BWW Interviews: Founder Johnny Hebda on Utah Musical Theatre Company
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by Tyler Hinton
Johnny Hebda is the founder of an exciting New Theatre Company in Utah-the Utah Musical Theatre Company. He took the time out of his busy schedule to speak with BroadwayWorld about the theatre's ambitious mission, its debut production, Side Show, and the rest of its upcoming season.
1. Tell us about your background in theatre.
I have been involved in theatre since a young child both in film and on stage. I have been involved with more than 70 productions nationally in professional theatre, summer stock, university and local productions. I have worked at theatres ranging from The American Family Theater in NYC to the Lost Colony in Roanoke, North Carolina (under the direction of Terrence Mann) and the Roxy Regional Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee. I have degrees from the Florida School of the Arts (Acting Conservatory Program), a BFA in Music Dance Theatre from BYU (along with an emphasis in Directing) and I am currently working on a Master's in Directing from Roosevelt University (as part of a unique independent study program). Some favorite roles have included: Mozart in Amadeus(outstanding actor award), Romeo in Terrence Mann's musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, Matt in The Fantasticks, Joseph in Joseph...,and the Devil in Damn Yankees;as well as directing such productions as Parade(Student Directing Award Recipient at BYU) and the Music Dance Theatre Showcase featuring Jenny Jordan-Frogley at BYU, The Bald Soprano, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,and many others. I also founded the Clarksville Children's Theatre in Tennessee and am a member of the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG). Currently I am actively involved in the Utah theatre community as an actor, director, producer, music director, and reviewer with many theatre organizations and companies throughout the state. Let's say I am kind of a theatre addict and I love staying involved in theatre in any state that I live in.
2. What is your favorite theatre project you've been involved in?
It's hard to narrow it down to one. I have enjoyed many shows I have been involved with for different reasons. Here would be three of my top three: I loved working with Terrence Mann as Romeo in his musical adaptation of ROMEO AND JULIET. I also enjoyed directing PARADE at BYU (as I am a huge fan of Jason Robert Brown and that show has always spoken to me and I was very pleased with the quality of the production). And lastly I really enjoyed playing Mozart in AMADEUS as it stretched me as an actor and was a powerful production to be involved with.
3. What made you decide to start Utah Musical Theatre Company?
It has always been a dream of mine to start a semi-professional theatre company. I am working on a Master's Degree in Directing right now and part of the degree is to direct productions that will be evaluated by staff in conjunction with course work. So SIDE SHOW began as part of that program, but with level of interest, it quickly evolved to a full-blown theatre company. If I am going to commit to something, I expect the best from myself and all involved. I was tired of seeing the same 15 shows rotated over and over throughout the state, or outside of the universities, and the quality of shows at the community theatre level for the most part was not what I wanted to be affiliated with. It seemed that Utah needed a daring New Theatre Company that would produce Utah premieres and less frequently produced shows to educate and challenge the theatre community here, and at the same time set standards at a very high level of professionalism.
4. How does your theatre stand out from all the others here in Utah?
UMTC strives to produce premieres and less produced shows. We seek a variety of directors and production teams from a diversified background for each show. A director's concept and passion for a particular show weighs heavily on the show selection process as well. We aren't seeking shows for shock value by any means, but are taking risks on bringing lesser known titles that have received national acclaim to Utah, and aren't limiting ourselves to shows that are labeled "family friendly" or "light and fluffy." Rather we are seeking shows that challenge people to think, share important messages, and educate audiences. We are also striving to set a bar for quality and professionalism in what can be accomplished through talented and hardworking collaborators in telling the story.
5. What made you decide to produce Side Show as your first production?
I felt that SIDE SHOW fit the missions and goals of theatre perfectly. I really wanted to make a statement and make a "big splash" so to speak with our inaugural production. I like challenging shows that really share an important message. I had the opportunity to be in the regional premiere of SIDE SHOW and it made an impression on me. I felt that this would stretch me as a director and that it is a story that needed to be shared in Utah. I am always fascinated with true-life stories. Real life is always more interesting than fiction, and I am often drawn to musicals that feature real-life historical figures personally dealing with injustices or that teach a lesson that we can all learn from. Hence PARADE (which was one of my last directing projects) and now SIDE SHOW.
