Youngsters find magic over the rainbow

Youngsters find magic over the rainbow


It’s a cloudy, breezy fall night in October, and something unusual is going on inside the Arts Live Theatre space: A group of 35 kids, ages 8 to 18, are gathered quietly in a circle around Julie Gabel, the director of the upcoming show, “The Wizard of Oz.” Soothing music is in the background as Gabel takes the large group of kids through warm-up exercises meant to help them shake off the stresses of the day and focus on rehearsal. Gabel tells them to gather in groups of three — then four, then in groups where at least one person has a yellow pair of shoes — by the time she counts to six. The kids do it quickly and quietly, working cooperatively, with the older members of the cast helping guide the younger ones. It’s 6:30 p.m., and all of the kids in the room have had a full day of school and work, but their concentration is laser-sharp, and any fatigue they may have felt when they entered the room has vanished. Later, when they run through one of the big musical numbers of the show, the fruits of their labor are evident in the tight harmonies and enthusiastic dance choreography.

Though the idea that three dozen kids might be able to maintain such focus at the end of a long day might be unusual to most of us, it certainly isn’t to Gabel, who maintains a calm control over the crowd using a firm sense of humor. Arts Live Theatre has been turning out polished shows performed by budding young actors for decades now, and though the cast might seem large, it’s pretty average for Gabel.

“We had around 100 kids audition, and we have around 40 in the show,” she says, and adds, “The most I ever did was 52, and, after that, I said, ‘I’m never doing that again.’ But there’s power in numbers on stage. Kids tend to be a little more timid unless they have a lot of other kids around them. And we’ll perform at [the Arts Center of the Ozarks], so that’s a good-sized stage to fill up.”

Gabel says she’s excited to be directing “The Wizard of Oz” not only because it’s a classic show, but also because it’s a personal favorite of hers.

“I told the kids that, of course, these days you can stream it anywhere — but when I was a kid, you couldn’t even record things on the television,” she says. “It was on once a year, I think on a Sunday night, and it was like, ‘You snooze, you lose’ — you had to watch it then if you wanted to see it. It was a big deal, and it was magic. When it went from black and white to color, it was like you were transported to a totally different place, and I bought every bit of it. I loved it.”

The version Arts Live will be presenting is a one-hour adaptation of the classic movie, specially tailored for casts of young actors, but it will feature the most memorable songs from the film, including “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” “If I Only Had a Heart,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.”

“It’s a very beautiful moment,” says Kayleigh Calaway, who plays Dorothy, of the moment in the show when she sings one of the most beloved songs in entertainment. Calaway has been working with Arts Live for over a decade. “I know that my mom’s going to cry. And it’s a little bit nerve wracking — it took me a long time to find myself within Dorothy. I knew I couldn’t sing it like Kayleigh Calaway , but I can’t sing it like Judy Garland, either — I had to find that balance, which took a long time. It’s such an iconic song and such an anthem for so many people.”

Like Gabel, Calaway says the movie was a favorite childhood memory of hers.

“Of course I was a fan!” she says with a laugh. “Like every other little girl, I dressed up as Dorothy for Halloween, and it was always very special for me. I always admired Judy Garland and have since I was a little kid, so when the opportunity arose, I thought, ‘I’m going to take this chance.’ I was extremely excited.”

For actor Sean Thorup, who plays Dorothy’s Uncle Henry, this is his second time playing a character much out of his age range at Arts Live — over the summer, he played the role of Charlie’s Uncle Joe in Arts Live’s production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“One of my key ways of getting into character is putting myself in the mindset of the time,” says Thorup of his character work. “You can get a lot of information from the script, just sitting there for 15 or 20 minutes, thinking about, ‘Why would I make that choice?’ Thinking about, ‘What is my purpose? Why am I here?’ That helps you unravel this character bit by bit, and, by the end of the rehearsal period, you’ve got a full character that you’ve developed.”

That sounds like pretty advanced script analysis for a 16-year-old, and Thorup says that’s just one of the skills he’s picked up in his 10 years of working in classes and on productions at Arts Live Theatre. In fact, when he and Calaway talk about what the performing arts have meant to them as they’ve grown up, the preternatural calm and focus these kids show in rehearsal starts to make more sense.

“One of the main benefits that I’ve gotten from theater is definitely the skill of communication, which is so important today in our world,” he says. “It’s such a valuable lesson. Also, being able to control how nervous or fearful you get has been a big help in my life. Learning the words and vocabulary in your script can really help you on the SAT or ACT or when you’re really reading into a text.”

“It made me feel more original,” says Calaway frankly. She’s a senior at Fayetteville High School this year, and she’s carefully balancing her school work and her job at Starbucks in order to make time for theater. “In a town like Fayetteville, a lot of people go to the University of Arkansas, and they live a very similar lifestyle. By having the arts, I was able to find my own voice within the loud crowd and be the person I wanted to be and not follow the crowd. It was something I was good at, and I was always terrible at sports. My parents tried so hard to get me into sports, and I said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ But once I found theater, I really came out of my shell. It’s really helped me find self-confidence and find beauty and emotions in the little things.”

Back at rehearsal, as the cast launches into the third run-through of “Jitterbug” with every bit as much energy as they had the first time, it’s easy to be charmed by their talent, hard work and easy camaraderie. In Thorup’s summation of one of the underlying themes of “The Wizard of Oz,” he could just as easily be talking about the act of producing theater itself.

“It’s so nice to see people come together — despite their differences — and work hard together, toward a common cause.”



‘The Wizard of Oz’

WHEN — 7 p.m. Nov. 8-9; 2 p.m. Nov. 9-10

WHERE — Arts Center of the Ozarks, 214 S. Main St., Springdale

COST — $12-$25

INFO — 521-4932

BONUS — An Emerald City Tea Party (1 p.m. Nov. 9-10) and Wizard of Oz Happy Birthday Party (Nov. 8, during intermission) are available with special ticket pricing.

Categories: Cover Story