By May S. Ruiz
This weekend, California School of the Arts-San Gabriel Valley (CSArts-SGV) and mediaV, a Santa Monica-based production company, will jointly premiere a retelling of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ Renamed ‘The Merry Lives of Windsor High,’ it will be held on Friday and Saturday, November 30 and December 1, at the Duarte Performing Arts Center.
This production is the first ‘Incubator Project’ developed by the partners, an incredible one-of-a-kind collaboration that gives students of CSArts-SGV’s Musical Theatre Conservatory the opportunity to be the first to originate and produce a series of brand-new rock musicals.
MediaV founders and philanthropists Russell Meyer and Marcy Shaffer have pledged a gift of $50,000 to CSArts-SGV over the next two years to support the creation of two world premieres, with the intention to continue collaborating over the next several years. Using the works of William Shakespeare as source material, the Incubator Project will create modern and relevant musicals that would subsequently be offered for public license and performance.
“We are thrilled to be given the opportunity to create and contribute original works to the catalog of musicals available today,” pronounces CSArts-SGV Chair of Theatre Jay Wallace. “We hope the material will gain momentum and be performed by high school, college, and community programs across the country.”
Jer Adrianne Lelliott, who directed last year’s CSArts-SGV’s production of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ will be directing ‘The Merry Lives of Windsor High.’ A theatre actor since early childhood, she played Chip in the original Los Angeles cast of Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at age 12. She attended film school at Loyola Marymount University and upon completion returned to theatre. She earned her MFA in Acting at Cal State Fullerton, after which she started working professionally in regional theatres all over the United States.
The founding artistic director of Coeurage Theatre Company, Lelliott’s theatrical directing highlights include Carla Ching’s Blackbird, as well as Vieux Carré, The Woodsman, and Andronicus for Coeurage.
As an actor, Lelliott has appeared at Kirk Douglas Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse, Chance Theatre, Laguna Playouse, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, MainStreet Theatre Company, and Disney on Broadway.
Lelliott’s television credits include Sweet Justice, Picket Fences, Journey of the Heart, Melrose Place, Walker Texas Ranger, Life with Louie, The Practice, Ambushed, Safe Harbor, Providence, 7th Heaven, Disappearance, Smallville, The Handler, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Ctrl Alt Delete, among many others. Film credits include Jack, Ambushed, Diplomatic Siege, Betrayal, Race You to the Bottom, Driftwood, and more.
Distinguishing between the two productions she helmed at CSArts-SGV, Lelliott states, “Last year’s was straight-on Oscar Wilde, a dead playwright, so the script was set in stone. While this year, the script is continually developing and revising as we go.
“Jay and I have been talking since spring, planning with the creators and writers. There have been numerous phone calls and face-to-face meetings. They were here two days ago to see our progress and making script changes as they watched students in rehearsals.”
That so much is riding on this Incubator Project is not lost on the students. Pasadenan Melissa Bautista, who’s in 11th grade and attends the Musical Theatre Conservatory, says, “My parents understand that being a junior and participating in a production is a big responsibility so they could be knocking on my door at 3 am to check if everything’s fine.
“I constantly juggle between doing homework and going to rehearsals. We have a buffer from 4:45 to 5:30 so that’s usually the time I do homework. I also eat snacks and drink water to replenish my energy. We’re not always on during rehearsals so I use the in-between times, too.”
“It’s very much about time management,” inserts Wallace.
Concurs Mateo Alfonso, a 9th grade student from Monrovia who’s also in the Musical Theatre Conservatory, “My parents know that if I get into a show I’ll be in rehearsals until 8:30 pm and that’s just a commitment you have to make when you dedicate yourself to the Arts and you’re doing what you love.”
“In this musical, I play Tess, the coffee girl who works at the brewery,” describes Bautista. “She’s a senior and she’s trying to raise money to go to college; she’s also the friend that everyone goes to for advice. She just happens to be caught in the middle of all the drama.”
“Tess loves her friends with all her heart, a trait that’s close to me as a person,” Bautista continues. “But as kind-hearted as she is, she’s sassy and sarcastic at the same time. She stands up for herself, which is something I aspire to.
“In previous roles I was someone flighty. But this time, my character is very down to earth, a great advice-giver, and a very supportive friend. This gives me the opportunity to be seen as someone who’s not just an airhead, or that high-pitch voiced, quirky girl, but someone with more substance.”
Alfonso couldn’t say much about his character beyond, “I play the role of Oliver who’s a senior and a soccer fan; he’s the twin brother of Olivia. I would like the audience to see what a high schooler is really like. Playing the character of someone who’s shy, I relate to him. However, unlike the role I portrayed last year who holds a lot inside, in this musical my character shows that you don’t have to pretend, you just have to be yourself.”
