The Play is (Not Necessarily) the Thing
By: Karen Bunch
It’s Only the Beginning
Tecumseh Youth Theatre (TYT) has changed the course of my life. Literally. After graduating high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in music, performing arts, visual arts … something. But what?
Enter, Tecumseh Civic Auditorium, now Tecumseh Center for the Arts (TCA).
I was fortunate enough to be asked by my high school marching band percussion instructor Don “Doby” Dobrosky to be a member of the pit orchestra for two Tecumseh Players’ shows in the newly christened TCA. Doby was the Players’ musical director and knew that, in addition to playing percussion, I was a reed player during concert season which meant I could play Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor, and Baritone Sax, and even Bassoon (given enough time to rehearse!). So, I had the great opportunity to play alongside area band directors, including Bob Schoof, Richard Reamsnyder, and Terry Hunt. Playing in the pit orchestra for Anything Goes, which was performed one month after the TCA opened in 1981, and Sweet Charity the next year were my first real experiences performing at the TCA. Fun times!!
Next up, and a little closer to the job I would eventually fill, was an opportunity to “guard the stage” when legendary trumpeter Maynard Ferguson came to the TCA with Tecumseh native Tim Ries on saxophone. What a thrill to hear Maynard, the composer of the Theme from Rocky, and Tim, whom I had the pleasure to play alongside in Marching, Stage, and Symphonic Bands during high school, performing together right on our very own TCA stage!
My job for the night? “Just stand near the front and make sure no one rushes the stage!” Okay. “Do people really do that here?” “No, but it’s in the contract.” “Ah.” Good to know…
From those humble beginnings came my first official foray into the world “behind the scenes” at the TCA. It happened during Tecumseh Youth Theatre’s second-ever musical, Finian’s Rainbow. I was asked to be the light board operator and, with the help of Executive Director Jack Raeburn, who taught me how to run the two-scene pre-set light board, I got my first shot at being part of an amazingly creative team. After that, I was hooked!
Playing Favorites and What’s Really Important
I’ve often been asked, “What’s your favorite show?” My response is usually something along the lines of a parent’s response to picking their favorite child - they are all special in their own way. Do some stand out? Of course. Sometimes it’s a single scene or a particular song that stands out - several come to mind immediately. But to me, (admittedly taking Shakespeare’s Hamlet completely out of context and paraphrasing), “the play is” NOT NECESSARILY “the thing” that is most important in this process … for me, it’s all about the people. It’s about friendships - relationships formed over months of rehearsing, building sets, fitting costumes, learning the music, and everything else that goes into making production come alive that are important.
This belief was confirmed in a recent lunch visit with Donna Andre. Donna is a long-time friend and former director of several TYT plays, including Children of Eden, Pippin, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She hit the nail on the head when she said, “The play is the brick, the blocks, and the people are the mortar that hold it together.” Yes, this!
It is a matter of fact that thousands of “kids,” from ages 6 to 86 have been part of Tecumseh Youth Theatre’s “mortar” over the years, both onstage and behind the scenes. In the early days of TYT, adults were cast in a few roles, creating an age-appropriate gap in the various characters. Alice Staples as Aunt Em and TCA Board Member Charlie Robinson as Uncle Henry in Wizard of Oz; pastor of the Macon United Methodist Church, Rob Gilshire as Daddy Warbucks, and Dr. Carlton Cook as FDR in Annie; Tecumseh Schools Assistant Superintendent Rick Montcalm as Officer Krupke in West Side Story; Sutton Principal and long-time director of TYT, Tom Sura as Fagan in Oliver, and dozens of other adults over the years lent their time and talent to create a multi-generational world both on- and offstage. More than that, they helped create a wonderful shared experience with the younger kids involved, an experience in which the kids learned a great deal about respecting one another, and perhaps, began to see some of those local community adults in a completely different light. In return, the adults had the opportunity to give back to a younger generation, and maybe just as importantly, they got to feel like kids again!
During the course of the 1999 – 2000 season, Tecumseh Youth Theatre moved away from the umbrella of the TCA to become its own producing organization. During that formative time, I and many of the original creative team helped in the transition. The organization blossomed further, as it began to present more than one show per year. There was a drive to continue musicals of course, but also to offer a “straight play” every year for those kids who’s musical ability might be less developed than their compatriots, but who’s acting skills were wonderful. From the popular comedies of Arsenic and Old Lace, and You Can’t Take it With You, to more serious fare in The Diary of Anne Frank, The Crucible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, this was yet another way the newly formed organization reached out to area kids.
