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Thick as thieves

Youtheatre and the IPFW Department of Theater join forces for Oliver!

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


On a Tuesday evening in late January, the Ian Roland Gallery on the upper floor of the Arts United Center is packed with over three dozen people. Some stand, some sit, some tuck themselves discretely in a corner or against a wall. But everyone, it seems, is talking. Or moving. Or fussing…

Because well over half the assembled are children, and fairly young ones, too. There’s a large elementary school contingent, and from the looks of things, middle schoolers are also well-represented. Throw some uniforms on all these kids and you’d have a scene a little like one of those early chapters from a Harry Potter book, when all the young students crowd into the train station before heading off to Hogwarts.

Then, something changes. Director John O’Connell and assistant director Leslie Hormann step to the front of the room, instructions are called, and all that energy forms itself into something resembling order. The kids line up, grab a tin bowl, and after a musical intro played on piano, launch into “Food, Glorious Food.” Over two-dozen children are singing in unison, dancing in unison, and even though it’s only the first run-through for that evening, it looks and sounds… well, pretty darn good.

The occasion is a rehearsal for the musical Oliver! — one of the final run-throughs before the production moves downstairs to the big stage with the sets and the orchestra and the costumes.

When Oliver! begins its run on the Arts United Center stage on Friday, February 8, it’ll mark an historic first of sorts for theater in Fort Wayne — the first collaboration between two theater companies. The 26 young denizens of Mr. Bumble’s orphanage, not to mention the two actors cast in the title role, are here under the auspices of Fort Wayne Youtheatre, while most of the adults in the cast and much of the technical stage crew are from IPFW’s Department of Theater.

The idea started several years ago, when John O’Connell, chair of IPFW’s Department of Theater, was a guest on Leslie Hormann’s radio show.

During their talk, O’Connell said that one of his goals as chair was to collaborate with an off campus theater company as part of IPFW’s mission to “have a footprint in the community.”

He also mentioned that one day, he’d like to direct a production of Oliver!

Flash forward to 2011. Hormann is now the Executive Director of Youtheatre, with a few dozen young actors and actresses eager for stage time. “I said ‘you wanted to do this. Then let’s do it. I will be your ‘child wrangler,’ I will help you get the facility, I’ll do whatever you need me to do in order to make this happen’,” Hormann says.

And O’Connell was ready for it. Not only did he like the idea of collaborating with Youtheatre, but as we mentioned above, he’s always wanted to direct a production of Oliver!

Actually, considering O’Connell’s extensive professional resume as an actor, director, and educator, I was a little surprised that O’Connell hadn’t directed Oliver! before.

“Well you know, there aren’t many productions of Oliver!, because it’s such a large undertaking,” he says. “I think Harvey (Cocks) did the last production of Oliver! here something like 20 years ago. We’re doing 70 costumes, we have a huge set, and there’s an orchestra. It’s quite an operation.”

The cast numbers about 50, 26 children and 24 adults. Most of the adults are IPFW students, though there are several actors from the community in some of the roles. There’s also a technical crew, an orchestra, and a band of volunteers helping to bring the show to life.

While the IPFW Department of Theater has featured productions with elaborate sets and many costumes, Oliver! is on an entirely different scale. O’Connell — who in addition to being Chair of the Theater Department is also currently serving as Interim Dean for the College of Visual and Performing Arts — says they are taking advantage of the full 60 feet of the Arts United Center’s proscenium. The set is being built at IPFW under the direction of Mark DeLancey. A week before opening, it’ll be dismantled, loaded into three trucks, and taken to the Arts United Center to be reassembled. All the IPFW students in the cast will be involved in the process, O’Connell says. “Any of them who want to be involved in a ‘B’ level national tour, they’re going to be doing the same thing. They’re going to be on a bus that goes to, say, Toledo. The big truck gets unpacked, they do two shows, truck gets packed again and they move on to the next town. It’s not a bad experience for them to have.”