Asked if she gave Bautista and Alfonso direction on how to act like senior students on the show, Lelliott remarks, “First of all, I’d like to commend Mateo for doing a great job of talking around a major spoiler. But to answer your question, they’re giving me pointers! Actually, what’s important to us and the creators is that it reflects our campus and students. They chose our school because they wanted our population so when they present the work to other colleges and universities they can show the crème de la crème. Most of the characters in the play are high school seniors with the exception of one; we have one 8th grader who cracked that age criterion and managed to get in the play.”
“I directed it just like I would professional theatre,” asserts Lelliott. “These young people are as professional as some of the adults I work with; their training is excellent. It’s collaborative as to who they are. I also cast all 26 of them for specific reasons – they were as close as possible to the characters they play and we want their personalities to shine through.
“But beyond that, I gave them notes as to how they could make clear their objectives, staging – making sure the audience can see their faces and hear their voices, and technique. The good thing about teaching and then directing them is that we have a shared vocabulary, so when I say ‘You have to raise the stakes here,’ they know what that means.”
“I would say that this is a broader philosophy of how we approach all our productions here. There should be a collaborative effort, we should show respect, we have a mutual language. We certainly value having a polished professional product and the shows we have mounted, thus far, have demonstrated that. However, process is probably the most vital component to everything that we do. Our philosophical goal throughout the conservatory and theatre acting is our growth, whether as artists or as individuals. It’s up to us as the leaders at CSArts-SGV to inspire them to achieve their potential through the process.”
Speaking of the process, Lelliott discloses, “Tonight, we’re just working on songs. There are 20 songs, bookended with big company musical numbers. In between there are quartets, trios, duets, solos, and reprises. My musical director and choreographer are there; I’ll put the students up, we have a running order. They’ll get notes specifically for vocal and choreo.
“Tomorrow, there won’t be any music, we’ll just be concentrating on staging scenes. Sometimes it will be like a three-ring circus, where I’ll be working on acting with students, while the musical director will be doing songs with them, and the choreographer will be working with other students on the dancing.”
“The reason ‘Hamilton’ is so much better than everything else that came out on Broadway is that the producers gave it extra time, which doesn’t usually happen with union contracts,” expounds Lelliott. “They didn’t just go in with a script and put on the show, it was an evolving process.
“That’s the same thing here. While we didn’t make major revisions, the writers came in and we all watched it and we were thrilled with it. Then we decided we could streamline the opening number to make it even faster. We’ll turn in a show in 90 minutes, with no intermission. People can see the show then grab lunch afterwards.”
“I think one of the things that we considered is what’s happening in the world right now,” Wallace says further. “Some of the revisions that were made were to make it more relevant to the audience.”
Lelliot clarifies, “The show doesn’t really touch on social issues. I’m going to riff off what Mateo said earlier – it touches on them by not touching on them. What people will see up there is a really diverse, inclusive cast. It will honor, even as we shatter, a lot of archetypes and stereotypes in a school setting – the jocks, the cheerleaders, and the brains. We’ll see more three-dimensional characters and, in so doing, I suppose there will be an undercurrent of social justice, if you will. But the real justice of it, really, is that we’ll be presenting a more idyllic world which is what CSArts-SGV embodies – a beautiful culture – and how well that works when we don’t label people.”
This first incubator project has another outcome, explains Wallace, “Something interesting I want to touch on is that this is also linked to a course that we’ll offer in the spring which will be led by the person who will direct next year’s incubator project. Students will develop the actual product as well as get exposure to what it’s like to put on a brand-new musical, to promote it, to learn how to be marketing savvy. An important part of that course will be workshopping next spring’s incubator so by the time we get into the Fall we’re ready to rock and roll, literally.
“We’re exploring how we can tap into the youth who may not be trained in those, but who are so innovative. We’d like to utilize that to build a framework together that will become the foundation of future incubator projects, so when these students graduate our school they’ll have a major head start on collaborating and originating new material.”
When queried how he found a teacher to teach the course, Wallace replies, “I started from the creative side – who would be the most ideal person to lead the incubator project. It’s important that it’s always somebody who has experience in generating their own product, in promoting their own image and product; someone who has an understanding of the means to engage on a collaborative effort. And, first and foremost, someone who can connect with students.
“This opportunity for us to originate a musical and to collaborate with professional talent, is almost unheard of even at the collegiate level, and certainly not at the high school level. I’d be very surprised if there were anything like this anywhere in the country. The shakers at media V deserve a lot of credit for that vision and for coming to us to partner with them. It’s a real sign of reinvesting in youth and theatre arts, specifically musical theatre, and allowing these students to develop through that process. It’s extremely unique and, quite honestly, a blessing. And to do this in the second year of our school is just insane.”
As the chair of the theatre department, Wallace is aware that the onus to make a success of the project falls squarely on him, “My philosophy is ‘This is my challenge and my opportunity. Embrace it.’”
It is that spirit of ownership that Wallace displays that has made such a tremendous success of all CSArts-SGV’s theatre productions. Bravo!