BWW Interview: Timothy Allen McDonald, Founder and CEO of iTheatrics, Talks to BWW About the 4th Annual Junior Theater Festival West
Forget that other show. I was in the REAL room where it happened last weekend at the 4th Annual Junior Theater Festival West (JTF), which celebrates youth theatre and encourages students and teachers to keep theatre alive in their community. Each year it follows the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta, which just finished its 15th season. Over 2,200 people participated in the three-day festival, some coming from as far away as Australia, England, and South Korea. Students and educators benefited from the knowledge of top Broadway professionals in the form of adjudications, workshops, and a discussion panel entitled Pathways to Success, in which the featured guests shared how they forged their own paths to Broadway and beyond.
The creative talent at JTF is a veritable who's-who of Broadway elite. This year's guests included Sierra Boggess ( Little Mermaid and Phantom of the Opera on Broadway), Jeff Calhoun (director of Newsies on Broadway), Luca Padovan (School of Rock on Broadway), best-selling author Jodi Picoult, and the composing teams of Elyssa Samsel/Kate Anderson and Marcy Heisler/Zina Goldrich. Adjudications culminated in an awards ceremony on Sunday that showcased performances by student groups who were recognized with the Outstanding Production award. The festival ended with a much-anticipated treat-a concert performed on the Wells Fargo Pavilion stage by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich and their special guests, who serenaded us with Heisler/Goldrich songs from Dear Edwina, Junie B. Jones, and Ever After.
The brain behind JTF is Nor Cal native Timothy Allen McDonald, founder and CEO of iTheatrics and the Junior Theater Group. BroadwayWorld Sacramento was able to sit down with Tim and Broadway director Jeff Calhoun and talk about the festival that the New York Times calls a "rousing celebration of theatre," their upcoming Off-Broadway show, and representation in theatre today.
This is the 4th year of the Junior Theater Festival here in Sacramento and the 15th in Atlanta. Did you find that the need was so big that you needed to expand?
Tim McDonald (TM)-What we discovered is that a few groups were traveling from the West Coast to Atlanta, but the cost of travel is very high. I'm also originally from Northern California-I was born in Redding, went to Chico State, and then moved to the Bay Area, which is where I got my start in professional theatre. I really wanted to come back to this area and I just thought what a great thing to be able to bring it to Northern California where there is a lot of talent and there's not an outlet like this. For me, it was a very personal thing to be able to give back.
I understand that we have you to thank for transforming the world of children's theatre and developing the Education Department with MTI. What was children's theatre like before?
TM-There was always children's theatre but no one had taken the concept of adapting Broadway shows so that the younger kids could perform them. Before Broadway Jr., most people probably delayed their first experience with musical theatre. Mine was in high school.
Jeff Calhoun (JC)-Mine was children's theatre. Brer Rabbit was probably my first real show, Mr. Popper's Penguins, but they weren't Broadway shows. I don't know where they came from.
TM-The concept behind it was the audiences for musicals were aging so Freddie Gershon, my mentor, thought that if we could get kids involved in Broadway musicals at a younger age, that that would impact the trajectory of audiences. 36 million people see one of our Broadway Jr. musicals in the United States each year and 12 million people see a Broadway show. Most people in the United States seeing a live show are seeing it in their school, cafeteria, that sort of thing.
Jeff, you were a football player and a dancer, so maybe some of these boys who are afraid to do musical theatre because they think it's not masculine could learn that dance really enhances your athletic ability. Did you find that to be true?
JC-Absolutely. This (Between the Lines) will be my third show dealing with high school. My first two were both male protagonists. High School Musical and Troy Bolton, who had a conflict with basketball or being in the musical. Newsies, of course, with Jack Kelly being the protagonist. It's exciting doing a new musical where the protagonist is a girl. To answer your question, Lynn Swann was sort of my savior. He was a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the first NFL player that took ballet class. It made it cool when I had to leave football practice a half hour early on Wednesdays to go to tap and dance class. I had Lynn Swann to throw in their face. It made that walk a little less stressful. It's heartening, and maybe it's my perception, that each year there are more and more guys participating and that really warms my heart. Times are changing and that stigma is changing from when I was a kid.
