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BWW Interview: Many Voices, Many Steps, One Dream- The Intern Program at Maine State Music Theatre

Broadway World's Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold spent a summer observing, interviewing, and filming the 2015 MSMT Intern Class. This article and the accompanying video are a chronicle of that experience. To see the short cut video, scroll down or to listen to some of the complete individual interviews on her You Tube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHwT83xyxF56KxOtTobaRSg.

Each year some two dozen young theatre professionals make their way to Brunswick, Maine, to take part in a dynamic summer program that is both educational and experiential. They come to fill performance, production, and administrative internships at one of New England's leading regional theatres. Maine State Music Theatre is an Equity summer company with more than a half century of storied history of bringing first-class Broadway shows to midcoast Maine and beyond. And at the heart of this ensemble are the talented, aspiring, and inspiring young actors and technicians who come to learn, to absorb, and to contribute to the magic of their chosen profession.

"Our intern program is at the heart of Maine State Music Theatre because watching them from the day they get here to the day they leave and the growth that happens to them is kind of the same thing that happens to MSMT. It's their heart and energy that gives us the pulse for Maine State Music Theatre," says Curt Dale Clark, the company's Artistic Director, who takes a special interest in the young professionals, serving as a mentor, director, and as one performance intern dubbed him, "Dad."

His commitment is shared by his partner, Managing Director Stephanie Dupal. Dupal recognizes the program as indispensible to the company and invaluable to the young artists it serves. "The intern company is such an important core part of this company because it gives us a chance to pass on the skills needed to continue musical theatre. The people who come here love the fact that they get this opportunity to help mold, share, train skills with this group of young adults who want to be in the profession they currently are."

Dupal talks about about the demanding selection process which takes place in the spring of each year when she and Clark audition thousands of performers in New York and throughout the region. "There are twenty-three interns this summer. Between the performance and technical interns, we probably had resumes and interviews and auditions for over five thousand, so it is a very hard program to get into, and we feel we have the cream of the crop."

Indeed, the lucky few who get to come to work at MSMT each summer receive a special opportunity, but they also bring something intangible to the company and to the many volunteers associated with the theatre. MSMT's "Angel" program contributes time and resources to the theatre throughout the year, and one of the group's special interests is "adopting" and sponsoring the interns. Coordinator Judie Lemons speaks fondly about her committee's work with the interns: "These kids come from all over the country, and it has been wonderful getting to know them and watching them progress throughout the season. They are so talented, and I am in awe of them. I feel so fortunate to be a part of their lives." Her friend and co-volunteer Carole Heaphy seconds this statement, recounting how she and her husband Bill enjoy showing the "kids" around Maine when the interns do have a rare free moment and how they try to buoy up the young folks' spirits with care packages during the long work days. Yet, despite the total commitment required of each and every young person who interns at MSMT, all will tell you how privileged they are to be working here and how special the experience is.

So who are these young artists? They come from some of America's best university and conservatory programs to pursue their goals. They come filled with anticipation, expectations, even a little anxiety. But most of all they come with a dream. As Boston Conservatory (class 2017) performance intern James Spencer Dean articulates it: "I want to keep working with people so well known in the industry and who have so much knowledge to pass on. The ultimate dream, of course, is Broadway."

The selection process is highly competitive and the choices MSMT must make are not easy ones. As Clark confides ruefully, "Selecting the interns can be very difficult. We start with thousands of people and pare it down, pare it down, pare it down. They go through a rigorous singing, dancing audition. They go through an interview process because it is very important to meet them as people. If they don't have a ton of energy, they will never survive the program."

It becomes a very choice, close-knit group, and each of the young artists interviewed this summer was enthusiastically aware of how special an opportunity the MSMT experience is. Dean, recalling that he was the only intern hired from the Maine auditions last March, says, " They are very picky, and they want only the best. The other interns I perform with are just out of this world, and I am so lucky to be a part of this group."

Director/Choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont takes a special interest in the interns. Dumont, who has a long history of working with MSMT (on and off stage), having even served a stint as Managing Director a decade and a half ago is thrilled to be working with the 2015 class. Dumont, who co-directed with Clark and choreographed FAME and directed/choreographed Shrek, Jr. The Musical waxes eloquent: "This group can do anything I ask them. They are kind; they are loving; they are professional and smart. One of the things Curt and I try to do is to create an environment where it is safe to try things, where they can foolish if necessary, and then we find the truth in all of that."

