Gracie: Hi, welcome to SheBoss, I’m Gracie Muncher and as you can see, we’re kind of starting something different today. I’m here with the CEO, Karen Mockensturm of Fantasy Playhouse Children’s Theater and Academy. Karen, I’m so excited to speak with you today and to start off with this, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Karen over the past year, and I just can’t wait to find out more about you, your involvement in Fantasy and your leadership style, so excited. So, I’ll let you start off, tell me something about your background, where are you from?
Karen: Oh, Gracie, that’s great. Thank you for being here and thank you for all the support that you and Megan and the entire team give to us. We’re really grateful for it. I started here, I never thought I’d be back in Alabama. I moved here in 2002, went to work with the transportation industry and retail, and got to know a lot of local businesses. I had the privilege of working as a move coordinator for Armature and Relocation, got to move all of the folks in with HudsonAlpha from across the country and got to really love Huntsville.
Then in 2012, the job as the Executive Director of Fantasy Playhouse became open, and I took a risk and I’ve been here ever since. So, it’s been about 11 years, I’ve had a real honor to be able to take what was a legacy organization and move it into sustainability. So, it’s been a lot of fun and it’s been an incredible honor. I was the first full time employee, the second Executive Director. And since then, we just hired our ninth full time person, we’ve been growing like gangbusters because the area is growing and I am thrilled. It’s been a lot of fun and an incredible honor.
Gracie: I love Huntsville, it’s great: the culture, the community, the company here is fantastic. I’m curious, tell us a little bit how you got involved in arts in the first place.
Karen: Oh, gosh, okay, well, this is appropriate because at Fantasy, we start classes at three and go all the way up through adulthood. And the same thing happened for me, I had just moved to South Florida. I was 13 years old. Unfortunately, I moved to South Florida and then my parents got a divorce. So, my mom was really looking for a place for me to fit in and there was a community Theater for youth called the Plantation Players. So, I walked in the first meeting, and I literally was there until I graduated high school. So, it was a place where I found my voice, I found the ability to kind of meet my people and it was a great place for me to discover not only who I was as a teenager, and people that I felt very comfortable with, that I got to work collaboratively with. But it also unintentionally ended up being my vocation as well so that was a great place. And then I ended up going to Northwestern University, my junior year of high school, you should check it out. And then ended up going on a Theater scholarship to the University of Florida after I graduated from high school, and I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. So, it was very exciting. After that I got my union card while I was still at the University of Florida at the Hippodrome State Theater in Florida, and that’s the actor’s union for stage. And ever since then, I mean, luckily, I had a really fortunate career where I was paying the bills as a working artist and an arts administrator and I got to see lots of parts of the world doing it as well, so, it’s a real honor. And so that is what’s fun about me remembering how I found my place as a young artist, as a teenager with a group of community Theater folks. That’s been really rewarding to watch that happen at Fantasy Playhouse and that’s what Fantasy has been doing for decades and to watch that continue to grow is exciting.
Gracie: That’s awesome. Some of the things that you’ve experienced as a kid now see others experience; do you have any specific stories of kids and the growth that you’ve seen?
Karen: Oh my gosh, I think one of the most rewarding things that I get to see is, I’ll give you an example. Kailey Burkhardt is here. Now she is our Associate Director of Education. Kailey started her tenure at Fantasy Playhouse, around 10 years…11 years old doing community Theater, taking classes. And then 11 years ago, when I started a programme called Fantasy in the Classroom, which is our Outreach Programme into the schools that allow basic acting classes as an after school programme, Kailey was the one that we hired to do it. Then she became like our third full time employee. So, watching that kind of trajectory, and now her three-year-old son started classes with us this summer. That’s incredibly rewarding. But there’s so many other opportunities. I’m thinking of Max Forman right now, who is going into senior year of high school. He is an amazing tenor, baritone, just a beautiful voice. And watching him grow up in the last 10 years, not only as a singer or as an actor, but also, he was introduced to sound design last year through our tech lab, and through the mainstage programming. So, he’s got an affinity for that, and that can be a career path.
