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Shaping the artist: Broadway Theatre Project is back for 2024

Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.
Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.

Broadway Theatre Project (BTP) is an institution in American musical theater education. The summer training program, which was started by Broadway legend Ann Reinking and associate Debra McWaters in 1991, is held in Tampa, FL, and exposes apprentices to the many styles, techniques and methods being used today in the performing arts world and professional entertainment industry.

This summer, from June 19-29, BTP is back for the first time since Covid and, for the first time ever, will be open to 12-15 young artists aged 15-24 who will focus on their craft and all aspects of the industry for 10 days. Each day will consist of highly focused attention on developing artistry, audition and performance skills, in classes taught by a roster of seasoned professionals and dedicated educators.

Here, Dance Informa speaks with BTP Artistic Director Debra McWaters about the exciting things to come during this summer’s program.

How exciting that Broadway Theatre Project is reopening for the first time since Covid! Why do you feel now is a great time to start up again for the summer program?

Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.
Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.

“We never intended to close the Project permanently. In 2019 and 2020, we were readying students and faculty for a summer filled with strong technique training, Pre-College and Pre-Professional sub-programs and new artistic offerings. We were topping all off by an even stronger, more structured mentoring program. Our final week was to be at sea on Norwegian’s Breakaway as we prepared to become the last mainstage show on the final Saturday night of that cruise. Then Covid hit and all bets were off. We switched gears and began plans for a small performance tour for week three, including a performance at Disney World. However, once it became readily apparent that Covid risks were virtually everywhere, we saw that our program was not going to be able to run in the traditional way. However, we knew that we had students who were set to come and were already grieving over what was happening with their dream of performing, so we knew we had to do something. We lowered tuition drastically, shortened the length of the program, began mentoring our students right away, secured all of our artists, and ran a remote version of Broadway Theatre Project. Every single artist participated, and Donna McKechnie even set up remote one-on-one classes for BTP students for a very low rate. It was a brave adventure we all undertook that was difficult and fun and poignant, and filled with artists, young and less experienced, and those who are defining Broadway, sharing fears about what was ahead, while classes went on and never skipped a beat.  

The next two years presented us with the situation of not being able to make BTP happen due to the problems the University of South Florida were fighting with that horrendous disease. The USF School of Theatre and Dance has always been the most welcoming of homes and to see them struggle to find their way through that nightmare was difficult for all of us. The year 2022 did not find BTP on its calendar pages due to life issues that some of us had to tend to, as well as the devastating monetary hit BTP took those previous years. We decided to take a deep breath, and then Annie Reinking passed and for us, the world stood still. Through the grief, Blake Coheley, our Executive Director; Herman Payne, the Co-Artistic Director; and I had many ‘phoners’ so that we could do something with the sadness that would re-define BTP, keeping it relevant while still respecting the basic tenants upon which it was conceived 30 years ago. We felt we wanted BTP to evolve into a ’30 years later’ version of what Annie had set out for as the two of us put heads together and agreed that we wanted to build a summer institute so many years earlier. This past fall, Blake, Herman and I looked at each other and said, ‘It’s time.’

Debra McWaters.
Debra McWaters.

Now here we are, working on something quite different yet still with Annie’s imprimatur quite evident. The additional shot of beauty in what we are doing is that we have some very gifted alums playing crucial roles. Tucker Tab deGregory is our new Program Director, Giulia Falabella has been working quietly with me for the past couple of years as Assistant Artistic Director, and Merrick Henry and Taliek Hill are the Co-Company Managers of BTP 2024. We have spent over a year working on what BTP will be and fine-tuning it almost daily. The extraordinary thing about it is that we are all in it for the love of it. No one is doing it for a paycheck. That’s the approach to the arts that I remember existed when Annie and I first started our journey together.”

Who is BTP geared toward? What ages and dance interests and career goals is the program best for?

“This summer, BTP will be geared toward students from 15 to 24 years of age who have already started working seriously in the technique classes of their chosen art form. Musical theater has always been where we resided, and the demands of being an employable musical theater performer are high. To exhibit skills as a dancer, as a singer and as an actor is difficult and is done after many hours of training. We are looking at people who have shown us that they have been training and have been trained well. Of course, many are more adept in some areas than others, and not everyone decides to do musical theater. We have dancers who have also trained in acting and singing, actors who have taken solid classes in dance and voice, and vocalists who are working hard in their dance and acting classes. We are looking for the artist who has some training in all three. This is usually the person who brings so very much to the stage or to the screen. We won’t be training anyone who is at the beginning of the learning curve. That is why we say we are ‘Shaping the Artist.’ We are interested in the student who is ready to take a leap into a less tangible place and work in collaboration with us in finding the artistry that completes the work. We want to work with pre-professionals who need to find this being inside in order to develop the fine touch needed to stand out in such a competitive, tough environment. We want to work with the pre-college student who is trying to find what is needed to be competitive enough to win entrance into a good program.”

What can dancers expect from the daily program at BTP? What’s a typical schedule?

“All students, actors and singers, as well as dancers, can expect to find a format that is probably unfamiliar to them. We have many guest artists coming in who are very successful in their respective areas and who will be spending an evening and a day with the students. In our quest to work with students in order to dig deeper so that we can all tap into what makes them tick, we have an interesting format for our Guest Artists. When an artist visits, the first evening is a two-hour block of time to perform a one-act play or cabaret act or to work on college auditions with the pre-college crowd, with the pre-professional crowd and with those who desire to work on cruises or theme parks. We want the students to see these artists in motion, doing what they love best, showing not just beautiful technique but the artistic touch to the material that has made it a success. The next day is devoted to classroom teaching where that artist can dig more deeply into the distinction between a technically sound piece and one that defies description due to the artistry that is evident as the piece is performed. We are even going to have an open mike night hosted by Michael Orland during one of the evenings. 

Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.
Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.

When the visiting artists are not in class with these apprentices, there will be a myriad of classes going from a bit of technique work to the art of choreography (important for all to learn in order to round out an artistic effort), the art of collaboration, the art of the audition, the art of improvisation, and the art of performing. Work will be done on both the piece each student is to bring to the Project that feels comfortable and feels finished, and the pieces that the students have brought because they feel that they need work. We will work in conjunction with the students on their work so that they can take home, at the end of the Project, two pieces that should show a more developed touch and are found to be more comfortable to perform. With a small group of 12 to 15 students, there will be the opportunity to work one-on-one periodically with the instructors. In addition, a well-developed mentoring program will be in place which will pair students with faculty even before the Project begins.

In addition to all of this, there will be classes where students will be able to learn work done specifically for BTP by Ann Reinking or by the two of us. This work was only done here, and they will be the ‘keeper of the keys’ of some rare work.

The last thing is that in 1991, Ann and I planned to create a warm-up that is strictly a BTP warm-up. It was to be geared toward the apprentices only and was to be used by them once they left the Project. As it turns out, we did finish this warm-up. It was just never passed on to the students but will be this summer. So, in addition to the wonderful artists and instruction they will be receiving, the Annie Reinking touch will be in evidence.”

Who else is set to be on faculty this summer so far?

“Blake Coheley, Executive Director, and Herman Payne, Co-Artistic Director, are, of course, here and working hard on this new program. Jose Simbula, who is a dynamic musician, will be our music director.

Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.
Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.

In the guest artist category, we have musician and vocal coach extraordinaire Michael Orland; Stephen Sondheim’s original lead in Merrily We Roll Along, Ann Morrison; the multi-talented, multi-faceted Brenda Braxton, whose work has been created by a variety of heavyweights from Sondheim to George Wolfe and many points in between. We have extremely talented Carmit Bachar, widely known as one of the former Pussycat Dolls but now a woman with her own act, a presenter, an author, a model who has graced the cover of some of the most admired fashion magazines, as well as a New York Fashion Week participant.

Scott Wojick, casting director and owner of his own agency, and Michael Rodriguez, talent agent and also the owner of his own agency, will spend valuable time working with the students on different types of auditions that might be facing them. They are very well versed in auditions from college placement level to cruise ship jobs to shows on Broadway. They are very caring when working with students on the audition process and possess a world of knowledge in other areas of entertainment as well.

Jake Kodish, a dancer, a choreographer and a master educator, was once a BTP student. He has gone on to dance with many high-profile artists, such as Prince, Taylor Swift and, most recently, Jung Kook of BTS. His choreography is edgy, and we are so excited to have him become a member of our faculty.

Finally, Eric Jordan Young will join us. Eric was an instructor at BTP many years ago, but the current has taken him from Broadway to Broadway tours to cruise ships, to Las Vegas, and now to Long Island University. Eric’s resume shows his lengthy show background as a performer in Chicago, The Look of Love and Ragtime, among others.”

Personally, what is your favorite part about BTP? What are you most looking forward to this summer?  

“I live for being in the classroom and rehearsals and collaborating with smart, talented, young people who are capable of doing the most amazing things. My passion is teaching, choreographing and directing these talented, hungry, appreciative young artists. There is nothing like being in a room finding that you are collaborating with so much energy, so much talent, so much technical prowess and knowing that this is the next generation moving into your land. To create a piece and put it on young artists who, at times, add a twist here or there that actually improves the piece is an amazing experience, and I cherish the times this has happened.”

What sets BTP apart from other musical theater programs and intensives?

Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.
Broadway Theatre Project. Photo courtesy of Debra McWaters.

“The people who work at BTP love what they do. They love their art form, they love students, be the new students to the performing arts or those ready to hit the streets for work and that dream job. We love to collaborate with each other and then to collaborate with the students. We have all worked in the highly competitive professional realm, and we are all educators. We do not let our egos get in the way. We recognize that we all still can learn, we can still be better. We are not interested in competing with other institutions for students. The right fit must exist and does not always. We look at the whole individual with whom we are working. Physical health and mental well-being can never be overshadowed by how well one dances or sings or acts. Our philosophy toward teaching began when Ann Reinking decided that this was to be her ‘Tampa’ project, and we have respected that philosophy every day we have been in existence. We believe in working hard; we love the creative process. We don’t believe that ‘the performance’ is where all of the reward lies. Annie and I used to talk about how we were happiest when we were in a dusty black box creating. The people who are the heart of this Project feel the same way. We are kind, we are compassionate, we are smart, and we know what we are doing. We respect, are thankful to and celebrate the teachers, mentors, directors, and choreographers who have trained the students who spend that short slice of summer with us each year. We thank you for trusting that we will do the best work possible with your students. After 30 years, we are still here. Our guest artists are so supportive of us and return year after year. I believe that speaks volumes. The last thing is that, as Jason Samuels Smith told our students one summer, ‘We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.’ We are all respectful and grateful to those who brought us along. We are passing the baton as it was once passed to us.”

Applications for Broadway Theatre Project 2024 are due by March 4. For more information, visit broadwaytheatreproject.com.

By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.

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