Getting Schooled

Img 0751Sometimes you don’t know exactly how deep the talent pool is here in Des Moines, especially among the youth in the area. But you throw out the net, and you’re pleasantly surprised with what you find. And sometimes, you learn how amazing these kids can be, and you get schooled yourself. That’s been the journey for David VanCleave, director of the new production of School of Rock at the DM Social Club, opening July 21.


“When Andrew Lloyd Webber opened the rights to amateur youth productions, we jumped at the chance,” says VanCleave, Artistic Director of the Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre (DMYAT). “School of Rock and DMYAT have the same mission: introduce students to the transformative power of the arts. We really didn’t stop to ask: ‘Can we do this? Can we cast this appropriately in our own community?’ We just knew we had to.”

The youth rights were made available even before the show opened in New York. Since the story is literally about young people in school discovering the power of music and performing, it was a perfect fit for DMYAT.  When their season was announced last year, it included School of Rock.

Professional companies are still performing the show on Broadway, and on London’s West End. The touring version won’t even start for a few months, and yet next week DMYAT is doing the full production.

As David says, “What’s exciting about this youth production is, our cast is all student–but we are NOT doing a ‘Jr. Production’ like we do every fall. This is the full, unedited script that is currently being used on Broadway. No songs were cut, no keys were changed for younger voices… it’s the full Broadway materials performed by local future Broadway stars.”

But that’s the trick, now isn’t it? While we have lots of talent here, and lots of passion and enthusiasm, DMYAT (and everyone else in the local theatre community) obviously do not have the budget and resources to reproduce a Broadway show, at least to that extreme level. So what do you do?

David has an idea….


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“I’ve never been one to recreate the Broadway productions. In fact, I normally fight against it. Given our budget and space limitations, it is impossible to recreate the same production. The show takes place in over fifteen different locations–that’s a LOT of set to design and build. Luckily, we have an extraordinary team of designers, led by scenic and lighting designer Alex Snodgrass.”

“I also find that recreating somebody else’s work takes all the fun and collaboration out of doing theatre, but perhaps that’s an entirely different conversation!”

So, David knew what he wanted to do with School of Rock. But the question still remained, did he have the talent pool in the area to pull this off, especially in that young age range? The teen and tween actors in the show have to not just sing and act, but also play all the music as they go, live onstage, as part of the production. Some have to play multiple instruments in addition to singing. Plus, as David says, “At DMYAT, we don’t want to cast an actor to just be a body onstage. Every one of our actors will have at least one moment that is uniquely theirs–a line, a solo, a featured dance.”



The search began. DMYAT has had a number of talented kids come through their ranks in previous productions, but School of Rock was on an entirely new level. Help was needed, in addition to those DMYAT had worked with previously.

“Of course, the weeks leading up to auditions, I started to freak out,” David admits. “We reached out to James Biehn from Central Iowa Music Lab, who is now our Band Director. He was able to spread the word and get a good number of students in our doors.”

“By the time auditions came, I was, once again, blown away by the amount of talent in our community. We had one of the largest turnouts ever for auditions and assembled the largest cast in DMYAT history. Reaching out to James, and the local music-educators, definitely served us well. We cast about 20 people more than the Broadway production utilizes. Our cast is incredible. Every last one of them.”


Img 0761Leader of the Class

“We could have cast this show any number of ways. Nearing auditions, I was just praying to find someone to be able to play Dewey [Jack Black’s character in the original movie]. But we had options. GOOD options. That’s impressive for a role as demanding as Dewey Finn.”

“We did not expect to cast a female Dewey, but at the end of the day, Isabel Daza has the vocal chops, the musical ability, the rock mind, and the comedic timing necessary to play the role. She actually plays SEVEN different instruments and has experience teaching with Girls Rock DSM, so she fills the teacher-role well.”


The Student Body

It’s not just one amazing person. There are over 40 people involved onstage in bringing School of Rock to life, and their experience is all over the map. But while there may have been worries about ability level before auditions, those are happily gone.

David continues. “The cast ranges in age from 10-18. Of the 44 cast members, 19 are making their DMYAT debut. 43% are brand new to us! Approximately 25% of the cast are brand new to theatre in general. The others are complete veterans. Students like Sage Johnson, Noah Hackbart, Natalie Grote,  and Paige Fahrenkrug have performed in dozens of shows all across town and are excellent leaders for the new students.”

In fact, DMYAT has had such an embarrassment of riches with their talent search that attendees are in for an extra treat. “We’ve found so many singer-songwriters in this group that we’ve decided to have live music pre-show. Between our cast, and DMYAT’s Songwriters Circle led by Denise Forney, we figured it was a no-brainer to feature even more of our community’s incredible youth.”


Img 0754Final Exams

Now, the pieces are being put in place. Rehearsals, production meetings, and preparations are all happening for their opening July 21 at the Kum&Go Theatre at the DM Social Club. Lines and music are being learned, costumes prepared, and set pieces built. But it’s about more than just doing well on opening night, and getting through to the finale. It’s about what the performers and crew learn along the way, and how the experience changes them for the better. David can’t say enough about his talented charges, and what this journey has meant for them.

“They’re hard workers, fast learners, and are thrilled to be here. It makes our jobs easier and a lot more fun. The other night I asked them all to explain School of Rock in three words or less. Many of them answered with themes of the show–‘follow your dreams,’ ‘listen to children,’ etc.”

“But many of them reflected on their experience: ‘amazing new friends,’ ‘life-changing experience,’ ‘beautiful new world,’ ‘favorite thing ever.’ To watch these kids experience the same thing as the characters in the show–that newfound joy and skill in the performing arts–is a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Sounds like they’re all prepared for a graduation ceremony that will rock! And this really will be a graduation of sorts, as this with be the final production for DMYAT at the Kum&Go theatre. This fall they’ll be moving to the Stoner Theatre at the DM Civic Center, beginning with Hairspray Jr. this October.

But that’s the next crop of students, and next season. For now, it’s showtime, and School of Rock is in session. Performances run from July 21-30 and tickets are available from the DMYAT website at, but you'd better hurry! The opening night show is already sold out, and tickets for this one are really moving... so hurry up and get schooled!!

Written by Timothy Rose

Photos by Brandon James Photography, courtesy of DMYAT.

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David VanCleave Des Moines Young Artists' Theatre School of Rock