The other thing that really warmed my heart too is watching the scholarship kids. Before we got here, there wasn’t a formalized scholarship programme for children that couldn’t afford our classes. So, in 2015, we got a formalized programme that really is allowing full scholarship for kids that this is their thing, and they just don’t have the financial means. So that, I think it has been incredibly rewarding. And I guess the other one here, too, is a great story. I’m so proud. Stephen Tyler Davis became our new artistic director last year. And I met Stephen through Facebook after I was hired. He reached out to me, at that point he was at Alabama studying, but got to really create a virtual relationship with him. So, when COVID happened, knowing that he was leaving New York just to be back with his family during a really insane time.
Gracie: Pretty similar to yours
Karen: Yeah, exactly. So, he came here and we were able to kind of put together a virtual programme for Christmas Carol and that led to now his full time position and watching him work with students because he grew up at Fantasy Playhouse, that’s the most rewarding thing.
Gracie: Amazing, so I’m curious, how many students would you say made it big?
Karen: Oh my gosh. I mean, there’s so many over the years Reg Cafe was a TV star who started at Fantasy Playhouse. Met Megs was on Broadway, Laura Oldham on the International Tour Chicago, Willem Butler, who’s now just finished the National Tour of Anastasia, there’s so many names like that. And not to take anything away from the folks that are making it in professional Theater or in tech Theater but there’s so many other folks like Bill Cling, who’s on City Council, never fails to remind me that he was in the first two seasons of Fantasy Playhouse. And so there’s a big mural out front that says, “Life Skills Through Stage Skills”. So, we like to say not every kid is going to be a Broadway star but if I had to put a percentage, let’s say 1% because it takes a lot of hard work, a lot of luck, and just being in the right place at the right time. But I think success is having life success. So, the skills that they learn here, no matter what they do in their lifetime, will serve them well. So yeah, that’s what’s important.
Gracie: So, City Councilman, obviously, he went on and pursued other areas not Theater but he took the skills that he learned here and used that in other areas.
Gracie: Tell me about how leadership skills can be developed in Fantasy Playhouse.
Karen: Oh, gosh, we always say that when we meet, we have staff meetings, and it’s been a constant call to remind folks that you’re in a leadership position, no matter what your position at Fantasy is. You’re leading children, you’re developing minds, you’re setting an example, you’re exhibiting our values. But leadership and kids to me and adults is all about empowerment. You want to empower folks with the skills that they need. So, for example, a three-year-old comes into class, their leadership skills start in this little classroom. Do you know what I mean? When they’re up on stage, just introducing themselves to their family, they’re demonstrating leadership skills, demonstrating- lead by example, I think that’s the most important thing.
Leadership isn’t about a position. It’s about how you approach life. To me, it’s about approaching with a sense of gratitude, with a sense of curiosity, and a sense of humility that says, ‘you go first’, and that, to me, is the most important thing. And so, kids pick up on that when they take turns in a circle, when they take turns, making a suggestion for a game, when they take turns being the first person in line to step on stage. Those are leadership skills. And then when they advance, Theater’s a collaborative art, whether it’s technical Theater, performing arts, everything has to work together, it’s just like us setting this up today, all aspects are working together for the greater good of getting Flourish’s message out there. So, when you’ve got students that are involved in Theater, everybody’s got a certain job but no job is more important than the other job. When you go into the room, a director knows more about the play than you ever will, when you first walk into the room but through the rehearsal process or through the class process, there becomes a transfer of knowledge and that is leadership.
We’ve used the last couple of years during COVID- so many things got worked off kilter but it did allow us a time to kind of really look at our practices, how inclusive are we being? Are we being welcoming? Do we think we’re just being welcoming? Are we getting our service? Are we able to attract audiences that maybe feel inadvertently that they don’t belong at Fantasy, so we’ve done a lot of hard work organizationally on core values, kindness, inclusion, welcoming, and empowering, it’s very important for us at Fantasy Playhouse, we believe in two things really hard. We believe that every child in our area has the right to see themselves represented on our stages. And then we believe that every child has the right to be given their voice, and to be empowered with their voice. And that’s what we do. And that’s what’s important here, so that’s leadership, empowering the next generation to step into the center stage of their lives to take over. We’re empowering them so that we can say, ‘okay, it’s your turn now.’ I hope that makes sense.
Gracie: It makes perfect sense. I love the emphasis that you’re putting on the culture that you were working towards this.
Karen: We really are trying.