As Dumont attests, MSMT's intern program does ask for a great deal, but the theatre gives back by providing a rich, nurturing learning environment. Clark says, "My favorite part about the intern program is that they all learn on so many different levels. They all come from great college programs, but they are going to work in sets, costumes, props, backstage, cleaning crews. We make it our business to make sure we have great union professionals at the theatre giving them examples of how to act."

And thus they learn by example as well as by doing. Each season the interns reflect on the practical lessons they have gained from the program and how their expectations were fulfilled, and often exceeded. The responses are varied and personal, but uniformly appreciative.

For Dean "Just working in such a professional environment at such a well-known Equity theatre is such a great learning experience and having the opportunity to work on so many different projects at once."

Technical interns agree. Jennifer Law, a production intern (recognized by her peers at the end of the summer for the technical award) is thrilled by her experiences in the MSMT shops. On the day we interview her, she is excited about learning how to weld and enthuses: "Everyone here is so willing to tell you how to use this tool) and how you change these. They are so ready to teach you thoroughly how to use everything the whole way through. This shop has been my best shop experience so far, and I love it!"

Paints intern Forest Horsley, interviewed during the construction of Sister Act sets, seems unfazed by the long hours. " We work 9:00 am - 11:00 pm most days, but last night we worked until 2:00 am and then came in at 8:00 am. The paints crew has to work around the other departments, so we have to be flexible."

Her supervisor, Paints Department Head Sean Cox concurs that having the interns (an apprentices and journeymen who make up his five-person department) says, "Having people who go to college for this and have the chance to have a real job experience during the summer is absolutely invaluable.They are all really passionate about it; they all work so hard, and they are what makes the shows happen."

Fellow department head, Kristin Womble, who directs MSMT's costume shop agrees: "Every single member of this shop is extraordinarily important. The interns are really great because it is a learning experience. We get to guide them through and teach them along the way and really help nourish their possible career in this field."

No summer of theatre would be complete without an obligatory dose of the unexpected! With the resilience of youth, the interns seem to take it all in stride. Says Reagan Danel Ogle, a performance intern who attends Elon University, "That's what I love about theatre. It's so spontaneous. You learn to do something and learn how to do it quick, and I love it!"

Toward the end of the summer when asked about moments which might have made them nervous or caught off-guard, each had a story, but recalled it with humor and a sense of pride in having surmounted the circumstances. Though the performance interns form the ensemble of each of the four mainstage shows, they occasionally do get to play small roles and in two cases this summer found themselves going on at short notice as understudies. Performance intern Sara Bond was asked to cover for a few days for an absent member of The Full Monty cast. She remembers the company manager handing her the script upon her arrival and telling her to learn the part and be ready by the weekend. " It was my first day, and I was so excited, so I immediately opened the script and started learning my liners. It was my first time working with an all-Equity cast, and it was a pretty decent feature, too, so that was one of the highlights of my summer!"

Similarly, DeAngelo Renard was called upon to play T.J. in Sister Act on hours notice, when the Equity actor had to fly home for a family emergency. "I had never understudied a role before in my life! I had seven hours to learn a part I did not know at all. Everyone - all the performance interns, all the staff, everybody in the show - was really supportive, loving, and caring. But I am not going to lie; I was so scared! But you know, it is a business. You have to do what you have to do," he concludes philosophically.

Embracing the unexpected is just part of the equation. The intern program at MSMT is one of the most demanding and intense theatrical experiences anywhere, so Clark is certain to make the terms of the summer employments very clear to the prospective participants. "I tell them if they are not interested in hard work, don't come to the callback. It is an incredibly hard job to be an intern at MSMT. Some of the qualities we look for are commitment, of course, fortitude, and above all energy. They are going to work fourteen hour days one right after the other all summer with only a few days off. If they are not up for that, they might as well not apply because that is how we survive, And the cathartic thing that happens by surviving all that - they make friends for the rest of their lives."

Shortly before the summer concluded, while in the midst of an intense six-day rehearsal period for Shrek and while still performing nights in Young Frankenstein, we asked how accurate they had found Clark's description of the program. "I don't want to call it difficult; it's exhausting, but I feel like I am exhausted from having so much positive energy, " affirms Dean. "You get to challenge yourself in so many different ways. It's also a test of endurance. We work so hard, but if you can withstand it, you can withstand anything in this business."

