Kids Take Cen­ter Stage

Florida Rep cul­ti­vates young theater buffs

Times of the Islands - - Departments - Kelly Mad­den, a 50-year Lee County res­i­dent, is a for­mer TOTI Me­dia man­ag­ing ed­i­tor and fre­quent con­trib­u­tor.

When you speak to some­one who has a true pas­sion for live theater, you can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice. You will also likely dis­cover that the per­son has felt that way for a long time, usu­ally be­gin­ning in child­hood. The mis­sion of Kody Jones, the ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor at Florida Reper­tory The­atre in down­town Fort My­ers, is to en­sure that young peo­ple in Southwest Florida have the chance to feel just like he does.

Now in his third sea­son at Florida Rep, Jones is tasked with tak­ing the theater’s mes­sage out to the stu­dents in the re­gion and bring­ing young theater buffs into the theater to per­form in and work on the many shows his depart­ment stages each sea­son.

“I can tell right away when I meet a young per­son who re­ally loves live theater pro­duc­tions by the way they act, but also by the ques­tions they ask and how hard they work,” he says. “Some kids just take to it im­me­di­ately, and you can sense it the minute we start our first pro­duc­tion meet­ing or re­hearsal—you can tell it’s not just some­thing they’re do­ing to get out of do­ing some­thing else.”

Orig­i­nally from Flint, Michi­gan, Jones has a long his­tory of act­ing, theater pro­duc­tion and de­sign span­ning the United States, and he holds a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion. Un­der his lead­er­ship, Florida Rep of­fers ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for young theater lovers year-round, and Jones and the theater’s com­mu­nity outreach cast a very wide net.

“Each year we reach about 35,000 stu­dents from age 4 to about age 20,” he points out. “Be­tween the shows we put on here at the theater and the ones we take out on the road to

lo­cal schools, my goal is to present mu­si­cal theater to as many young folks as I can.”

Florida Rep of­fers a dozen pro­gram­ming op­tions de­signed to ap­peal to a wide va­ri­ety of kids, depend­ing on their level of in­ter­est. Its The­atre for Young Au­di­ences, or TYA as it is known, is an am­bi­tious pro­gram that Jones says is the Rep’s most pop­u­lar. “We mount some pretty im­pres­sive pro­duc­tions—this year we did

The Cat in the Hat and Romeo & Juliet— and we hold per­for­mances here, as well as take those shows on the road,” says Jones.

An­other Florida Rep of­fer­ing is the InS­chool Res­i­dency Pro­gram, where ac­tors and pro­duc­tion staff go to a spe­cific school and em­bed them­selves in its theater arts pro­gram, im­mers­ing stu­dents in the real world of mount­ing a suc­cess­ful and en­ter­tain­ing the­atri­cal play.

You can tell it’s not just some­thing they’re do­ing to get out of do­ing some­thing else.” —Kody Jones, Florida Rep Ed­u­ca­tion Di­rec­tor

The Rep also of­fers what it calls the Lunch­box Pro­gram, where school lead­ers ar­range to bring stu­dents down­town to see Florida Rep pro­duc­tions for just $10 each. Kids are en­cour­aged to pack their lunches and spend a large por­tion of the day at the theater. Not only do they en­joy a pro­fes­sion­ally pro­duced, live theater per­for­mance, but they also par­tic­i­pate in a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion with the show’s ac­tors. The stu­dents can also take part in an in­ter­ac­tive work­shop of­fer­ing a hands-on theater ex­pe­ri­ence, in which the con­tent re­lates to the spe­cific cur­ricu­lum be­ing of­fered as part of the school’s theater or per­form­ing arts pro­gram.

Schools that ar­range to have more than 100 stu­dents come to a show and get a be­hind-the-scenes look at how lo­cal theater is done may be able to re­ceive a dis­count to help with trans­porta­tion to the theater. Ed­u­ca­tors can also re­ceive a study guide prior to their stu­dents see­ing a Lunch­box show. The guides pro­vide back­ground, his­tory and pre- and post-show ac­tiv­i­ties that can con­nect with a teacher’s cur­ricu­lum. Plays on the Lunch­box sched­ule for 2019 in­clude Au­gust Wil­son’s Fences in Jan­uary and Newsies in May.

Florida Rep of­fers camps in the sum­mer, win­ter and spring. There are many lev­els of par­tic­i­pa­tion, from those de­signed for stu­dents won­der­ing if the world of show busi­ness is for them, to those for ex­pe­ri­enced lo­cal per­form­ers who want to fine-tune their the­atri­cal skills and acu­men.

In ex­plain­ing how his pro­grams for young ac­tors have been so suc­cess­ful, Jones points to Florida Rep’s his­tory. “We ac­tively re­cruit from a large num­ber of sources from across the coun­try for the best and bright­est to come and per­form in our shows,” he says. “We’ll gen­er­ally get 100 or so that au­di­tion, and about 30 to 40 who we ac­tu­ally cast. These are ac­tors who love do­ing live theater for young peo­ple.”

An­other very pop­u­lar pro­gram that Jones over­sees is the Con­ser­va­tory, where bud­ding ac­tors from 16 to 20 years old can not only learn what it takes to stage a show, but also par­tic­i­pate in a vot­ing ad­vi­sory board, elect­ing their own lead­ers to help pro­pel the show’s pro­duc­tion for­ward in a pro­gres­sive and pro­fes­sional way. Up­com­ing Con­ser­va­tory pro­duc­tions in­clude Newsies and Spring Awak­en­ing.

“The young ac­tors we get here are so in­ter­ested in theater, it makes for a very re­ward­ing and ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ence all around,” says Jones.

Among the Florida Rep’s pro­duc­tions for kids are (clock­wise from left) Refuge; The Giver; and a sum­mer camp ren­di­tion of the Lion King.

Below: Last spring Conser va­tory stu­dents per­formed Heathers as part of the Florida Rep’s ac­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, run by Kody Jones (above).

Young theater buffs have a chance to shine on stage at Florida Rep. Re­cent pro­duc­tions in­clude (clock­wise from top left) A Cho­rus Line; Me­ta­mor­phoses, fea­tur­ing Joseph Dafeldecker and Michael Galvez; Willy Wonka; and Snow Me Away.

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