Gracie: We always see it everywhere. So, I’m curious. Are you a natural born leader? Or is that something you developed through the arts growing up?
Karen: I think the arts definitely helped it and I can give you specific examples of that just growing up. I remember one of the first jobs I got and it was during college. It was during the summer, I did a lot of theme park shows, they paid really well, they were a lot of hard work: five shows a day, six days a week. But you were out doing a contract. And very early on, I was tagged to be a show captain. And then the next year, I was the associate director. So, I think I’m a first- I know I’m a firstborn child and I remember being told I was very bossy. We try not to tell your generation that you’re bossy, we just say it’s leadership skills. But I think as a firstborn child, as someone who felt responsible for my younger brother and sister, I think I was kind of a natural leader. I also think that there was a natural curiosity in me. I think that’s why I was drawn to the arts. I think as a 13-year-old girl, I don’t know if you remember this, but being 13 was horrible. It was just horrible. And the thing that attracted me to Theater was the imagination, was to get to play a different role, to get to live in somebody else’s skin. And those are the things I loved most about acting, it wasn’t so much being on stage or the applause or anything like that. It was researching a character, researching the timeline, and then really just diving in to explore the imagination process of it and that was exciting. And so, when you see the light bulbs of choices go off, and a young actor or see a performance and there’s a very specific piece of blocking or specific thought process that you can see in an actor on stage, to me, that’s what’s exciting to watch specific choices and watch kids succeed that way. So, I don’t even remember if I answered your question.
Gracie: I think you did about being a natural born leader.
Karen: So yeah, that was it.
Gracie: So, about that live success some of these students are having here, I read some stats about the impact that the arts can have on students and I just want to read some of them off. ‘Students that are involved in the arts are four times more likely to take part in a math or science fair.’
Gracie: ‘They’re 70% more likely to volunteer in their communities.’
Gracie: ‘21% more likely to vote in early age’
Gracie: ‘22% more likely to graduate and specifically the dropout rate for socio economically challenged students drops from 22% to 4%.’
Karen: Correct. That’s the key data point and we are a region and a culture that loves data points here in this area. And the reason that last number is so important is that’s why we provide the accessibility that we do. That’s why we’re trying to reach communities that in the past may have not had the opportunity to have an arts education background. I’ll give you- and it hits home for us, because here, where we are right now, in the holiday kind of Hillendale neighborhoods, our new buildings and Terry heights, which is just like a half a mile down the road, and these are our areas where our scholarship families are coming from. We work heavily with Second Mile Development Preschool, we have for the last 20 years to provide free services but those socio economically challenged or historically, under resourced neighborhoods, are Terry heights, they are Hillandale. And that magic number of taking a child normally across the country average, there’s a 22% dropout rate and socio economically challenged neighborhoods, kids that are involved actively in arts education classes, camps, opportunities, that dropout rate converts to 4%. So that’s the biggest reason we do what we do. And that’s why we’ve been very intentional about gathering corporate funding to be able to provide free resources.
Carissa Conley, who’s part of our Outreach Programme this year, and she’s really developed our Community Outreach Programme. She’s seen 209 students this year. And I would say 90% of those students are free access. So, we’ve been working with Village of Promise, we’ve been working with Huntsville, Inner City Learning. And we’re just really excited to be able to bring those skills to kids that necessarily can’t get to our building.
Gracie: So, this new building you’re referring to is Terry heights?
Karen: It is
Gracie: So, this is the spotlight on Feature Camp?
Karen: It is
Gracie: Tell me some more about it
Karen: Oh my gosh, this is a campaign that officially started in 2019. And then we have been- fundraising has kind of been on pause a little bit during COVID. And then construction costs tripled during COVID. But we own this property outright. It’s on the corner of Holmes and Triana. And it’s going to be a jewel in the area really for the Terry Heights community. What it means for us specifically is that we’re literally flinging the doors open to the community that we’ve been serving. It’s going to bring all of our programming under one roof, which means we love the VBC. We love being there. But it’s going to be so great to have grandparents that can literally get out of the car at our front door and walk 20 feet into the theater, and be met with a wheelchair if they need it. We actually have called the landing, The Grandparents Landing Zone at the front building. There is not a stair in the building except to get to the catwalks backstage, which means that it’s fully accessible to all students. There’s even so much as a Service Dog Relief Area on the outside because it was really important for us to really serve all of our families. What do all of our families need? And this is what we found. So, it’s over 35,000 square feet, it’s going to be a 355-seat Theater, there’s going to be an additional black box, performance space as well, full classroom space with dance studios, film studios, tech labs, and animation all of those things. And what’s really important for us is a designated preschool area.