6. Tell us about the rest of your season.
Our 2013 season will feature 4 Utah Premieres (SIDE SHOW, I LOVE YOU BECAUSE, WHAT THE BELLHOP SAW, BONNIE AND CLYDE), 2 of our shows are non-musicals (WHAT THE BELLHOP SAW and RABBIT HOLE) and 5 are musicals. We have different directors and production teams set up for each production. I felt that this provided a lot of diversity in shows and styles ranging from premieres to well-known shows (such as CAROUSEL and RENT) and would draw a wide range of talent throughout the state and a wide range of "theatre-goers" at the same time.
7. Tell us about the pre-show elements that have been added to Side Show.
I wanted the entire SIDE SHOW experience to be that as soon as an audience member walks through the door of the theatre that they are entering a 1930s side show tent. To aid in this experience, I have cast members ("side show freaks") seating the audience members as would have taken place in the 1930s (as side show performers were often required to work the streets to lure people into the side show tents to see "up close and personal encounters" with side show freaks for a fee or to purchase tickets to the show). I also have Elias "Lefty" Caress performing a pre-show as the audience enters the side show tent. He is a real side show performer and magician that has toured the U.S. with his act performing on TV shows and various variety show acts. This will help set the mood of the show and strengthen the ambiance of the audience's experience. The pre-show begins 30 minutes before curtain.
8. How was your audition process?
I started advertising auditions a couple months in advance to ensure we would have a great turnout. We had an abundance of talent show up to audiences. After audiences, we selected 5 sets of "twins" that we felt could work well together. We then encouraged each set of "twins" to rehearse together and gave them selected sides to read and learn in advance of callbacks (which we held one week later). In addition to the twins, we were looking for actors with personality and individuality that they could bring to the various roles. Rather than having an "ensemble" per se, I chose to cast each actor in a distinct role or character based on what I saw from them at callbacks. The SIDE SHOW script had 5 or 6 named characters in the ensemble. I came up with 20 named characters after callbacks in which I cast the various actors in and then challenged them to create unique characters that would contribute to the theme and concept of the show. This process created such characters as the Strong Man, an Armless Girl, a Four-Legged Woman, a Wolf Man, and a Demented Clown (to name a few).
9. What has it been like working with your cast and production team?
It has been a huge undertaking to say the least. No aspect of SIDE SHOW was easy. A large ensemble, each as an individual character, that had to move with some type of disability or uniqueness, in context of original staging and dancing (ie., armless girl dancing without arms, a midget performing all moves on her knees, or a four legged woman, etc.). Then add complex costuming and make-up, an elaborate set, twins that have to be conjoined the entire show, along with very challenging/contemporary music requiring sufficient technique in "belt and mix" techniques, a live band, intense acting scenes, demanding technical requirements, and then do all of this in a thrust stage was no small feat for even the most seasoned of directors.
But I am extremely pleased with the talent in the cast. I could not have asked for a better set of actresses to play Daisy and Violet Hilton. They are pretty perfect in look and voice. And the entire company (of about 60 people that are involved between cast and crew) have brought a level of professionalism that I am very proud to be a part of. Everyone has worked hard and made sacrifices. We have cast members that commute an hour or more to rehearsals (as our cast is made up of actors from Payson through North Salt Lake).
Additionally we have Anne Puzey (arguably the best music director in the state), Kevin Dudley (a professional set designer), and Blair Howell (an expert in theatre marketing), to name a few of the talented production team members.
10. Why is this production of Side Show worth seeing?
This is a rare opportunity to see the Utah premiere of SIDE SHOW because the challenges involved with this show and the extreme demands placed on any production team make this a large undertaking that no theatre has dared take on yet. It remains a relatively unknown show outside the theatre world. But the music is phenomenal and the message is powerful-love and acceptance of people regardless of their disabilities or differences. I think audiences will be able to relate to the message in SIDE SHOW and come away from the show touched and inspired. With the effort put into the show by so many and the incredibly talented cast and crew, this is a show not to be missed.
11. Is there anything else you'd like to say?
There is so much talent in Utah. I would like to provide more opportunities for theatre professionals to build their resumes and earn Equity membership. Over the next five years it is my hope that UMTC will become an Equity house or at least offer Equity contracts. And at the same time bring at least 20 or more premieres to Utah of powerful shows that probably would never make their way to Utah. In so doing, I believe Utah has the potential of becoming one of the dominant theatre communities in the nation. There is so much talent here, and UMTC will be one more vehicle in harnessing and developing that talent.
Side Show is playing at the Echo Theatre in Provo from January 19 to February 2, 2013. To buy tickets and for more information, visit www.utahmusicaltheatrecompany.com.
Photo Credit: Alex Weisman