To me, live theatre is, for the most part, an Analog business. Sure, tech has creeped into a couple areas; Lighting, Sound, CAD, but in the end, what you put in is what you get out. It's still proudly hands-on, lots of people working their asses off to create a live piece of art. It exists each night for that moment only, then it's ephemera.
There's no APP for it ...
When Josh agreed to sit down with us I was really curious about the theatre scene in and around Silicon Valley. I will admit I went in with a cynical cloud. Silicon Valley, is the place where the future comes from. It's main export is, in a very real way, the opposite a live theatre experience ...
I couldn’t help but think that If there was one place where the idea of the tradition of theatre would be considered quaint, it was here.
I soon learned, and am still learning that in reality, (real reality, not virtual reality), the theatre scene around the Bay Area is one of the most vibrant I have encountered in the country and in particular the West Coast.
CMT San Jose is part of this family, a big part. In its 50th season, CMT San Jose is proof beyond a doubt that live theatre is a huge part of the region, and it's mission, (and it's a whopper), keeps the stage alive.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Leave it to a kid from Brooklyn …
In 1968, 17 year old New York transplant John P. Healy Jr. founded Cabrini Community Theater with support from his parents and community leaders in his new home in San Jose California. Thirty-five children and teenagers appeared onstage in a production of Robin Hood—written and directed by Healy with family and the community chipping in to build sets and take tickets …
You probably know the rest …
John’s early vision has become the CMT San Jose, (CMT San Jose), one of the biggest, most respected Youth Theatres in the country.
But here’s something you probably didn’t know …
Maybe it was because John was a supremely confident young man. Maybe it was because he was too young to be cynical, (I like to think that it was because someone told him not to). Whatever the reason, John’s mission statement was, if nothing else, bold …
“Every young person who auditioned would have the chance to perform onstage …”
Let that one sink in for a minute …
50 YEARS LATER …
Today 40,000 youth and their families participate in CMT’s program as performers, volunteers and patrons each season. The program has garnered ten grants from the NEA for artistic excellence. CMT San Jose’s Artistic Director has been honored by the Tony Award Commission for Education in The Arts.
Through it all, CMT San Jose has not only doggedly held to that original mission but it has continued to include family and friends in most of what they do.
In the heart of San Jose’s theatre district sits the Montgomery Theatre. Built in 1936, this historical 468-seat, deep proscenium space is CMTSJ’s home base. It’s here we caught up with Josh Rose, CMT San Jose’s Production Manager, in the middle of the load out for “Newsies”.
Josh has been the Production Manager for CMT San Jose for 7 years. We had a ton of questions for him and he was happy to oblige.
The first thing I wanted to know was how the Tech boom was translating to theatre in the Bay area. Was CMT San Jose seeing any benefits?
“The economy is good.”, he began. “When the economy is doing well it certainly helps our donations from our members and supporters. A lot of companies here in the valley are great about doing matching programs for employees …”
And uh … we’re not talking about Chicos Bail Bonds …
“The big ones, Google, Intuit, H.P., will match employee donations or volunteer hours, so yeah, when the economy is doing well we do better which is great.”
“Something affecting the arts is the national push for S.T.E.M.,” Josh continued, “We really notice it here in Silicon Valley, the push for S.T.E.M. is getting a lot of funding,”
“That’s why a lot of arts organizations here are pushing for S.T.E.A.M.”
S.T.E.A.M. is not unique to Silicon Valley. It’s a national educational movement to add arts into the more heavily promoted S.T.E.M. curriculum. The idea is simple and makes sense. S.T.E.A.M.’s mission is to take the benefits of S.T.E.M. and integrate them in and through the arts.
“Without the artistic training aspect,” Josh observed, “Without the creative outlet in life, then where are the next generation of innovators coming from?”
I thought of Leonardo DaVinci. The guy was a scientific genius, but his talent as an artist is what allowed him to express his scientific curiosity in ways that are instantly recognizable.
Or Elon Musk. It takes a lot of S.T.E.M. to build a Tesla and a rocket, but it’s the A. that sends that Tesla hurtling through space blaring David Bowie …
NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
As Production Manager Josh’s job is to help ensure that all of the performers get the chance to get a real experience, which is, basically, everyone. I wanted to ask Josh about the logistical issues of this mission. What is the process?
“This is a very important tenant of CMT San Jose, the sense of inclusion,” Josh said enthusiastically. “it’s something we pride ourselves in. We’re in our 50th Season and we have yet to turn a young performer away who desires to be here.”
And they mean everyone. The inclusion to which CMT San Jose is dedicated transcends all barriers.
“We offer scholarships for those who may be struggling financially,” Josh tells me, “We have adjusted staging to accommodate those with disabilities. We’ve had a number of wheelchair bound performers in the casts, as well as several performers with Cerebral Palsy. It’s rewarding to see them onstage. They are enjoying themselves,” he says, “And it’s also great to see their families get involved as well. It provides them an outlet that they can’t find elsewhere.”
Which is an interesting aspect I didn’t think of. It’s one thing to be inclusive to the young performers with different abilities, but it’s much more impactful when you consider the parents and families of those kids actively participating, with their child, sharing a hard to find family experience outside of the house.