Right now, there’s such a demand for preschool curriculum to get kids ready for kindergarten and to make sure that they ultimately then are hitting their numeracy in their reading guidelines by third grade. Because if we don’t catch the kids by third grade, they never really catch up. And so, Theater Arts are definitely a part of that as our responsibility to the community is yes, we’re doing play acting and we’re doing imagination and body and moving but everything we do goes back to academic success, whether it’s reading context, vocabulary, empathy, Theater teaches empathy better than anything else because you start to understand someone else’s feelings and that happens just when you’re watching a show on stage. So, this building is really important. And then just the fact that it’s going to be right in the middle of Terry heights, it’s right across the street from the Second Mile offices. And it really is going to be a special place for community gathering, all of those things.
Gracie: A consistent thing that I’m seeing you’re passionate about and something that Fantasy also pursues is inclusivity. And I know you do some sensory friendly performance, what are you going to offer at this new building facility?
Karen: So, what we’ve learned and we’ve kind of been dabbling in this over the last couple of years. This is a real hot button issue for Stephen Tyler Davis, who’s our artistic director, as well as Taylor Bogan, who’s our new education director and the entire team. It’s really important for us to bring Theater to new audiences. So, in 2022, we did a performance of Alice in Wonderland, it was this beautiful show that was directed by Jacinda Swinehart and Kailey Burkhardt. And it was a beautiful show. And it was the first time we ever delved into shadow signing. So, every character on stage had a counterpart that was signing their role as well. So, Alice was playing Alice, but she had a singer that was playing Alice as well behind her. So, through that we introduced 88 families of deaf and hard of hearing family members, they came to see the show for the first time, they came to live Theater for the first time. So that’s what inclusion is about, and accessibility is all about for us.
So, in the new building, it actually is going to be able to support all of those things, we’ll have a projector that can put up the subtitles, while we’re doing it, for people that have low vision, there is an interpretation in Theater. So, you’ll actually have someone, a narrative interpretation, someone will be up in the tech projection booth, and then synced to a low vision audience member giving them the narrative, Alice just came on stage and then the actor says their line. So, you see a light on the left side of the stage, it’s bright and blinking, those types of things. So, there’s all kinds of accessibility in addition to making sure that kids and audience members that are differently abled, the audience space in the new building is just a nice gentle slope. And there are spaces all over the Theater for wheelchairs and folks like that.
And then there’s also my favorite room in the Theater, it’s at the back of the Theater. You have a perfect vision from there, but it’s soundproof from the outside so that the actual sound of the show is being brought into that area and we’re calling that the Arts Access Room. And the reason that is there is for nursing moms, is for crying babies, our job, the thing that we serve Huntsville the best with is as a gateway to Theater. The biggest indicator as to whether somebody’s going to buy a professional ticket, go to the ballet, buy a concert ticket, or become a member of the museum is whether or not they were exposed to the arts as a child. And that supersedes education, it supersedes their income level. It’s just about that.
So, Fantasy has served Huntsville well, and helped build the cultural landscape by providing opportunities for children to be exposed to the arts. And so that’s what’s exciting. So, we’re Children’s Theater, so you expect to hear babies crying or a very young toddler talking back to the stage and that’s part of the live Theater. But in some instances, some families need a little bit of privacy. I have a friend of mine, who is now a beautiful student. She’s on the autism spectrum but about eight years ago, she came to the Theater for the first time and her mother who has Theater background was very concerned that she was going to be distracting in the audience. So, we invited her to come to the dress rehearsals because she liked to spin. That was how she enjoyed things, that was her technique. And so, in this new space, she will have a place to spin. So that’s part of the sensory production. Kids are handed fidget spinners and other poppers that keep them engaged but allow them to do the stemming activities that they need to enjoy. We also offer weighted blankets. We also offer earphones and also communication cards because we know that some of our differently abled audiences have different ways of communication. The lights are kind of lifted, the sound is brought down so that they’re less jarring. And then we also do sensory mapping so that the audience is very aware that, coming up is going to be a loud sound, this sound, we’re pretending it’s raining. So, they have a talking point to be able to talk to their families. And that’s what’s so important about it. So, who knows what it’s going to be? There are plans for a tactile map in the building, so that you could and I know that the Smithsonian has been doing that. And so being able to explore the building, tactfully, but the sky’s the limit.
