When John OConnell started as the chair of IPFWs theater department in 2007, he mentioned in passing to Fort Wayne Youtheatre executive director Leslie Hormann that he would like to collaborate with her group.
Six years later, and for what may be the first time, the two local theater groups have joined forces for a production of Oliver! that opens at Arts United Center tonight.
(Oliver!) always requires a really massive undertaking, says OConnell, the plays director. The current cast is 50 people.
More than half of that group is children from the Youtheatre. Four are community members, including professional actors on IPFWs staff, two are high school students, and the rest are college students from IPFWs theater program.
The collaboration provides a new experience for IPFW students and Youtheatre children. Because the performance is in Arts United Center, college theater students packed up the entire production and loaded it on three trucks last week. All day Saturday, the cast and crew constructed the set, which was much too large to fit on IPFWs stage.
My students are kind of getting the experience to see what it would be like to be on a bus and truck tour, OConnell says. We have just over 26 hours to put the entire set up, get the lights working, do a first run with the orchestra and more.
The Youtheatre students, meanwhile, are seeing what its like to work on such a grand-scale production. Youtheatre does childrens theater, says Hormann, Oliver! assistant director, which means the shows are literature-based – Cinderella, say, or Charlottes Web.
The theater doesnt have the budget to afford royalties for something that has been on Broadway, and it wouldnt be able to afford production costs that go along with such a large-scale play or musical.
The collaboration with IPFW means the two theaters split the costs, Hormann says, and it also means her kids are working on a 2 1/2 -hour Broadway musical.
This means the Youtheatre actors and actresses are working slightly later nights than they may be used to. OConnell tells a story about asking one child whether he would be able to continue rehearsing until 8:30 p.m. one evening.
Yeah, I can, but I usually go to bed at 8.30, OConnell says, quoting the child. All these parents have been really committed to letting their kids stay till the later time.
And the kids have loved working with the older students, Hormann says.
They all just are so enamored with the older kids, she says. They want to hang out with them. They see them as mentors. The older kids have kind of taken the younger kids under their wings.
OConnell sees this displayed in the childrens work ethic. In scenes where IPFW students are rehearsing and the Youtheatre kids are off stage, the children could be entertaining themselves with their electronics and not paying attention.
But thats not what happens.
I watch these 11-year-olds stand over on the side of the stage, he says. They could be pulling out their video games, but they dont. They sit over there and theyre watching the rehearsal process and are intrigued and interested in it.
These kids are 11 years old, and theyve learned five or six full dances with our college kids. Im astounded by their commitment to the work and their rehearsal process.
But there are certain things OConnell has to make sure to guard against, issues that wouldnt arise if he were working solely with his students.
He cast, for example, two Olivers. That doesnt mean theres one main Oliver and one understudy – there are two children who will switch back and forth for the performances.
Its because its flu season.
I can tell you, if a mother had a kid with a 102 temperature, shed (not) give a hoot about my production of Oliver! downtown, he says. Its a safety measure. Olivers in the whole show.