EXECUTING THE MISSION
Like many Youth theatres, CMT’s Season is built around shows split into age appropriate programs. CMT mounts 10 core productions. Five Rising Stars productions (cast members between the ages of 8-14), three Mainstage productions (cast members between the ages of 14-20), and two Marquee shows that showcase the talents of top emerging Bay Area performing artists, including many CMT alumni.
“For each of our Rising Stars productions, we average 110 to 160 auditions” Josh says.
Got that? That’s 110 to 160 performers …
“So when we get into those types of numbers,” Josh explains, “we have to ask what the show is capable of doing? We are always concerned with providing every performer as inclusive an experience as possible. We don’t want somebody to get onstage for 15 seconds, then hang out in the green room, not getting the experience.”
Okay how does that work? Multiple casts for the same show? Are they spread out over the shows that make up the individual programs?
“We have gone up to 3 casts instead of 2, even up to 4 at times,” Josh explained. “We spread out. A one weekend show will consist of 9 performances over four days. We’ll do three two show days and one three show day to ensure that each cast will get 4 to 5 performances …”
“… For a two weekend show we do anywhere from 10 to 14 performances. Again, we split it up so each cast gets the same number of performances. We do this to make sure that each of the casts gets a matinee and a show at night so that we can accommodate all the family and friends who want to come see that particular cast.”
That’s a lot of moving parts up in the air at one time. CMT is fortunate in that its senior staff has been around long enough to create what Josh calls “Institutional Memory”.
“This helps because we can look at the numbers and match them up against past shows and say, “That show worked well in the past. It’s helpful when you can look at the entire season from that distance. Take a show like Seussical for instance.”
“You’ve got the Who’s, you’ve got the jugglers. You do the math and say okay, that can be a group of 10, that one can be 8 performers. Then you can stand back and say that show will support 60 performers, so let’s add that show to the season, it will ensure that the performers get that quality experience.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
There are times, as with any theatre, when it’s time to pass the hat. It’s just part of sustaining a vibrant program like CMT. While we were there they were busy striking their latest Marquee show. “Newsies is one of two shows a year we do as fundraisers,” Josh explains, “With the Marquee shows, we bring in Alumni, local performers, these particular shows showcase some of our performers, but these are the only times where we can’t cast everyone who auditions.” As Josh pointed out, however, even these shows are used to show younger performers that “Next Step”, what’s after CMT if you’re still interested.
With so many young performers passing through the program designed for ages 8 through 20, and a multitude of educational programs, scholarships and other opportunities, how many of the young people stick with the program from beginning to end?
Josh thinks for a moment. “We really do strive to make the experience good for the whole family. We really do rely on parents to volunteer to help run our shows, and we want them to find what makes them happy as well.”
“We have families that have stuck around as volunteers even after their kids age out of the programs,” Josh told me, “And now we are beginning to see second generation, kids who were performers who now have their kids in the program. It’s impressive, there’s such a level of loyalty and love from the community.”
A FEARLESS SEASON
In 1996 the company hired Kevin R. Hauge as its first full-time Artistic Director. Under his direction the company began to successfully produce more sophisticated, technically demanding shows that are usually undertaken only by large regional and professional theater companies.
The word Children is there in the name, but past and present seasons go beyond what I would consider “Children’s” theatre. Shows like “American Idiot”, “Tommy” by the Who, “Ave. Q.” How does this go over?
“Look,” he says, “It’s really hard when you work with teenagers, to pretend that a show like “American Idiot” doesn’t exist, to pretend “Rent” doesn’t exist because they’re all singing it when they walk through the door. It’s rare that you do a show like that and nobody knows what they are getting into.”
“When we do these shows,” Josh continues,” They have a topic to discuss.”
CMT has a process when mounting a more adult, edgy production. “Every parent gets a letter when they walk through the door, explaining the content of the show, explaining what we are doing and why.”
He uses “American Idiot” as an example …
“We tell them yes, there is drug use in the show. However we don’t do the amount you’d find in the Broadway production. The ensemble doesn’t have to be shooting up in the background, but yes, the leads do. We have to have those moments, otherwise thematically it just doesn’t work. So we have to be very respectful of what we’re asking the kids to do and make sure the families are fully aware.”
But CMT provides options for those performers and families who may not be comfortable. “If they really want to do the show and there are scenes which make the performer or the parent feel uncomfortable, like marching across the stage in your underwear, we won’t put you in, we’ll hold you back for that number. We want people to be comfortable without having to back away from the material.”
With time nearly up, I wanted to get one more quick question in. As a production manager, I wondered, is it easier to mount a show like Newsies than, say, an original piece? Does the level of audience expectation for a familiar show make things more or less nerve-wracking than mounting something that no one has seen before?
“This sounds like a cop out,” Josh said smiling, “But you need to look at them the same, especially from a Production Management point of view, it’s the same process.”
It all boils down to maintaining a level of quality.
“Whether it’s a simple drop set or a 3-story monstrosity like Newsies,” Josh explained, “It’s the shows that you think are going to be easy that can catch you off guard if you don’t have the same discipline. From the standpoint of Production Management you need to do your best to approach both original designs and the existing ones the same.”
“Because there are those little details that, if you miss them, or you think they are so little that they aren’t important in the grand scheme, they will come back to bite you later.”
To learn more, donate or get involved with CMT San Jose click HERE.
To learn more about the S.T.E.A.M. movement click HERE.