TheatreWorks Florida Presents School House Rock
By Donna Kelly
The irony is beautiful.
As soon as TheatreWorks Florida found a home last year at the former Davenport School of the Arts campus, the professional theater company launched TheatreCares and began traveling throughout Central Florida to share quality stage shows with folks who ordinarily couldn’t experience them.
Not only is TheatreCares a raging success, but having a home base also enabled Scott Cook, the theater’s founder and artistic producer, to develop ClassWorks, an educational component designed to train you and adults for a future in musical theater.
And TheatreWorks Florida continues to offer award-winning professional shows at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden and other venues.
TheatreWorks Florida is a non-profit 501c3 professional theatre company, meaning all staff, designers, cast and crew are professionals. The company’s shows are staged at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden and the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival.
“We went into this to do quality theater,” says Cook, who launched the company in 2008 with a production of Disney’s High School Musical at Lakeland’s Polk Theatre before taking productions on the road. “To find even a temporary home has changed direction for us. The theater has magically grown with the right people in place.”
Quality has its Rewards
In the last seven years, TheatreWorks Florida has won Orlando’s International Fringe Festival twice, along with numerous individual nods from the Festival, as well as several Broadway World Orlando awards, with productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney Todd, Legally Blonde, The Great American Trailer Park, and Winter Wonderettes.
Candy Heller, who received the 2014 Broadway World Orlando Award for Best Lead Actress in a Professional Musical for her portrayal of Mrs. Lovett in the TWF production of Sweeney Todd, says working on the show – her first with the company – was rewarding on several levels.
“It was hands down the best experience of my life, and not just because of the role or the award, but because of Scott who truly believed in me and helped me grow, the company I worked with, the people involved,” says Heller, who also played Cindy Lou in last season’s Winter Wonderettes. “The whole experience is one I will never be able to repeat, and I am totally okay with that!”
Hands on a Hard Body, a musical recounting the quest 10 people make to win a truck by being the last one to keep his or her hands on it, will open at the Garden Theatre in January.
Unexpected funds can make all the difference. For TheatreWorks Florida, they enabled Cook to establish TheatreCares, a community outreach arm he’s had in mind for years.
Cook and the TWF company manager, Abel Gonzales, had planned to produce Winter Wonderettes and take it to local retirement facilities in late 2014, but they created TheatreCares when the National Endowment for the Arts surprised them with a grant opportunity to fund community outreach in Central Florida.
To be eligible for the $10,000 matching grant Cook and Gonzales were required to submit a project to NEA within 30 days.
The NEA grant is designed to fund programming specifically for audiences with various challenges – geographical, economic, social, and financial – preventing them from participating in arts experiences.
“(That audience) can even be a community without a theater,” Gonzales explains.
Armed with the NEA funds and another $2,500 grant from United Arts of Central Florida Tour Grant, they staged Winter Wonderettes for four local nursing homes.
TheatreWorks Florida was eligible for another NEA grant the following February, which gave them a chance to expand.
“My theory is why do we want to do it? We looked at the bigger picture,” says Gonzales.
As a result, they expanded their vision. This season they are focusing their community outreach on underserved youth with SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK LIVE!
Produced by TheatreWorks Florida and presented by TheatreCares, SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK LIVE! is a lively musical about Tom, a beginning teacher who attempts to calm his raging nerves before his first day in the classroom by watching TV. When characters representing facets of his personality spring from his TV set, Tom learns several lessons in how to win his students over with imagination and music.
Targeted to youth 7 to 17 years old, the show will be performed in several venues in Polk and Orange counties, including Haines City’s Lake Eva Community Center and Paramour Kid Zone in Orlando. All TheareCares shows are free to attend.
“We want to take the theater to people who can’t ordinarily see it,” says Gonzales. “TheatreCares stems from TheatreWorks Florida. It says TheatreWorks Florida cares about the community and wants to take the arts to the community.”
“The National Endowment for the Arts grant was a miracle in our pocket. It was an invitational grant. They came to us. We weren’t competing with anybody,” says Cook.
But perhaps the real miracle is the impact the TheatreCares program has on people – audiences and performers alike.
Heller is thrilled to return to TWF and Theatre Cares this season as Dori in SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK LIVE!, which opens 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Davenport Community Campus and immediately goes on tour through Oct. 4.