Youth Theatre also directly affected the choir program in the schools during this time, most especially in the middle and high schools. During my talk with Donna, she revealed that the need for more male voices onstage led to a development within the schools of young men in choir. So, at least part of the great successes the school choirs have enjoyed over the last 2 decades can be traced directly back to Donna and to Tecumseh Youth Theatre!
As of now, Tecumseh Youth Theatre has been a separate organization for over 19 years, a few years longer than it was under the wing of the TCA. The kids (and adult volunteers) who have passed through the program are too numerous to name. Indeed, many have come and gone. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with most of them. One of the greatest joys I have is watching the young people within TYT grow and leave on their adult journeys, knowing that we have been a small part of their future.
While the great majority of kids passing through TYT and the TCA will not end up in a theatre related job, there have been several TYT alumni who have gone on to have successful careers in Theatre and the Performing Arts: TYT alum Brian Hissong graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Theatre Performance, and found a home with several national touring productions, including Guys & Dolls. He has since founded Hissong Productions, and is currently on the faculty at the United States Naval Academy. Leah Crocetto, has gone on to become a world-renowned soprano in the world of Opera. Annie Cooley spent 7 years as a Radio City Music Hall Rockette and has worked in both Washington, DC and New York City as a much sought-after dance choreographer. Ashley Travis performed with legendary singer and actor Pat Boone and toured nationally as a dancer and dance captain with a production of the musical, CATS. These are only a few former TYT-ers who have made the jump to the “big leagues.”
Tecumseh Youth Theatre has also been the launching pad for several behind the scenes “kids” to get their start. From LA studio musicians, to lighting and rigging with Disney on Ice and Jackson College’s Potter Center, to Associate Producer at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, to Project Manager in the R & D Department at ETC Lighting Controls - the preeminent lighting equipment manufacturer in the world, to running a spotlight for a touring production of Phantom of the Opera, to the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington DC and the University of Michigan prop department and Power Center, many have gone on to have careers “behind the scenes.”
Regardless of what the kids who are part of a TYT production go on to accomplish in their adult lives, they will all know what it is to be part of something bigger than themselves. They will know what it’s like to be responsible, disciplined, and dedicated, to be part of a team, and to sacrifice for the greater good. Kids who are perhaps shy, or unsure, who may never have stepped foot onstage come away from a production that much better. Wherever these kids end up in life, in whatever career they choose, they will take with them the confidence, determination, and self-awareness of someone who has accomplished a great deal to bring joy to others. But most importantly, they will take with them the friendships and memories that last a life-time.
I suppose I should confess … those favorite plays and scenes we were talking about? If I had to choose, it would be the 1998 production of Children of Eden - a show that had not been previously produced in Michigan by any theatre company, professional or amateur. There are many things that made this production so memorable - Donna’s experience talking directly with the author, Stephen Schwartz, to procure the rights to the show, a 22-hour production meeting to and from the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey to see the show in person, getting a tour backstage, and running into star, Adrian Zmed; then coming home to start our production, watching our own high school kids take over and become “parents” to the little kids in the show, watching the little kids transform from being stage “family members” to becoming part of a rousing carousel of two-by-two animals headed into the Ark, and a show-stopping rendition of the gospel-style song “Ain’t It Good,” sung by then high school student, Leah Crocetto.
It was a time of pure joy interspersed with personal tragedy in the form of several deaths in the families of cast and crew members, including mine. This simultaneous joy and sadness was conveyed in the song “The Hardest Part of Love (Is the Letting Go),” sung in our production by high school student, Keith Coates. This young man was portraying Noah, and sung his heart out through this show, but most especially at the last Sunday matinee, for his father who was seriously ill, but still in the audience that day. Along with his brother Neil, who was our sound board operator for the show, that song in particular reflected the mood of many. There was no way of knowing that a few weeks later, their father would also pass away. Frankly, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house for anyone who knew what those words really meant to all of us at the time.
Yes, my life is inexorably tied to Tecumseh Youth Theatre. Many years have passed since the day I first sat at that simple two-scene pre-set board. I’ve seen a lot of Youth Theatre kids come and go. I’ve seen a lot of parents, crew, and musicians come and go. I’ve been part of a majority of TYT productions in its nearly 37-year history. But, just like the recently performed James and the Giant Peach, it’s the moments within the play, and the memories that they create that I’ll take with me. It really is about the shared experience, about people coming together as strangers, and leaving as family. For that experience, I will be forever grateful!
Behind the scenes of Tecumseh Center for the Arts.