Kids Take Center Stage
Florida Rep cultivates young theater buffs
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.