Stefanie Sable, another performance intern ready to begin her career after having been graduated from Muhlenburg College, concurs: "Curt had explained the whole program to us and how it worked, but it wasn't until we actually got here and were in the midst of doing Sister Act and coming back and doing rehearsal until midnight thatwe understood the reality. We were asked to have our A-game all the time, and, of course, you should always come with you're a-game, but there is a different kind of energy you need to hone in on when you're working late at night and trying to support everyone else."

Yet the rigors seem to pale in balance with the rewards. And then there are so many memories. At the final intern dinner, each young artist is asked to choose a single most unforgettable moment of the summer. To a man, the responses are open, often emotional, and heartwarming. A few share some special recollections with Broadway World:

"Last night in Young Frankenstein, in "Puttin' on the Ritz," says performance intern Leah Nicoll, "We were all in our tuxes, gloves, hats. We finished the number and everything went well and then a third of the house stood up! We stood there for what felt like a minute and a half of applause. It's moments like that that I remember why I do what I do."

Bond, on her way to Hong Kong for a short stint at Disney World before returning to her senior year and a semester in London, finds the summer to have been invaluable. "I have learned a lot that has helped me decide what kind of actor I want to be, how I want to come to rehearsal, how I want to present myself, the kind of person I want to be."

She is seconded by Sable: "It still feels like a dream. This is the place that jump started my career. These are the people who saw me in New York and gave me a chance - who saw something in me and let me come here and learn," she says gratefully.

Another university graduate (Illinois Wesleyan) ready to begin his career in New York, Jordan Lipes reflects not only on the amazing opportunities he was given to showcase his extraordinary dance abilities and to serve as an assistant director for Shrek, but on the personal journey the summer has been. "It's been a long time since I have been this close to a group of people. Being here has also allowed me to become more free as a person. I learned to just be myself more than ever before in rehearsal and on stage - to just let it all be. I have had to push myself in many different areas, and now I feel my training at school has prepared me for what I have to go do after this job. It has been a big learning experience. MSMT has been almost like four years packed into one!"

The uniqueness of the experience is not lost on MSMT's administrators any more than it is on the interns, themselves. Dupal, who has been with the company for over twenty years, feels that the intern program has grown and been refined over time to where it is something very singular, indeed. She defines this: "We allow them to have a number of different experiences. Our performance interns we allow to perform on our mainstage mostly in support roles. Then we also provide two shows every year - this year Fame and Shrek - where they get to be stars, leads. So they have both opportunities. That goes for our production interns. They are taking designs from our designers and creating them on stage, but when we do these other productions we give them the chance to be the designer and department heads. So they get all the aspects."

Clark talks about another facet of the program that sets MSMT apart: "I usually tell a group of students auditioning that they have two choices -because at the big conglomerate auditions there are lots of companies from which they can choose. They can be the star of the show at a much smaller theatre or they can come to MSMT and work alongside Broadway professionals in every aspect of our business, and I feel that is the better choice at their age."

To that end MSMT provides not only hands-on experiences for the interns, but organizes special educational classes and seminars as well, which are taught by the company's Equity directors - "some of the best professionals in the business like Donna Drake and Marc Robin," says Dean, who cites a master class with Donna Drake (who staged The Full Monty and Sister Act) this summer:

"She gave us this awesome acting class and even the tech interns were connecting to the material so amazingly."

Marketing intern, Holly Landis completes his description of the class: "We sat in a circle, and she told us to tell each other what we liked about ourselves and didn't like. I looked around the room and thought 'these are all strangers, and I have to tell them deep secrets about myself, and I am terrified!' But once we had all done it, we were very vulnerable, and we all became a lot closer because of it. That was actually one of my favorite moments!"

And then in addition to the educational and experiential opportunities, there is the delight of MSMT's being situated in one of the most beautiful and congenial places in the world - midcoast Maine! All the interns, no matter where they call home, attest to the warm community feeling Brunswick offers. Those who come from the hustle and bustle of places like New York, at first seems amazed that as Props Intern Nicole Schwaninger exclaims, "Everyone is a lot nicer here."

Or as Dean describes the experience: "After being here just a couple weeks and walking down Maine Street every day for lunch, you see the same people, and you start to feel like you are a part of the community." He cites the feeling that the MSMT's large community of sponsors, donors, subscribers all contribute to making the theatre a vital focal point for the region. And then, there is the breathtaking landscape. "It is green, beautiful; the people are nice. It's like being in heaven for the summer and you get to do theatre!"

