Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Musicals / Industry News

In the Spotlight - Junior Theatre - NAPIER OPERATIC SOCIETY

With a history that stretches back over 125 years, Napier Operatic Society is a fascinating study in success. To support the high quality of their prolific output, the company maintains an extensive list of volunteers, has their own workshop to build sets and even runs a Theatre School to continually provide the next generation of theatre practitioners.

Between opening the latest Napier Operatic Society show, attending conferences and opening her own school show, Napier Operatic Society Secretary, Sonya Aifai (pictured here at the 2011 Music Theatre New Zealand Conference with Nikol McKail) found time to share some of the company’s secrets of success.

Read on to learn more about which shows sold themselves, which shows have been tougher to sell, and which show brought in a large contingent of Samoan newcomers.

Based in Napier, in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand, the society is the second oldest theatrical society in New Zealand. Since the company’s inception in 1887, the society has presented up to three musicals each year, with the only gaps in their production history resulting from the two world wars and the 1931 earthquake that damaged the Napier Municipal Theatre. 

As well as using the 1000-seat Napier Municipal Theatre for their large scale productions, the society is based in the Tabard Theatre complex, which has an extended rehearsal room, wardrobe hire, workshop, and its own restaurant-theatre.

In 2014, the society was lucky enough to stage MAMMA MIA!, a musical which Australian theatre companies are eagerly awaiting. MAMMA MIA! played 12 performances at the Napier Municipal Theatre, and featured a cast of 40 and a crew of 120 volunteers.

Napier Operatic Society - MAMMA MIA!

As well as the usual backstage crew, front of house, wardrobe etc, shows in the Tabard Restaurant Theatre also require volunteers to staff the restaurant. While this venue only holds 128 patrons, the seasons there are longer, with 14-20 performances of shows such as recent production YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

To cover the extensive volunteer work, and cast the productions, Napier Operatic Society has an impressive membership register of 400 adults, with a further 200 young people enrolled in the Theatre School.

Sonya explained the way the company meets their volunteer requirements: “We have a large database of volunteers, with some of them running into fourth generation!!! We work hard at looking after our members and having them know they are valued. This keeps the support going.

“We also have our own building workshop that enables us to design and build sets. We set very high expectations. In DISNEY’S ALADDIN JR we had the carpet flying with Jasmine and Aladdin on it!”

With their long history and high-volume output, it would seem hard for the society to keep finding musicals to produce. Sonya explained the process the company follows: “The shows are selected ultimately by the Executive Committee; however, the suggestions often come from seeing the Rights Holders at conferences, suggestions from directors or from feedback from other societies. The Executive tries to provide a balance of old, new, comedy, drama, blockbusters etc... Oh to have a crystal ball!”

“Finding one that is known and that we think our audiences will like is always a challenge. We tend to stick to the well-known names, but now and again we stick our heads out for something new. This is where we rely on information from our rights holders.”

“In regards to the shows for the kids, we have used the shows from Music Theatre International's BROADWAY JUNIOR a great deal. The scripts are well done, there is great support for the music and choreography, and they are often linked with shows that are well known. We have done DISNEY’S ALADDIN JR, DISNEY’S MULAN JR, DISNEY'S HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL JR to name a few. They are a fantastic resource.”

Napier Operatic Society - Disney's HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL JR

The society clearly has a long-term reputation for quality, which helps to continually attract audiences. Given that the society sometimes tries new titles, additional marketing efforts are required. Sonya shared some of the company’s experiences: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN was difficult to sell, but we got there in the end. People either love or hate Mel Brooks, but the talented cast won over the Hawkes Bay audiences, and we have a very strong following here.

Napier Operatic Society - YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

“Of course, MAMMA MIA! was extremely popular and sold itself. HAIRSPRAY was a little more difficult, which was surprising. We have a strong publicity team that is very good at marketing the shows.” The society has also staged some of Broadway and London’s most popular titles, such as THE PRODUCERS, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, URINETOWN and MISS SAIGON.

Sonya listed proven marketing boosters as being: “a strong network with friends of the society, preferential bookings for members, use of radio, TV and billboards. A high standard of production brings people back time and time again. Also, the restaurant theatre is very popular.”

Fifteen years ago, the society had the foresight to begin a Theatre School to attract the interest and enhance the skills of young people. Sonya was instrumental in beginning the school: “I started the theatre school in 2000 when we had several youngsters in families at the theatre - my two included!

“We did our first Theatre School show in 2001, and have done a production every year, sometimes two. The membership has built up to about 200 kids and growing.” To attract young people, the society advertises in theatre programs, advertises through schools, and encourages current members to bring a friend.

Amazingly, there is no cost to students to be involved, with the only restriction being that the students must be aged 5-16 years old. Auditionees are treated in the same manner as those auditioning for an adult production, with set appointment times and components of acting, singing and dancing involved. No parents are allowed in auditions!

“The aim was to provide a growing population in all areas of theatre - not just on stage. We trained youngsters in all areas, including lighting, sound, props etc. Now we have these youngsters running these areas and training others.

“We do not run weekly workshops but we do run holiday programs over five days in the school holidays and we have the youngsters involved in every production we do.” Holiday programs have included skills such as costume making and mask making, make up and lighting, stilt walking and dancing.

A sign of success of the Theatre School is that some of the students who have learnt technical skills have been paid to run lighting and sound at dance recitals. Theatre School graduates have started running similar departments for the company’s adult productions, as well as playing in the band for certain shows.

There have been other flow-on effects from the School: “There a great deal more parents involved - nearly 100 for the last production. Many of these go on to help with adult productions. They get the bug!”

Theatre School students have been widely involved in the company’s activities: “In every area- from props to directing, from program selling to being on the Executive. We now have two Theatre School founding members on the Executive.”

As mentioned earlier, Sonya and the company are big fans of Hal Leonard’s Broadway Junior series. I asked Sonya about shows for the Theatre School’s annual production that had been particular highlights. “So many to choose from!! DISNEY'S HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL JR saw over 100 kids audition. DISNEY’S MULAN JR bought in a Samoan contingent who had never done theatre before.

“In all the shows in Music Theatre International's BROADWAY JUNIOR, the material is so suitable, written for kids with fantastic learning guides. MTI and Hal Leonard Australia have been leaders in this. These shows involve a great deal of kids, do not require huge sets and set the cast up for success.”

Having such a strong history and providing such wonderful training, it is inevitable that some of the society’s past members have gone on to further success. Sonya shared a couple of success stories: “Our theatre school members are now entering Toi Whaakari, the NZ Drama school, and going onto the NZ Singing School.

“Philip Rhodes performed in our BLOOD BROTHERS as an amateur. He is now one of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s protégés, and is singing in England and Europe.

James Schaw played Buddy Holly in BUDDY and is now living in Melbourne. He has toured in Australia professionally in this show and was in BAND OF BROTHERS, THE PACIFIC, HOUSE HUSBANDS, and other TV series. He has also been in several short films.”

Finally, I asked Sonya to name the dream shows that she and the executive committee are eagerly waiting to stage. “For the kids, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and for the adults, CHESS and THE LION KING.”

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