: Parade is definitely a much heavier show as far as subject matter than Children of Eden. But that's what is so great about theatre, it can make you feel all the feelings. One show can make you laugh, smile, and forget about the troubles of the world for a few hours. Another show can make you cry, make you angry, challenge you, make you think. And other shows can make you feel ALL of that. It's why we all love it so much. With Parade, I think you can look forward to incredible voices, a killer Jason Robert Brown piano part (played by the amazing Stephen W. Jones), soaring music played by the best instrumentalists in town, and a story that will break your heart and make you really think about the dangers of ignorance and prejudice. It will definitely by a moving experience for everyone involved.

LUKE: Parade is a powerful story which includes a love story about a couple growing close together and rediscovering each other in the face of a terrible situation. Michael Morrison and Amanda Hart Bassett are doing an incredible job with their portrayals as Leo and Lucille Frank. Our director, Kevin Crouch, is a real visionary with the way he directs our Summer Sing-Thru performances, and audience members always mention that they didn't find themselves 'missing' the sets, props, costumes. Kevin narrates through the big action moments of the scripts and wraps the audience into the action by knowing exactly what details they need to hear, without slowing down the flow of the performance.

I especially think the audience will enjoy hearing and seeing this orchestra. With this production, we are trying a new placement on stage that makes the orchestra a bit more visible so our audience can really appreciate the skill of these instrumentalists. There's an entirely different world in music theatre pits (where the orchestra performs). We are so happy to bring these talented musicians into the spotlight a bit more for this production.

Lastly, do you have anything you'd like to say to musical theatre novices and those that are anxious about their start in musical theatre?

BLYTHE: Boy do I. Never let anyone discourage you from pursuing your dream! Your journey will be different than every other person who has gone before you or will come after you, so never compare yourself. It only matters that you are continuing to learn, grow, and create. It doesn't matter if you end up playing the lead on Broadway one day, or a chorus member in the local community theatre production, or if you become a teacher who inspires the next generation of musical theatre professionals - musical theatre is a JEWEL of love and creativity in this crazy world. You will more than likely become a better problem solver, team player, empathizer, and communicator than those who have never experienced being a part of a musical. Hold fast to the fact that you were gifted with your unique talent, and that it is your JOB to give that back to the world in whatever capacity you can. And now I'll step off my soapbox and say COME SEE PARADE and see what a night of musical theatre can do for your soul.

LUKE: Musical theatre is the best combination of all art forms. There is a place for everyone. Instrumentalists, singers, actors, dancers, painters, set builders, directors, stage hands, lighting designers, etc., all come together to create the magic of a musical. If anyone has an interest in helping out in any way, there is always a place for them.

Summer Sing-Thru Series will perform PARADE in concert one night only on August 9th, 2018 at 7:30pm at the Bayou Theater, University of Houston - Clear Lake 2700 Bay Area Blvd. Houston, TX 77058. Tickets start at $35. Student Discount and Premium tickets are also available. Visit Kirkwood Music Services to purchase tickets and for more information on Summer Sing-Thru Series.

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From This Author Audrey Morabito

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