Center Stage

The performance space of Music Theatre of Connecticut, a small theater and conservatory-style performing arts school on the Post Road, sits shrouded in darkness. Rows of seats, forty-five in all, are mostly empty. In the first row, behind a folding table crowded with stacks of papers sit Jim Shilling, Deborah Levy and Marty Bongfeldt. Kevin Connors waits stage left, behind the piano, his fingers resting on the keys.

One by one, kids step into the theater to vie for a spot in Annie, MTC’s MainStage Kids production. Leaving the security of their parents in the lobby, their feet hit the green tape X on stage. The kids bring with them splashes of color. The purple of a wrist splint, the spark of neon Band-Aids on a knee. Today, they are free from the questions that they—and everyone else with a dream of a life off the beaten path—will hear a million times if they want a career on stage. How will you succeed? How will you support yourself?

The only questions are of what each child will be singing today. Kevin, the executive artistic director, glides easily through the accompaniment for each solo, while Jim, the managing director and Kevin's partner of thirty-three years, listens intently. One girl warns, laughing, that there are five more renditions of “Tomorrow” after her. During solos, Jim, along with Deb and Marty—two of MTC’s School of Performing Arts faculty members—sway, animated, chiming in if someone forgets a lyric. They have the same energy during that first rendition of “Tomorrow” as they do for the fifteenth. Voices fill the room, seemingly too forceful to be coming from seven-year-olds. After each kid takes a bow and exits stage left, the chatter between the faculty begins.

“That voice!” Deb says, later, of one girl who seemed to rattle the back wall. “I can just picture her in three years.”

“She didn’t have that belt before,” Jim agrees, pleased.

The afternoon feels like an audition and a family sing-along. There are nerves—only at first. Jim and the others hear about a girl crying before her audition. The piano sheet music she brought in is in a different key than the version of the song she’d practiced at home. Like a family, the hard lessons come just as easily as the praise. Maybe this will teach her to be more prepared in the future? No coddling here.

Already, this is a taste of how she’ll be treated during rehearsals. The young performers of the five annual student productions are held to the same standards as the professional actors of MTC’s three annual adult Equity productions. It’s not harsh. It’s the business. Get ready for some hard knocks.

“These seven year-olds coming in alone and singing and reading—most people can’t do it,” Deb says. “It’s amazing what this does to kids in terms of bringing them out.”

True to form, when the girl steps to the stage for her turn to audition, her tears are gone. She hits her mark—center stage—and stands strong in the spotlight.

More often then not, the lure of childhood dreams—thoughts of becoming an astronaut, a painter—give way to stability. Maybe it’s the lure of paid vacations and dental plans. Those willing to stray from this path need to be made of stronger stuff.

“Theater is the island of misfit toys,” Kevin Connors says, a wide smile playing on his face. Theater people, then, are like the misfits from the 1964 Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A toy train with square wheels. A bird that swims. Toys that don’t exactly conform to expectations but found a family among other toys that are just as quirky, yet beautiful.

Kevin is happily among those misfit toys. He began his career as a performer, touring his own act with the legendary Bob Hope, Henny Youngman and Johnny Mathis. He’s been a professional musical theater composer and director for more than thirty years, having helmed productions off Broadway and throughout Connecticut. He knows a thing or two about ambition and drive—musts for his students. Success in entertainment is elusive.

Sure, Westport is a haven for the arts. In the town’s public schools, theater is the new football. But outside the Westport bubble, the world isn’t as welcoming. With thousands of students vying for a handful of slots in musical theater and acting programs, arts-focused colleges are now as competitive as Ivy League schools. People don’t typically think an actor has “made it” until he or she is chatting with Oprah about their latest blockbuster. In a life full of rejection, how do you keep bouncing back?

“We try to be nurturing but realistic,” Kevin says. Not every student that walks the long, red-painted hallway of MTC, lined with headshots of smiling alums in college programs, are going to be headlining a show on Broadway when they grow up. But every student has that same spark—that flicker that hits their eyes when they walk on stage. Theater brings them a joy like nothing else.

“Nowadays, many parents try to shield their kids from failing,” he says, “but failing is a part of the learning process.”

He talks of odds and ambition just as easily to his students. Along with MTC’s School of Performing Arts, a curriculum-based training program for students ages four through high school, they also offer a training program called College-Bound in the Performing Arts. Alumni include the television and theater composer Justin Paul, a Tony nominee and winner of the Jonathan Larsen Award for Edges, a musical cowritten with Benj Pasek. Kevin created College-Bound as an individualized program for high school students who plan on a career in the performing arts to prepare for the college audition process. You have ten minutes to blow the socks off a room of strangers with your talent and personality. No pressure.

“This is the toughest life you could possibly pick,” Kevin says to his students, during a seminar boot camp that kicks off the College-Bound program. He says this not to scare the students. He’s like your favorite uncle; there to guide you but unafraid to talk about the pitfalls of your chosen path. Unspoken questions linger in the air. Is this really what you want? Are you strong enough? “It’s something you need to do. It requires a lot of discipline and a lot of sacrifice. And you should know that going into this.”

The students gathered in the theater have heard this all before. Here, perhaps not so surprisingly, not one of the students in the room hightails it out of the theater in hopes of an easier life away from the stage.

For last season’s Next to Normal, an emotional rock musical about a mother struggling with bipolar disorder, Westport’s Jacob Heimer was back to his old haunts at MTC.
When he got his start at age eight, performing in MTC’s Alice and Wonderland, Jacob knew he was hooked. “I did shows here until basically I was in high school,” he continues. “I took acting classes, and Kevin was my first voice teacher. He was extremely helpful with me in understanding how to sing, but also what the business is like. He’s been a mentor since I was a kid.”

Now, Jacob is on the other side, not as a student but as a professional performer cast as the role of Henry. He’s a New Yorker with a BFA in acting from Syracuse (plus, a coveted Equity card). In the eyes of the students belting out solos at MTC, he’s living the dream. Just how is the other side?

Not always easy. “My first year out of school was really bad,” he says. “Not fun in my apartment. No acting work. The acting work I did get was not only unpaid, but I was also treated very poorly.” He didn’t give up. He dug down. His schedule is breakneck. Up to a dozen auditions a week. He’s his own agent and marketer, sending off emails and photos, hoping that people will see him for auditions. Now with acting credits under his belt, including roles in the Fantasticks at the Palm Beach Dramaworks and As You Like It at the Pulse Ensemble Theatre, he hasn’t lost that love of theater he first found at MTC. “I’d go crazy if I couldn’t do it,” he says.

Now and then he’s still hit with the big questions: Is this really your career? How are you going to make this your living? Thankfully, they don't come from people he cares about.

The answer is deceptively simple. “Hard work,” he says. “You just work at it.” It helps, too, to have an idea of success that isn’t tied to zeroes on a paycheck or seeing your name in lights.

“Success is never losing sight of my passion for theater and acting. It’s easy for this industry to bring you down, to make you feel like you can’t succeed. That can be totally stopped if you just decide to make it work.”

For those dreaming of success in the theater—or even the personal success of pushing past your tears and stepping onto that stage for your solo—Music Theatre of Connecticut offers a greeting. Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys, as long as you work hard and are brave enough to follow your dreams.

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