Gracie: It’s amazing. So, are these sensory friendly opportunities in the standard shows or are these special shows?
Karen: They’re actually part of the special mainstage season right now. And we also launched ASL for Theater, American Sign Language for Theater last year after the interest stemming really from Alice and so, folks are learning how to sign. So, every show last year had a sensory performance associated with it. And as long as the show itself can accommodate it, we’re either doing a sensory friendly production where the lights are gone, and the sound is lowered or we’re doing an American Sign Language version so that every mainstage shows has some kind of additional accessibility, and they’re added performances, but they’re open to the public.
Gracie: It’s incredible. Have you guys done any of these yet?
Karen: Yes, we started last year. Like I said, it was really on Stephen’s heart and we got a great funding grant from Tourism Alabama, which helped families with students on the autism spectrum, kind of have a hotel room in Huntsville so, they actually got a free hotel room, free tickets to the show, all of the accouterments and then got to meet the cast afterwards. So yeah, we did that for every show last year.
Gracie: That’s awesome. Something that I’ve noticed that you guys do, it’s kind of a unique take on the classic.
Gracie: So, Snow White, for example, I spoke with Stephen Tyler Davis a little bit, he told me about the storyline, I’d like you to tell us. I mean, it’s incredible. I love how there’s an emphasis on women and young girls. And it’s not always that the girl is the princess being saved by a prince, it’s that maybe she’s getting clean water for her village.
Karen: We love that Snow White is a civil engineer in the making and her focus was on that. And again, that goes back to all of this work on- it’s a buzzword now but all of the work that we’ve done, like the stories that we tell and how we want to represent. So, the themes of that for Stephen, were you know, girl power, obviously, but also friendship and what does a family look like? What’s a chosen family? That kind of thing and diversity that everybody looks different. It was Snow White and the Seven Littles on purpose because it was the little family. And every person in that family had a different character trait that made them different that made them a little othered. Do you know what I mean? Not really fitting in, but the family itself is learning to accept each of them. And, of course, little Little is the one who ends up saving the day and finding the blue Moonstone. And so, he’s empowered and celebrated because he was discounted from the very beginning because of his size.
Gracie: So, you’re entering your 63rd season, correct?
Karen: Yes, we’re entering the 63rd season and we are continuing with an Iceland fairytale kingdom that Stephen created for Snow White and the Seven Littles and it’s going to be a mash up. It is Rapunzel and the Beanstalk and I got to sit through the first read through a couple of weeks ago and it is fun. It’s hysterical. It’s talking about Jack, the Beanstalk and his friend Rapunzel, who happens to live in a tower. They have a party one night and the bean dip is made out of magic beans. And so, it’s Rapunzel and the Beanstalk. So, you can imagine hair vines, growing mayhem, yes. So, it’s all of those.
Gracie: I bet that’s gonna be incredible. It’s a lot of work to deal with.
Karen: I think it’s gonna be incredible, it’s definitely magical. I mean, the work with the lighting and the puppets and the puppetry that we use, the music and sound design that Stephen is so gifted at and so that’ll be fun. And then the first show of the season that is in February, the first show this season is also a brand new Alabama, kind of first and we are working with Ethan Mitchell and his brother Josh, who is a playwright and then we are kind of relaunching their version of Jungle Book. And actually, we’ve assembled a puppetry cohort right now. So, they have already started making the puppets. But it is going to be blue as a puppet, Mowgli’s not but we’re also just kind of getting all of that so there’s that magic. And again, stories of family, stories of mothering stories, of what does it feel like to be alone? What does it feel like when you have to go find your family or find your people? And then diversity in the jungle and all of that.