How many boys do you think are participating in the festival now?
TM-I think there are still more boys than girls. I would say in the early days it was maybe 30 percent boys and I think we're now up to 40 percent boys.
JC-That was also an exciting thing about Newsies. It really made it ok for guys. We gave 27 young men their Broadway debuts. For me growing up, it was watching Gene Kelly and Dick Van Dyke. It was watching the men perform that got me excited about it and then I got to be in a show called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and that was the first time I really saw a line of guys, football players, dancing on stage. That was really exciting for me. I think Newsies did that for kids today. To see yourself and be represented on stage is really important.
It was exciting to see your podcast, "Growing Up Broadway," streamed live from the Wells Fargo Pavilion stage. Can you tell me about it?
TM-It's new. We've dropped 4 episodes and we do them about every 2 weeks now. We're number one and that's not because we're the only podcast out there. Ours is geared towards a very specific audience and kids want to hear themselves and hear about topics that speak to them.
Is it geared towards kids trying to make their way to Broadway?
TM-No, it's really the ultimate fan experience and we describe it as being for theatre makers who are young or young at heart. If you're in one of these troupes or in your school drama program, we bring in Broadway folks. We've had Tom Schumacher on, Marcy and Zina, we'll have Between the Lines stuff. It's really a chance for them to get to experience New York City and Broadway.
JC-99 percent of people here will not ever perform on a Broadway stage but it's a great feeling to be a part of something in school. I think, especially in the arts, it finds those who might not fit in other places because they are artists on some level and that is what the theatre embraces. It's no different than people playing football. Most people will never make it to the NFL but it is great bonding. When you're putting on a show, your cast becomes your family. Broadway is the least of it.
TM-I agree. We all know the rules of baseball, football, basketball....
TM-Yes! We all know the rules of them and one of the things that Broadway Jr. does is the same thing for theatre. When I would see someone like Michael Jordan play basketball, I would know that that is extraordinary and there is no way I could come close to that and it's the same way with a musical in your school. When a tour comes to your town and you see those actors on stage, you recognize that these are elite athletes, but they're artists. It gives you that same awareness.
I know that you're showcasing some new shows that are coming out, such as Moana Jr., Newsies Jr., and Matilda Jr. How do you choose which shows are going to be adapted?
TM-It sort of depends on what's ready and available. Some shows like to have a run on Broadway and then a tour before an adaptation. I think the smarter producers take Tom Schumacher's approach. We started working on Frozen Jr. as they went into rehearsals for the Broadway show. As we were developing a Jr., they decided that they were going to put in a whole new opening to the show and they put it in and we got the music that night and put it into our workshop at the same time. We released the show for the first time ever in Broadway history within 8 months of a show opening on Broadway. The reason that Tom is a proponent of that is because kids doing the show is going to make them want to see the show and it's going to ensure they ask their parents to buy tickets.
You also conduct workshops in New York City for the new shows?
TM-Yes, every show that gets adapted goes through the same process as a Broadway show. We have 5 days and bring kids in from all over the world. They're amateur kids, not ringers. The only rule we have is we want the kids to really want to be there. We don't care if they can sing, act, or dance, because that's way closer to the reality of what really happens. When you're in school, you have the kids you have and you don't go recruiting. It's really important to keep us honest during the adaptation process. For example, to put the songs in keys that are the most singable for the most amount of people. At the end, we perform the show for the show's creators and decide right there whether it's going to go forward or not. Most of the time they do, but sometimes they don't. Little Shop of Horrors seemed like why not, it's funny, it's charming, but the sadomasochism with young people just wasn't appropriate.
What is a typical day like for a JTF student?
TM-The kids start on Saturday morning presenting 15 minutes from their show for adjudication.