“These kids don’t always have the opportunity to see a show of this caliber, and with as much fun as we are having, I don’t see how these kids will be able to stop themselves from dancing and singing along with us,” she says. “They’re being exposed to an avenue that can allow them to express themselves in a way that they may not have even known was a possibility; a creative outlet for them to explore who they are and who they can be, right in front of their eyes.”
TheatreCares is also a vehicle for busy thespians – many juggling jobs, families, and the theater – to give back to the community in meaningful way.
“Working during the day, taking care of my fur-baby, and practicing at rehearsals or performing shows in the evening makes it hard to find time to volunteer – something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” says Heller. “TWF has given me an opportunity to actually combine theatre and giving back to the community.”
Performing in Winter Wonderettes for nursing home residents, she says, was an inspiring experience.
“You just couldn’t help but smile at all of the faces as they lit up while we sang songs they recognized. Some even sang along with us! They loved seeing their friends and family come up and participate in the show, too,” Heller says.
She also enjoyed the post-show talkbacks allowing interaction between actors and the audience.
“We would ask them questions like what their favorite song was, who their favorite musician was from that time period, and they would shout out their answers to us,” she explains. “Elvis was a very popular favorite among the nursing homes.”
This is what the program is all about.
“The grant is for arts engagement. You have to entice these people to participate in the arts and enjoy them for life,” says a smiling Cook. “I’ve we’ve enticed you into the arts, then we’ve done our job.”
ClassWorks: Preparing for the Future
The dance studios largely unused by youth since Davenport School of the Arts moved to its current location on County Road 547 in January 2011 are bustling with activity as the September 19 opening ClassWorks approaches.
The inaugural 8-week session will be open to two age groups: Children 7 to 12 years old, under the instruction of Jennifer Marshall, and 13 up, taught by Matthew Johnson. Adult classes are tentatively scheduled to begin in spring.
“Any up and coming theater company has an educational component,” maintains Cook. “ClassWorks is designed to provide professional training for the future professional in musical theater.”
The 8-week session runs Sept. 19 through Nov. 14. Classes meet 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday. The tuition is regularly $160, but student can enroll now at an introductory price of $100.
For more info contact Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-340-0473. To register, visit www.theatreworksfl.org.
“Once they get the training they need, Scott wants to have them work with the company,” says Able.
Home Sweet Home
On a recent Saturday afternoon Cook grinned while strolling through the company’s home base as a crew of volunteers scrubbed, painted, and polished the theater.
“They flipped on the lights and I went crazy – the beautiful floor, beautiful studio,” he said, remembering his first tour through the facility in the vacant school.
It includes the theater, a shop area, and storage – about 1,200 square feet total.
In 2014, TheatreWorks Florida used it as a rehearsal space. During the last year, the company made it their home.
But TheatreWorks Florida is reaching beyond the theater to impact the community.
Cook, who has lived in Davenport for several years, and Gonzales spearheaded the Imagine Davenport marketing initiative, bringing several community organizations together under one marketing campaign. The Davenport City Commissioners approved joining the campaign in June.
Other organizations include the Davenports Arts and Cultural Alliance, Davenport Historical Society, Quilts and Tea Committee, Davenport Fights Back! and the Humor Mill, a comedy improv group.
“There are great things happening in our community,” says Cook. “We’re working out a blueprint for improving the quality of life in Davenport. Business-wise, we’re growing by leaps and bounds.”
Harriet Rust, founder of the Davenport Arts and Cultural Alliance and president of the Davenport Historical Society, says their efforts bode well for the community.
“They’ve laid out projections for different phases of what Scott wants to see happen,” says Rust. “All of these groups can do a lot if all the groups will get on the same phase.”
Rust says business owners and community leaders involved with the initiative want to see art galleries and a wide selection of cultural arts offerings in the city.
“The City of Davenport has needed a niche. We really think of Davenport as becoming an art community, explains Rust, a life-long resident of Davenport. “Scott is the person who can make this happen.”
For Cook it is about making a difference in his community while offering quality theater experiences to those who live in the area.
“Everything is coming together the way it should,” says Cook. “We need to put roots and feet down in our own community. What will be great is when peoples start coming to us,” says Cook, his eyes dancing as he watches the auditorium beginning to take shape.
For more info visit TheatreWorksFL.org.