And then we’ve got a new version of Christmas Carol also written by a local Huntsville playwright Shree Evans, who’s been a part of Fantasy for decades. And she is one of the most comedic, funny actresses, musical actresses, talented and so she has kind of taken our Christmas Carol and rewritten it as a love story to Huntsville. And so, we’re very excited about that. And then Stephen’s got something really special for the end of the season next year. And we were really going back to our roots, which are as the Rocket City and he is developing right now with the help of folks from NASA and the US Space and Rocket Center, he is developing a new play called Space Monkeys! The Adventures of Baker & Able, and it’s all about Miss Baker and the primates that led the way for astronauts to safely go up to the moon and come back. And of course, there’s a fantasy element to it. So, I would imagine that those monkeys are going to be speaking, except when they’re in the presence of humans. And it’s all about the monkeys’ take on preparing space travel, preparing their humans for space travel.
Gracie: Those sound great. The flourish team gets some free tickets.
Karen: We will make it happen.
Gracie: Perfect, it’s so exciting. Okay, so you mentioned puppetry, and set building some of those sorts of things. Do you guys hire people to do that for you? Or is it something that the kids do? Or what does that look like?
Karen: Well, because everything we do at Fantasy is all about Theatre Arts education, it all comes back to education and it has for years and years and years. I’ll give you an example: Matt Schuster, who runs Sound Source Productions here in Huntsville, is amazing and really one of the leaders in sound production. If you go to an event at the VBC, his team is the one doing it. Matt grew up at Fantasy Playhouse, and he started his business while it was still in high school. So that’s been happening all the time. So, we really knew that we needed to formalize that, especially since Huntsville is becoming such an epicenter for music production, and live music venues. So, steam or stem, all of this sound engineering, sound design, set design, lighting, design, animation, stage management, puppetry, even down to costume, all of that is based in technical theater education. So, we’re really creating the next generation of techies that are working at the VBC. They’re working at the VBC, now they’re working at Orion now. And so, our job- what we really wanted to do, and we’ve been able to launch it this year with the help of some incredible, generous corporate sponsors, we were able to outfit what we’re calling our mini Steam Technical Theater Learning Lab in the back, that is planned on a scale, that’s probably three times the size of the new building but the board really wanted us to go ahead and launch those classes this year, and we have so that’s what’s happening right now. And as kids are being exposed, and we’re mainly talking about middle school into high school, our job is to really expose them to this and then give them the experience on stage, working in the classroom supporting the technical theater showcases.
We started a summer technical theater cohort which is happening right now. And their job- these kids are being assigned to costume positions, stage management positions lighting, board, tech crew running, and they are supporting Mary Poppins Jr. over at summer camp right now. So that’s happening and we’re continuing to do that. So, in the fall, we’re going to be doing another technical theater cohort that will be sponsoring not sponsoring but supporting our Nemo, Finding Nemo Jr, which is the musical theater showcase in the fall. We’ll also have a stage management cohort, costume design cohort and we’re also going to be offering a stage makeup class at the end of the day. So, it’s all about as they’re exposed to this, then they can go ahead and work with direct mentorship on the main stage as well. So, these kids are really getting heavy duty exposure. I mentioned Matt learning what he learned in a sound design class, and then moving over to support Snow White and the Seven Littles. So, the same thing is going to happen this way. But we’re really excited because it is hands-on learning. I’ve actually had folks from Toyota remind me that set design, learning how to build a set on Google SketchUp is pre advanced manufacturing. So, we’re not saying every child is locking into a theater career, but it’s exposing them to the possibility of other careers, whether it’s manufacturing, computer science, programming, coding, all of those things. It’s all come back to be part of the theatrical experience as well.
Gracie: Yeah, and it’s been focused in Huntsville, that hits the target.
Karen: It does hit the target. We’ve been missing out because there are a large number of kids where theater still is their spot but they don’t necessarily want to be on stage, you know what I mean? One of the ways I think that’s exciting about the new building is you’ll have- say you’ve got two seven-year-olds that come in, they’re twins. And the young boy is- his name is Steven and he’s very much a performing artist. He loves singing and dancing, he does choir, he does all of those things. So, he’s coming in for Lion King Week at Fantasy Playhouse. So, he knows he’s going to spend most of his time in the dance studio, the music studio, and in his acting classes, learning what he’s going to be presenting. Well, his sister Karen doesn’t want to be on stage, she wants to kind of hang out, maybe she’s more introduced to robotics, animation, maybe she’s starting to dabble in her own YouTube channel, those types of things. So, she comes in and checks in with the technical theater cohort. And that week, she spends her time first getting an overview of what that means, but then choosing her specialty. So, if she’s in costuming, and she’ll start researching costuming, and then she’ll be back in the costume shop sewing and fitting and learning how to measure and learning how to pull things and make creative design decisions that way, or if she’s in the sound design, she’ll be creating sound cues and then running them or if she’s going to be in the running crew. And she’s doing all of that to support her brother and that class at the end of the week during the performance. So, they’re all together.
