By HOLLY BERETTO
There’s something wonderful that happens when you see a star being born right in front of your eyes. It’s much more than an “a ha!” moment; it’s a sense of pulse-racing excitement, a moment where you go “Wow!” and you just know that whomever you’re watching on stage will someday be someone that everyone will be talking about.
Night after night, in show after show, in halls all over Houston’s Theater District, Houston audiences have that chance, thanks to the young artist development programs offered by some of the District’s heavy hitters.
“I would simply not be where I am today without Theatre Under the Stars,” says Michelle De Jean emphatically. A graduate of TUTS’s Academy program, she’s currently touring the country as Roxie Hart in Chicago, having performed that role – and others – on Broadway.
The Academy at the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre is TUTS’s by-audition-only training program, designed for young people with a talent for – and interest in – performing. Typically those receiving training are between the ages of 12 and 18, although some adults with theatrical experience have also auditioned and been accepted.
“We’ve been able to place our Academy students in BFA programs at some of the to universities in the country, and many of them have gone onto professional careers in theater,”says Roy Hamlin, associate artistic director for Theatre Under the Stars.
That sentiment is echoed by Shelly Power, associate director of the Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. “We’ve had great success in placing our (Houston Ballet II) Academy dancers with either the main corps of dancers with Houston Ballet or with other companies in the U.S.,” she says.
Like TUTS’s Academy at the Humphreys School, admission to the Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy’s Houston Ballet II, the top-level pre-professional development program offered by the Ballet, is through an audition process. Power routinely travels around the country to see dancers perform and offer spots to ten of them to train for two or three years here in Houston. Also like TUTS, the Ballet’s program is aimed at young performers; Power says the average age of a dancer in the Academy is around 17.
Contrast that to the Houston Grand Opera Studio young artist development program, where many of the singers have already completed a Master’s degree or have done some time in other, smaller young artist programs. Laura Canning, director of the HGO Studio says HGO looks for singers “with a great voice combined with real communication.” Each of these programs focuses on technique training and affords participants the opportunity to perform in mainstage productions.
“Our dancers learn key roles in the repertoire,” says Powers. “And that’s both roles they may be studying for productions we’re mounting or just roles that they’ll need to learn for later in their careers. For example, our Houston Ballet II students learn Snow and the Flowers for Nutcracker. Whether they perform that here or somewhere else later on, they need to know those roles.”
Young singers within the HGO Studio routinely perform on the main stage and study roles from operatic repertoire. “It’s a completely custom-tailored environment,” says Laura Canning, director of the program. Singers are offered a slot in the Studio program through a national audition process that culminates every February in Houston with the Eleanor McCullom Competition for Young Singers, Concert of Arias. Ten finalists perform in the concert and are judged on their vocal performance, musicianship and dramatic ability. The winners receive cash prizes; any of the finalists may be offered admission to the Studio, where they will become immersed in Houston Grand Opera’s day-to-day routine.
”Our singers find out what it means to go to work every day and be part of a great opera company.”
That’s also the routine for dancers in Houston Ballet II who, says Power, spend their days in technique and repertoire classes as well as in rehearsals. In between, there are high school classes, which they are required to attend. Power says it’s a formula that’s worked well for the Ballet.
“At least fifty percent of the company has come through the school in some form or fashion,” she estimates, pointing out that Lauren Anderson, one of the Ballet’s most beloved principal dancers, rose through the ranks of the Academy and Houston Ballet II. Now retired from professional dancing, Anderson does outreach for the Ballet.
At TUTS’s Academy, participants take classes in acting, singing and dance, and can audition for roles on the main stage, offering them the chance to build their resumes. “We had 45 kids audition for roles in last season’s A Wonderful Life,” says Hamlin. TUTS cast ten of them. Last season, three Academy participants sang in TUTS’s production of Les Miserables.
Stage time, say graduates of these programs, makes all the difference in the world.
“There’s no better training than to actually do it,” says Broadway’s De Jean, who estimates she performed in at least fifteen productions with TUTS. “One of the great things is the high caliber of artists that TUTS brings in. I made so many New York contacts, and when I moved there in 1992, I got work almost immediately and I’ve been working ever since.”
“I was a part of the TUTS Academy for one season, and I played the MC in The World Goes ‘Round,” says Manuel Santos, now performing as Indio in the Broadway production of West Side Story. “I learned a lot about stage presence, which I’ve incorporated in each performance that I have.”
“My time in the Studio has been immeasurably valuable to my furthering as an artist,” says Jamie Barton, who is completing her second year with the HGO Studio and recently made her Carnegie Hall debut and later this spring will sing Giovanna in HGO’s Rigoletto and is entertaining offers from opera companies on both sides of the Atlantic. “I can see and hear the change in my artistry from the time I entered into the Studio.”
There’s something else Houston’s young artists receive when they enter these programs: an enthusiastic hometown audience, who root for their success and genuinely enjoy watching these young performers succeed. “Any of us TUTS alumni know we can always come home to TUTS,” says DeJean. “It’s a real family atmosphere.”
Canning heartily agrees. ”Our Studio artists are so well-loved by the community,” she says. “And the community tells us they just love watching them grow from seeing them in something like Concert of Arias to major roles.”
Photos: (top) Liam Bonner of the HGO Studio, (within story) TUTS’ Michelle DeJean, now of Broadway.