A glorious landscape, a supportive community, an enthusiastic audience, and, most of all, a program which inspires excellence, all these make for a transformative experience. But beyond the professional skills these interns learn and the bonds they forge, something else - something magical seems to happen.

With a sparkle in his eye and a catch in his throat, Dumont tries to articulate that magic. "I think the intern program makes you grow up pretty fast. Beyond all the professional skills we impart and hone, everyone of them leaves here and takes this with them: the knowledge that "every time they go to a job, they need to realize just how lucky they are to get to do what they love. To be able to do this every single day- that's a gift. It's as hard work as any other work; it's a career; it's a commitment, but they are so lucky that they get to do it!"

The MSMT summer seems to have universally cemented a sense of vocation in each of the interns. "Before coming here I had no idea what I wanted to do," admits Landis. "I had only worked at a theatre in a college. I was also from a small town in Kansas and I hadn't been away very far from my family and friends. This is twenty-eight hours away from my hometown. It is a brand new experience for me, and it has definitely changed me."

Kerri Walker, a 2014 Development Intern who returned this summer to work again for the company, says what she has experienced these past two summers has solidified her commitment to not-for-profit arts: I am very passionate about enabling artists to create art. I want to work to bring theatre and the arts to communities, but you have to have the dollars to do that, and so I am happy to contribute to that effort."

For Schwaninger, it is not only the confidence with which she leaves - "I feel they can throw anything at me next year and I am ready" -but also the interpersonal dynamic. "As soon as I got here, I immediately felt that family vibe that everyone so stereotypically says about theatre. It is so true. All the actors, everyone in every shop. I feel I got to connect with so many people on so many levels."

Performance Intern Benjamin Henley agrees: "For me it was really special to have that strong connection with [Equity professionals] people we think as so far above us and out of our reach. To have them treat us like people, too, made me feel we have somewhere to go in this business and we have the potential to do what they do.

Renard echoes these sentiments: "I have learned so much about the business. I have also learned that these people who have been on Broadway, who have worked professionally for years and years are people like us. That is comforting to know they are human,too. Yes, I have learned; I have grown so much, and I am really excited to get back to school and apply my new skills."

Nicoll sums it up in absolutes: "I am absolutely not the same actor. I am not the same dancer; I am not the same singer. I am not even the same person that I was when I came here for the summer."

To be sure, MSMT's interns do take away something ever so special in terms of skills but also in that intangible, indeliable way. And for their mentors, nothing is more satisfying than to watch their careers blossom and to find that some of them return to the company and encourage others to come as well. When they do, Dupal says, "We know we have created a love and a friendship and a respect. These people mean so much to the company. We watch them grow, and it is amazing to see how much they bring back in love to what we have given them in knowledge."

And she and Clark feel that one of the highest compliments MSMT can receive is to have a former intern recommend the program to his friends and colleagues, as 2014 Performance intern, 2015 ensemble member Alec Cohen does when he enthuses: "Come to Maine State because it will be the most challenging summer of your life, but it will also be the most rewarding summer of your life, and it's a true family. You are going to be exhausted, but there is no place that you will learn more, and you will put on some incredible productions and make some of the best friends you will ever have."

Not only does the intern program offer a meaningful experience for the participants, but as in any creative educational experience, the roles are frequently reversed. Mentors become students, and students impart, as well as absorb lifetime lessons. As Artistic Director, Clark cherishes the privilege of working so closely with these young artists, and what they bring to his and the company's lives. The intern program gives to MSMT "the heart and energy and the remembering why we do what we do. We do plays, and they are really fun, but sometimes you get bogged down in the little nitpicky things, and that can send you down a path of negativity. These kids constantly thwart that negativity and keep trying and trying. It's by remembering that in yourself that they give back to us. It sends us on a path of trying harder."

Twenty-three young artists have come together for an unforgettable summer, bringing with them their many and diverse voices, their singular steps on a journey toward artistic expression, and bound together by one dream. "I'm alive, and I will survive....by doing hard work," the FAME ensemble sings in "Hard Work," and near the end of the musical they reprise the song ending with "Fame, remember my name." Based on the experiences Broadway World was able to share this summer with this very special group of young artists and with the company who mentors them, it should not be long before the sentiment of these lyrics metamorphoses from aspiration to reality.


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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold