This continues a series of interviews where Epic artistic director Kevin Broccoli interviews other ADs in the area to create a more in-depth conversation about theater in Rhode Island. This month’s interview is with Academy Players of RI artistic director Rita Maron.
Kevin Broccoli: At a time when so many theaters are trying to entice young people into their spaces, the talent that you use typically tends to be younger — why do you think you’ve been successful at bringing in young talent and young audiences?
Rita Maron: Well, we’re not just a theater for young talent. Our cast members range in ages from 5 to 105. However, we do see an increase in the 18- to 26-year-old range. We try to design our seasons around progressive and new shows, which tends to attract the young talent and audiences who then go and tell their friends, “Hey look at the shows Academy is doing!”
KB: Does space ever factor into the shows you choose? You’re working with a much smaller space than a lot of other theaters, but you’re doing large-scale musicals. Is making the size of the space work just something you’ve grown accustomed to?
RM: We love the size of our theater and we see its smaller size as an advantage because it allows us to get intimate with our audiences and bring them right into the show. It’s like we are at home performing in their living room.
KB: How do you decide which shows you direct and which ones you’ll have another director take on? Are there elements of a project that appeal to you personally?
RM: When we finalize our season of shows we meet as a team to discuss whose strengths might pair well with each show. Of course, no director is alone. Everyone is always at the table at rehearsal using their unique strengths to bring the show together. Personally, there are projects that appeal to me. There are some stories that I connect with and feel relatable to my life and personality.
KB: I know you get massive turnouts at your auditions, and a lot of the time, those auditioners are younger actors and actresses. How do you go about casting shows when you have that big a pool to choose from and when you have to take into consideration that the stakes are so high for young performers?
RM: We strongly believe in not throwing away talent. If we get a turnout with so much talent and not enough roles, especially with a younger talent aim, we typically stress double casting. While this is harder on the directors, it is worth doing for the cast. The leads are able to play their role but at some point they are also a member of supporting cast or an understudy. We see this as another opportunity to grow performers and teach them all sides of the stage.
KB: Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like watching young actors grow and mature over the years? What’s it like being part of someone’s artistic evolution?
RM: Fortunately, we have a large amount of performers who come back to us repeatedly. It is a gift to watch them progress in their talent, coping skills, friendships and social circles. When you are able to watch them take the lessons that they learn and continue to grow with them, it is wonderful to see! As a director it is an honor to see the growth and progress over the years.
KB: I’ve worked with you on a show before, and I’m amazed at how devoted your staff is to you and your company. What do you think helps create that kind of loyalty and support?
RM: We truly love being together. Outside of Academy we have strong friendships and even family ties. And also, I feed them!
KB: I know you’re planning on doing some theater expansion. Can you tell me something about that?
RM: We are planning on expanding the size of the stage, adding seats, building dressing rooms … all while keeping the intimacy of our beloved black box theater.
KB: How do you handle working on edgier shows like Spring Awakening while also working with younger actors? Do you ever get pushback on that?
RM: Most of the Spring Awakening leads were in their 20s, but we did meet with the parents of cast members who were under 18 to ensure that they were aware of the content of the show. We also encouraged them to research and watch a version of it themselves. The show itself has been popular for many years, so we did not receive pushback at all. In fact, our actors and audiences embraced it. We also spent a large amount of time marketing and communicating to our audiences the content of the production so that there were no surprises.
KB: Where do some of the ideas for specialty programming like Academy’s Prom and the After Glow Cabaret come from?
RM: We have a theater, so why just put on shows? Our main objective for all of our casts and product team is to bond, socialize and have fun. We want our space to be a place not just for Academy family members, but all those who are looking to get involved in the Rhode Island theater community. Hosting special events like Academy’s Prom and the After Glow Cabarets is a way to celebrate all the wonderful things going on outside of the theater like birthdays, weddings, babies and graduations.
KB: You have a very strong presence on social media, which is a job in and of itself. Is that something you make an effort to focus on?
RM: Absolutely! I not only spend a great amount of time on pushing our shows on social media, I also ask my executive board and production team. We consistently get feedback from our audiences that they found us through social media so we have designed many of our marketing campaigns to target our social media audiences and followers.
KB: What’s your relationship like with the parents of the younger actors you work with? How important are those relationships?
RM: We emphasize to all our parents that we are a team made up of teachers who aim to create a space of learning filled with fun and of course, safety. It is critical that with each show that younger actors are involved in, we communicate our mission and goals at large so that the parents know that we are more than just a theater. Most of the parents of younger actors involved with Academy end up ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ and become more involved than just having their children perform! We have great relationships. Lets face it, they’re entrusting me with their children.
KB: Do you look for opportunities to educate when choosing shows? Are there messages you seek out?
RM: I think all shows come with some sort of educational foundation, but we definitely try to design our season with educational opportunities and shows aimed at speaking to our casts beyond the script.
KB: What’s it like working with people who have varying levels of experience? Is it sometimes frustrating or does it keep you on your toes?
RM: We try to design workshops and master classes throughout our season that are open to all levels of performers. I personally sometimes like working with individuals with less experience because they are easier to develop and bring a different level of excitement and energy to our space.
KB: Do you have any regrets? Or are there any artistic decisions you’ve made that you regret?
RM: Yes. I wish I had not been so fearful and taken this plunge sooner.
KB: Describe what you’d like to see your company looking like in five years.
RM: Our long-term goal is to make Academy a performing arts campus complete with all disciplines (acting, singing and dancing) combined with an educational components. We also want Academy to continue to be a place where we are able to give back to the community. Through our Stage Door Project, our community outreach branch, we have been able to present scholarships to many performers, as well as host events to honor special organizations in our community like the KerriAnn O’Donnell fund and The Confetti Foundation (to name a few!). We would love to continue to grow the Stage Door Project and make it into a larger platform in which we can continue to positively impact more than just the theatergoers in this state!