Gracie: Yeah, so there’s onstage, there’s behind the stage.
Karen: Yep, and that’s all of it. And then we take it to the next level. And we’ve really started formalizing our internships, we’ve got two amazing students from Alabama A&M that are on our teaching staff this summer. We’ve got an amazing student out of Auburn, who has been our costuming guru all summer long. And so, she’s right now finishing the costumes for Mary Poppins Jr, with the tech cohort. And we’ve got students from Sanford who were working on paid internships too. So, it’s been really an opportunity to be able to do that. And we continue to do that during the year as well. So, that’s going into business administration, we had an amazing intern with marketing and videography last year. So, it’s really about us, and that’s how we can give back to that whole education, the whole pipeline of education. And so, we’re constantly trying to give back as well. Because our goal isn’t to have the kids just come to Fantasy Playhouse period, the end, it’s, ‘Hey, get exposed and if this is your thing, you know what Huntsville has got a great magnet programme, go do that and then come back this way and we’ll help you build your resume. So, you can go on to a college, career or go on to a tech career and technical training.’
Gracie: Right, a huge thing across Huntsville is developing the future workforce.
Gracie: For jobs that keeps them in North Alabama. I guess we know how much we’re growing especially in Huntsville and expansion. So, what are some of the kinds of jobs you can see these kids having like, what are those next steps? Is it UAH? Is it right into the workforce? What does that look like?
Karen: It really depends on the kid. And what’s so exciting right now, when I was going to school, it was like, ‘No, you need to go to college. That’s the path.’ You know, that was the path that everybody worked for and now that’s not necessarily true. Obviously, we’ve got amazing secondary programmes and like our Teen Acting Conservatory is going to spend- we hope a good portion of their year with us, looking at programmes at UAH, at Athens State, at Alabama, Auburn, A&M, all of those things. That’s part of it, but it’s also encouraging just a curiosity drive. But I mean, your example right now, right, like a kid can grow into communications. I’ve personally got a- my daughter is exploring performing arts and combining it with creative writing, and gender studies. So, all of these skills can be anything. We’ve got former Fantasy kids that are in the missionary field, we’ve got former Fantasy kids that have moved to Atlanta and are working in Marvel Studios. We’ve got former Fantasy kids that are lawyers in China, like so it’s all of the above and that’s the whole intention of theater and of nonprofits like Fantasy, Playhouse, like Village Promise, like we just want kids to imagine a different future, imagine an inspired future.
I went to meet with the Executive Director of Lincoln Ministries very early when I came here to Fantasy Playhouse and he told me that there were kids that we were working with over at Lincoln Ministry that didn’t realize that we had an airport, kids that drove by the rocket and said, “What’s that?” So, that’s where inclusion and equity come from. It’s just- we grew up in the South, and I don’t know if you want to include this or not, but just by the fact that we were founded in 1961 by white folks, do you know what I mean? It wasn’t that we ever set out to be exclusive or closed off. It was just, it was a byproduct of the social times and that’s why it’s so important on another level for us to tell the stories of the past. That’s why we do with touring shows, to kind of create hard conversations, so that there’s a safe place to ask about the subject matter that we’re teaching in touring shows or that kids are being exposed to on a daily basis, like bullying is a big deal, right? So, if you do a live theater piece where kids see someone being bullied, it opens a way to- that’s a conversation that they can have then.
Gracie: Some of the shows now like Snow White are maybe a little bit more fictional, but you also have things like Freedom Riders, right?
Gracie: Are those touring to schools?