JC-It's amazing. Often, what you see in those rooms is more amazing and inspiring than what you'll see on Broadway. I look at it as being a cheerleader. You want to encourage and support them and if you can give them some pointers to make it better that's great, but you really want to just encourage them and reward them for the love and passion they have for this. I see myself in them. Very few of us start in this business late. It's like sports-you start sports when you're a little kid. It's just great to see the excitement in their eyes.
TM-It's important to me to have someone of Jeff's caliber there. Jeff is a Tony-nominated director for Newsies. After lunch, the teachers have workshops for themselves that are dealing with everything from technical theatre to directing and sets, costumes, and lights. The students are getting acting, singing, and dancing workshops. On Saturday night we do the new works showcase where we introduce shows that will be released in the next year. Then there's a dance party for the kids and Sunday morning we start with Pathways and more workshops. There's a whole technical theatre track, as well. Everything from cabling, sounds, and lights. We'll select All-Stars from those kids and they'll be running the light and sound at the awards ceremony.
Did you see a need for a theatre festival in the United States?
There really isn't anything like this here. I would love to say that this was a well-thought-out plan, but it wasn't. It really came out because of two things. We had just released Broadway Jr. and I didn't know if it was working. I found myself traveling all over the place to see shows in all types of different situations. Big towns, little towns, school programs, and thought wouldn't it be better to get groups to come together and wouldn't something positive come out of that? The other side of it was, if you remember, the Jarvis Bill changed the tax code in California. It wiped out the arts programs in almost every California school overnight. My senior class was the last to have access to the arts in schools. Our girls' basketball team won the state championship in high school and they got their own parade, on the back of the fire truck, and drove the 4 blocks that is Anderson, California. They got to play in the boys' gym for the first time and that program is still thriving today. I remember thinking that if we could find some way to recognize excellence in theatre, it would be harder for administrators to cut it. That has proven true. We will mobilize and fight for any programs that are being cut and we haven't lost yet. You have to shine a spotlight and make the arts important. That's a big part of what we do. I've worked very closely with Mrs. Obama and we went into the 7 worst performing schools in the United States. We infused them with the arts and empowered the principal. They studied this for four years and everything got better when you have arts and sports. You have to have a reason for a kid to want to come to school. A lot of these schools were in areas with immigrant families, very poor families, and so the child was often solely responsible for getting themselves to school. They needed a reason to go to school and maybe stay after school a little bit longer. We're still working with the Obamas on this program and it's thriving.
JC-Another exciting thing about this festival is these kids get to see parts of a show before anyone else does. We are opening Between the Lines in New York in April, and already they have seen numbers from the show. There are a lot of fringe benefits to coming to this festival.
A lot of people working at the festival are involved with Between the Lines. Did you work the festival workshops around the show?
TM-No, not necessarily but we've definitely been considering it.
Allison Van Etten (JTF Publicist)-I'm very grateful that everyone here, especially all those girls, have seen how successful these women in theatre can be. I didn't know as a kid that there was publicity I could do, or write the music to a musical. I just knew that I didn't want to perform. To see successful women performing pieces written by women and conceived by women is such a strong statement. There's a bigger message behind this.
JC-Our producer is a female, the writer of the original book is a female, the protagonist is a female, and the lyricist and composer are females. It's very unusual.
TM-We had the only two all-female songwriting teams who work in theatre here. The only other is Sara Bareilles, and it's sad that all of the female songwriters on Broadway can fit on one stage and have plenty of room for more. It's very important for the girls to see that they can do anything they want.
As a first-time guest of the Junior Theater Festival West, I can attest to the veracity of the claims that this is something very special. The palpable excitement in the room electrified every aspect of the awards and entertainment segments. Competing theatre groups cheered and stood when their counterparts performed their award-winning routines. There was only encouragement and inclusion, something that some of these kids don't get to experience regularly in school. Tim McDonald can be proud of what he's given back to Northern California and theatre kids worldwide.
Tim and Jeff's latest collaboration, Between the Lines, can be seen at the Tony Kiser Theater at Second Stage in New York City beginning April 21. More information can be found at BetweentheLinesMusical.com.
More information on the Junior Theater Festival can be found at juniortheaterfestival.com.
Photo credit: Marcus Woollen