As to why O’Connell might be eager to tackle a big production like Oliver!… well, there are about seven or eight reasons. ”Consider Yourself at Home.” I’d Do Anything.” “Where Is Love” Pick A Pocket”… “I think it’s some of the best music in the musical theater canon,” he says. “The songs are so memorable.”

On the cast and crew credit sheet, Leslie Hormann is listed as an assistant director and orphan choreographer. Unofficially, she’s jokingly referred to as “child wrangler.” She has the sometimes daunting task of making sure those two dozen or so orphans know their marks, hit their cues, and most importantly, stay focused on stage. “You have to have patience, and you can’t forget they’re kids,” says Hormann, who was an elementary school teacher for 15 years. “They’re very excited to be up there, there’s a lot going on, so you have to remind them to concentrate.”

But what Hormann tells her young actors on stage is actually just an extension of many of the fundamentals Youtheatre stresses in classes and their own productions — stand up straight, focus on what you’re doing, speak with confidence.

She says she sees some changes in some of the younger students from working with the college-aged actors who hope to be involved in theater professionally. “Working with the college kids is such an extension of our mission here at Youtheatre,” she says. “Some of our students will be going into higher theater education, and it’s great for them to get a taste of what that involves.”

The mentoring between the older and younger students seems to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the collaboration. Heather Moser, an IPFW senior who plays “Old Sally,” is paired with Jadyn Weber, who does double duty as an orphan and Old Sally’s daughter. “Normally, after Lana is done with the orphan scene, we’ll run the songs a couple times so she can get warmed up,” Moser says. “I’ll also coach her a little bit — ‘here we’re going to act excited; here we’re going to act snobby.’ She practices very hard, and gets so excited when she gets the steps right.”

Some of the younger Youtheatre actors also have roles as Fagin’s pickpockets, and O’Connell says there’s a nice camaraderie happening between the college kids and the Youtheatre kids during rehearsals. “They’re looking out for each other, and they want to get it right,” he says. “I’ll be in rehearsal, and I’ll look over and see three pickpockets over to the side, running the dance they have to do next.”

“To see them watching the other actors work, and to see how thrilled they are to get in and do another song… I’m inspired by that,” he adds.

Anthony Hays, one of the young pickpockets, says the sort of advice he’s received from his older colleagues ranges from the very specific to the more inspirational. The specific — “When you’re singing, move your mouth up and down rather than side-to-side. It gives it more of a choral sound.” And the inspirational — “You can always do better. You may think you’re trying your hardest, but you can always push yourself a little further and give a better performance.”

Sam Smiley and Miles Warshauer play Oliver — Smiley on February 9, 15, and 17; Warshauer on February 8, 10, 14 and 16. It’s the first starring role for both, and they credit “the college kids” for making what could be an intimidating or daunting experience a little easier. Smiley says he’s learned a lot of little techniques — how to stand, facial expressions — that have been very helpful, while Warshauer says the best advice he got was during the dance sequences. “I learned how to be light on my feet,” he says. “I didn’t have any finesse, but they showed me what I needed to do.”

As for future collaborations, Hormann says plans are already in the works for next year with the University of St Francis, another classic musical that requires lots of little people.

No, the other one.

Think Oompa Loompas.


IPFW Department of Theater and Fort Wayne Youtheatre present Oliver!

February 8, 9, 14, 15 16 at 8 PM
February 10 and 17 at 2 PM

Arts United Center
303 East Main Street

Tickets: $16 adults; $14 seniors/faculty/staff/alumni; $10 children 18 and under; $7 groups of 10 or more; $5 IPFW students with ID; $12 other college students with ID

Tickets available at ArtsTix Community Box Office
Online: tickets.artstix.org
By phone: (260) 422-4226
In person: Arts United Center
303 East Main
Mon — Fri: 10 am – 6 pm
Sat: Noon – 4 pm

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