It takes a village to produce Kent State University’s New York Musical Theatre Showcase, an annual event that strives to help launch the careers of some of the school’s most vocally talented seniors.
The students will present six performances April 7 and 8 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in Manhattan’s theater district. But the planning begins months earlier, beginning with screening auditions in October, when Kent State musical theater faculty and visiting professionals select a group of seniors they believe will best represent the school.
Next month, 23 students will graduate with a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater — the program’s largest senior class yet. Of those, 14 who have designs on a New York career have been selected to perform in this year’s Showcase.
“Showcase is a threshold, and once the actors pass through that threshold, they are changed,” said Terri Kent, director of the musical theater program. “There is something about the act of performing in New York City that makes the transition from college to the professional world a reality.”
Seniors Mackenzie Duan, Jennie Nasser, Brittnie Price, Tim Welsh, Connor Simpson, Jayson Kolbicz, Stephen Carder, Dylan Ratell, Brooke Upholzer, Rachel Wolin, Grace Falasco, Caitlin Hamm, Jesse Markowicz and Brianna DeRosa plan to make the most of the experience. They’ve taken a semester-long class to prepare for their big New York gig, working on their songs as well as developing their resumes and learning about the skills needed to network in the musical theater business.
Over the last nine years, agents, casting directors and talent managers who have attended KSU’s Showcase have competed to sign students on the spot.
That’s the best-case outcome for these young hopefuls. Industry professionals receive a head shot, resume and song information for each performer and are asked to fill out a response sheet indicating which students they want to meet.
Looking for talent
What’s in it for the casting directors? They’re on the job, looking to fill roles for specific shows. For the students, simply having their materials on file with these professionals can be a plus.
Several years ago, student Dan Grgic had two agents fighting over him, with one saying she wouldn’t leave until she signed him. And just two years ago, both Erin Diroll and Samantha Rickard drew immediate interest during the show.
“They got text messages from the agents saying, ‘I want to talk to you before you leave,’ ” Kent said.
“If you have an agent, you have an appointment [for auditions]. If you don’t have an appointment, you go stand for 8 or 10 hours. This saves an enormous amount of time and allows the actor the opportunity to spend more time in auditions and less time waiting in line.’’
Kent’s musical theater majors come into the school showing strong potential in voice, acting and dance. Over four years, the faculty helps develop each performer through heavy hands-on coaching and training.
“I think we’re good at taking diamonds in the rough and making them really good at what they do,” Kent said.
At a recent Showcase class, students rehearsed their songs with assistant professor Jonathan Swoboda on piano as Kent made detailed notes. She gave students feedback on perfecting articulation and final consonants, making full gestures and choosing the best cuts of their songs.
After Price belted out her powerful I Got Love, Kent told her to keep working on the song’s acting arc.
“I want you to pull me in but I don’t want to have to work to listen. I’m taking the subway home and I’m tired,” Kent said, taking on the persona of an agent.
She also warned the other students not to laugh and applaud loudly during fellow students’ performances at the shows geared toward agents: “The alumni people will laugh like crazy and go nuts but the industry people will not. You can really help each other by suppressing that till the end.”
Months earlier, at the fall screening to choose the Showcase students, KSU professors and guests critiqued students’ musical performances and more. They spoke candidly about everything from women’s less-than-attractive hemlines to some of the students’ need to shed pounds.
After the screening at the school, adjudicators gathered at Kent’s house to discuss who would be selected. Judges included faculty members Kent, Michael McIntosh, May Fritsche, Jennifer Korecki, Chuck Ritchie, Eric Van Baars and Swoboda, and guests John Moauro (an alum who has performed in Hair on Broadway), New York casting director Tina Marie Casamento and Tony Award-winner Michael Rupert.
Casamento, referring to a particularly loud audition, said, “We want to get to know you, not be yelled at.’’
Rupert, whose Broadway career has spanned 40 years, works on special musical theater projects periodically at Kent State. He said the female auditioners should be advised not to choose sexy songs, which come across as artificial.
The professors, who wanted to give as many students as they could a chance, spoke extensively about which would be most marketable. The ever-objective Moauro kept coming back to this question: Which students would blow agents out of the water at the New York Showcase?
Keeping expenses down
Kent State’s production costs for Showcase are nearly $7,000, The school keeps expenses down by co-producing it with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
That means each night, Kent State musical theater students perform for the first hour of the show while RCS students perform the second hour. By partnering, the two universities share the costs of the theater rental, rehearsal space, invitations, refreshments, technician costs and more.
Perhaps most importantly, they share the cost of an agent “wrangler” involved in the New York musical theater industry to “get the butts in the seats for us,” Kent said.
The wrangler, Jacklyn Collier, assists in creating an invitation list, follows up and takes reservations. She is required to drum up representatives from a minimum of 50 different agencies. Typically, Showcase draws representatives from 75 to 100 agencies.
Industry agents who attend typically work close to the Laurie Beechman Theatre, housed in the West Bank Café on West 45th Street. The cabaret-style venue seats 100.
Kent State spends an additional $16,000 in expenses to cover student transportation, hotels and meals in New York as well as professional head shots. To meet those expenses, the 14 student performers receive $1,000 scholarships.
Showcase’s total price tag is nearly $23,000. Planning for the production becomes a lesson in fundraising each year, with the students learning the basics about writing grants and putting on benefits, including raffles and bake sales. They also send letters soliciting funds from other university departments and Porthouse Theatre patrons.
The bulk of the funding comes from private donors and internal university gifts, from the School of Theatre and Dance all the way up to President Lester Lefton. Among private donors, David and Sherri Joy and Jack and Dora Tippens have given $5,000 each to Showcase this year.
Longtime donors Ann and David Brennan of Akron also have gifted the program $25,000 to establish a Showcase endowment for future use. “When you have someone of her status and her name giving, then people start saying, ‘This must be a worthwhile thing,’ ” Kent said of Ann Brennan.
Spotlight on performers
Showcase is staged to highlight each of the 14 students’ talents, including Ratell playing flute and Price on guitar. Simpson also has written the show’s rousing opening number, Now, which shows off the group’s harmonic skills.
“The hardest part of Showcase is picking the appropriate repertoire’’ that illuminates a performer’s essence, Kent said. “Until they are satisfied with their repertoire, they’re not going to be confident with their performance.’’
After selections are final, it’s time to piece the show together, creating a lineup with nicely contrasting pieces and smooth transitions, and adding choreography by Kent State’s MaryAnn Black.
The show will be performed for the public at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Kent State’s EZ Black Box Theatre, Roe Green Center for the School of Theatre and Dance, before the students depart for New York.
The Big Apple adventure will begin for many students when they take the Megabus from Pittsburgh on Saturday, followed by rehearsal at a studio Sunday and technical rehearsal Monday morning at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Later that day, the students perform three of their six shows.
Showcase isn’t all work and no play. The 8 p.m. performances are reserved for alumni and friends. Showcase seniors invite KSU musical theater alumni living in New York to attend and bring their own agents.
KSU alumnus Jeff Richmond, a composer, actor, director and producer who is the husband of actress, comedian, writer and producer Tina Fey, is slated to introduce the celebratory final show.
After that show Tuesday night, most of the students stay in the city for callbacks with agents and casting directors.
“Showcase is important because it has the potential of catapulting a student’s career five years into the future if they sign with the right agent,” Kent said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.