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Kansas City's Teenage Cast Of '13' Gets Intensive Broadway Training

What does it mean to be an American teenager? That's been a question posed everywhere from The Catcher in the Rye to Huckleberry Finn. It's also the subject of the Spinning Tree Theatre's production of the musical 13, a show about adolescents — with a cast made up of nineteen of them.

At a recent rehearsal for the company's production of 13, sets are under construction and the musical director is tinkering with the score.

While one teenager after another arrives with scripts in hand, directors Michael Grayman and Andrew Parkhurst talk about what drew them to a musical that's much less well known than their previous shows like West Side Story.

"13 was the only Broadway show of a cast completely comprised of teenagers," Grayman says. "And we loved the idea of working with kids.

"Kansas City really does have such an incredible amount of talent. If you look in any Broadway Playbill, you see Kansas City natives everywhere, and so we said, 'You know what, let's feature these kids before they go to Broadway.'"

 "In addition to that," Parkhurst says, "we wanted to give the most talented Kansas City teens an opportunity to work on a show as if they were working on a Broadway production. To bring all that we know to give them sort of a daily master class to rehearse.

"So not only are we working on technique, really excellent on-stage habits, but off-stage habits as well."

Having directed many of Kansas City's professional acting community, Parkhurst says they really didn't intend to adjust the tone and temperament with which they normally work.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Andrew Parkhurst (from left) and Michael Grayman are co-directing the teen musical '13' at Spinning Tree Theatre.

"We had an orientation meeting with the parents and cast — there are nineteen teens in this show 13 — a couple weeks before rehearsal started," he says, "and Michael told them very directly, 'We're going to treat you like adults. We're not going to treat you like kids.'"

And they say they've been pleasantly surprised by the response.

"What has been nice is a sort of lack of resistance in terms of taking direction and just an enthusiasm on a daily basis where they don't want to leave rehearsal," Parkhurst says. "That for me has brought a lot of the joy back to working on a big musical."

13 has a central protagonist in the character of Evan, a Jewish teen from New York. After his parents' divorce, he's uprooted to Appleton, Indiana on the cusp of his bar mitzvah. Evan is played by Olathe Northwest student Fisher Stewart, who's asked if he's had any personal experience with the struggles of his character.

"I was home schooled my whole life," says the 15-year-old Stewart, "and this is my first year of public school. So it's like me going into a whole other state, me going into Appleton, Indiana trying to find new friends and trying to find the right group to hang out with, to fit in with."

The first friend Evan meets, Patrice, is played by Allison Banks, a student at Lee's Summit North High School. When Banks is asked if any issues brought up in the show have been painful or struck chords because they were so real, she says, "Yeah, for sure."

"Patrice, who I play, is a lot like myself," she adds. "She has a lot of moments where she feels like the outcast and the part that struck with me is having to dig inside yourself and find the connections that transfer over.

"How can you go inside yourself and connect it to your life experiences — which can be not always the most appealing thought but makes you get it where you're more genuine."

Parkhurst acknowledges that some American teenagers believe there's quick fame in a widely-shared selfie on Instagram. But he adds that there is no equivalent there to the real hard work it takes to sell a show.

"Unfortunately, their generation is being shown that you can become famous on YouTube," he says. "That you can be a star. Theater doesn't work that way.

"It's disciplined. It's hard. Can you do eight shows a week? If you don't have the technique, no, you can't, and there really are no short cuts. And what we talk about with our students is, you know, getting the job is the easy part. Getting rehired by those same people a month later when that job is over? That's the hard part."

Parkhurst and Grayman say that the show will be relevant to teens and adults alike. For the younger audience members, it's about living as a teenager now, while the grown-ups may find it even more painful reliving it.

'13,' Spinning Tree Theatre, directed by Andrew Parkhurst and Michael Grayman, February 11-28, Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Penn Valley Drive, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-569-5277. 

Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at sewalker@ku.edu.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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