Karen: Those are touring schools and the real primary reason was to really support Alabama Core Standards and history in English Language Arts, even in Nutrition and Health, which is the case with Nick Nutrition and his dog, Fibre, which uses a puppet and musical theater to teach healthy living and healthy choices. But yeah, that’s why we started that in the school and also, I mean, just being in a place where we’re not able to have our own theater right now. We’re very limited on dates that we get at the VBC playoffs because we have to share this space with the rest of Huntsville, which is awesome but it puts its own limits up so we started the in-school touring shows, we turned away kids that couldn’t get tickets to the matinees. So, we started the in-school touring shows as a way to bring- let’s overcome the field trip barrier, let’s bring the shows right in. And then added that with age appropriate studies so, we’ve got Freedom Riders, which obviously deals with, in an age-appropriate way for sixth to 12th graders, Alabama civil rights, federal civil rights history, and some of it’s not easy to talk about, but especially down here, the rich talkback that happens after this 35 minute show between not only students and actors on stage, but administrators who have in many cases went through the actual history and having given them a platform to tell their students about what they experienced. And of course, the Huntsville experience was very different in Huntsville than it was in Selma than it was in Montgomery and Birmingham but it was all still part of it. And then the second show which we wrote with the help of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians out of Atmore was called Poarch Creek Courage. And it’s centered on a young middle school student of Poarch descent, who’s challenged to present a kind of a reactionary report to a Thanksgiving report that’s done by a classmate. She doesn’t want to do it. She doesn’t feel equipped to do it but she’s visited by the spirit of the beloved woman, the matriarch in Poarch ancestry. She’s visited by her spirit; she’s told a folk tale and she’s told three true stories about the Poarches, fight for America for federal recognition, and their history and all the values that the Porch have about education and family and diversity and all of those things. And so, Leanne, actually, of course, at the end, she learns all these lessons and she presents a great thing and she makes friends with one of the kids that bullied her and conquers the other one and so the kids get to talk about that as well.
And then Nick Nutrition, which is geared towards little kids, using that great puppet and music and dance to talk about things like chickpeas. I mean, where else are you gonna find a dancing chickpea on stage? So, singing with the dog puppet, there you go but we wrote that with the Food Bank, so we were really teaching kids real skills and that’s what’s exciting.
Gracie: There is so much.
Karen: There is so much.
Gracie: I think it’s incredible, very admirable of you guys. It’s not just that you’re impacting the lives of students who are at Fantasy Playhouse, you’re starting these important conversations for- like you said, the administrators, the parents and that’s what good art does.
Karen: Yeah, it does. It makes you think. Thank you, Gracie, for recognizing that. I appreciate it.
Gracie: So, I gotta tell you, I would love to try out some costumes.
Gracie: I would love to take a tour of it.
Gracie: And if you’re up for it, let’s play a little Broadway trivia game.
Karen: All right, we’re gonna play that in the costume vault.
Gracie: Let’s do it.
Karen: All right, let’s do it. Maybe I’ll remember things.
Gracie: All right, we’re here in costumes in the former hats from the Alice in Wonderland production and we’re going to do some Broadway trivia with Karen and I’m going to refrain from singing. Sure, you don’t want that. So, we’re going to speak the lyrics when they come along. Are you ready?
Karen: As ready as I’ll ever be.
Gracie: Alright, in which Broadway musical does Jack sing, “There are giants in the sky?”
Karen: Into the Woods?
Gracie: Correct, alright, number two. What is the highest grossing Broadway show of all time? Would you like a multiple choice?
Karen: No, I’m gonna guess this because I lived in New York when Lion King opened and it was the first show on Broadway that charged $100 or more for a ticket and it’s been around for like, say almost 30 years, so I’m gonna say Lion King.
Gracie: Okay, correct. What was Disney’s first Broadway musical? Multiple choice is available. You can phone a friend.
Karen: I mean, was it Lion King?
Gracie: No, it wasn’t.
Karen: Okay, multiple choice.
Gracie: Okay, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin.
Karen: It was Beauty and the Beast.
Gracie: It was Beauty and the Beast, of course. I should have known that.
Karen: You got it. You got it.
Gracie: Okay, what is the longest running musical in Broadway history?
Karen: The Phantom of the Opera.
Gracie: For bonus points, you can sing a number from Phantom just if you’d like.
Karen: I used to think I could sing that Christine song. Christie, da da da da da.
Karen: That’s all you want.
Gracie: Last question, you have 4/4, feel the pressure. What is the name of Annie’s dog in the musical, Annie?