It Takes Two
- By gentleguide
- On Sun 15 Apr 2018
Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre (DMYAT) has been going strong now for a decade, presenting interesting and challenging shows for young performers anywhere from elementary age to those just about to enter college. They’re having a pair of fundraising events to showcase some of their stellar youth alongside a few of the bright lights of other theatre groups here in Des Moines. The show is called Duets, and performances are April 22 and 29 at Noce Jazz/Cabaret.
Artistic Director David VanCleave details how this project came about. “Last year, we presented two different benefit productions. The idea was to do two each year. One would feature adults and be a concert version of a known show, and then a revue with our students (having done several variety shows in the past). As we were working on our Young Artists Sing… event last year, we watched the adults work with students and I thought ‘Well, that’s what we really wanted to begin with!’ We hope to present Duets each year—it just makes sense.”
Then came the task of pairing up performers, creating duos of one DMYAT youth and one adult singer from the area. David wasn’t sure what the reaction would be from some quarters, but he was very pleasantly surprised. “The response from our performers has been great and full of support and enthusiasm. Not one person said no!”
“When we were identifying the adults, we wanted to include people who have supported DMYAT in the past, but also people who are good role models for our students. Obviously, they have to be able to sing their faces off, but what is their work ethic like? How can they inspire our students? We’ve been spoiled with the talent that has agreed!”
Start at the Very Beginning
Francine Griffith is the Co-Music Director for the Duets event. She’s done music direction and keyboard accompaniment for a number of shows in the area (including recently as part of UTOPIA, which has been performing around the state), and you’ll quite often see her on KCWI with various performers on the CW Iowa Live morning TV show, promoting various productions around town. Her role in Duets is slightly different than what she does with many shows, but of no less importance.
“I am responsible for ensuring everyone’s musical comfort and success,” says Francine. “By the time of our first performance, many of the duets will have rehearsed twice together, possibly three times. This is a short rehearsal period, so each singer learns their two songs on their own. Our first rehearsal is to learn and fix notes and the comfort level of each singer. Most duets will have a 2nd rehearsal, which is more of a polishing rehearsal. The singers will be more confident and can begin the next step of telling their part of the musical story in song.”
Of course, the pairing of experienced theatre people with the DMYAT youth performers means some of these duets are going to be sung by people who, until the first rehearsal, have never actually met before. Francine gets to watch these relationships evolve on the spot. “It is very exciting to see the younger actors interact with the more ‘seasoned’ professionals at the first rehearsal. Both singers/actors are very complimentary of each other’s performances. The younger singers appear a bit nervous because they know they are working with someone ‘good’! By the end of our short time together, they are laughing and having fun collaborating together.”
“In these rehearsals, I have been allowing all three of us to collaborate together, which is a bit different than the usual music director or accompanist role of collaborating with one other person. The younger singers inquire and suggest, the older singer guides the younger ones in acting and choices, and I give them space to work things out. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely input with much suggestions for corrections and improvements, but allow the other two collaborators as much artistic freedom as they like.”
And the Children Shall Lead
Many of the youth have excelled at the shows DMYAT has chosen to present, and that’s no small task when you consider the depth of the material they’ve done. They’ve shown their talent level to be amazing. This is definitely not just a “children’s theatre” group, not when they’ve tackled some rather significant and intense productions.
In their first decade, DMYAT has done a wide range for a wide audience. Everything from an adaptation of the children’s book James and the Giant Peach Jr. to productions of RENT and an examination of the high school massacre in Columbinus. While many groups might shy away from such challenging fare, DMYAT feels that it’s part of their responsibility to stretch their performers and educate them at the same time.
As David relates, “You’ve heard me say this many, many times, but students are capable of far more than we give them credit. I noticed that when I was working alongside the first group of Adolescent Anarchy [a subset of DMYAT] and their production of Lord of the Flies. Theatre also has a responsibility to reflect the current world… it’s literally our job. That often motivates our play selection in some capacity….”
“No qualms about anything, but I will say it can be difficult for us serving such a wide age range. For example, after [DMYAT’s most recent production of] I Never Saw Another Butterfly, I received a few emails from parents of elementary students interested in auditioning. Well, because the next show was selected for high school age actors [Bring It On - the Musical in August], the next auditions won’t be until fall and we can’t even say what show yet. I hate having gaps in programming. Not to mention season tickets can be difficult to pitch for families.”
Home for Everyone
As a result of some of these issues, plus moving to their new home at the Stoner Studio Theatre in the Civic Center this past year, DMYAT is going to expand their upcoming slate this season to FIVE productions instead of three. It’s a situation which David is justifiably proud of, and the announcement of which shows they’re presenting will be made during the Duets fundraiser next week!
“The decision to expand was influenced by both our performance home and variety of shows. And we love being at home in the Stoner Theatre, but it doesn’t allow for 30+ kids and quality choreography (David Decker was a true wizard in Hairspray.) Doing five shows allows us to choose a couple shows with smaller casts—a training opportunity very different than what we’re used to. You get a lot more personal attention and development when you’re one actor out of eight versus one of 30.”
“In the past, we’ve gone into season selection time thinking, ‘We need at least XX amount of roles to consider this.’ And let me tell you, it sucked. So many scripts that I said ‘Wow, this is perfect for DMYAT… oh, wait, it only has two students. Nevermind.’”
But for now, the idea of just a pair of performers fits perfectly into the fundraiser next week, as does the idea of Home. Meredith Toebben is one of the music arrangers for the Duets event, and was one of the founding members of Adolescent Anarchy. She’s since moved away to college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but she’s been invited to come back “home” to help with Duets. And appropriately, she’s creating a mash-up of Somewhere Over the Rainbow (from The Wizard of Oz) and Home (from The Wiz), to be performed by Kiana Collier and Taylor Anne Weaver.
“This is such an interesting project because you have two people in each duet with extremely different levels of experience, really because of their age. It’s been important to me in my arrangement though, to treat them as equals in the piece. This event is all about building up young actors and giving them someone to look up to. I think it would be a shame to put one or the other in the spotlight when the entire event is about collaboration.”
“I know Taylor personally, but I only know Kiana from her wonderful work in shows at DMYAT, so for me, it’s a lot of relying on what I’ve seen and what I know about her. That being said, she is so extremely talented and I definitely didn’t hold back or treat her as a ‘kid’ in this arrangement.
In addition to Kiana and Taylor, there are over a dozen artists performing for Duets, with performances from a wide variety of musicals. Audiences will be treated to songs from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to Next to Normal, and who knows what other surprises may be discovered! Plus the announcement of DMYAT’s next season! Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre presents Duets on April 22 and April 29 at the Noce Jazz/Cabaret. Tickets and information are available at the Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre website. Help support youth theatre in our city and enjoy this show!!