By Tammy Scileppi
This isn’t your ordinary school play.
Queens Theatre’s Show Stoppers Summer Musical Theatre Program is a cool way for budding stars to learn how to create and perform their own original mini-musical in just two weeks. It’s a show that has all the razzle-dazzle of a real Broadway production but is put on by kids here in Queens.
During this exciting and comprehensive summer experience, youngsters will have fun engaging their imaginations and teaming up as an ensemble to put on a production of their own design. Under Richard Hinojosa, Queens Theatre’s education director, this unique program takes students through the entire process, from auditions to writing and rehearsing, culminating in a fabulous performance on the Mainstage.
Working with teaching artists, kids between the ages of 7 and 11 get creative as they learn how the pros do it during the two-week session — there are three each summer. New this year is a separate session for older kids, from ages 12 to 16. No experience in the performing arts is needed to join in the fun.
The program starts July 9 and runs through Aug.17. The new session for older kids runs Aug. 6 through Aug. 17. Both have the same July 1 registration deadline.
Each session has a theme. Some examples include, “Won’t it be funny to live in a world without money?” and “Our history is a mystery.” Students write their play based on the theme, according to Hinojosa, a playwright and former teaching artist who created the program, which was launched in the summer of 2014.
“For the first theme, students wrote a play titled ‘Marine Fever,’ about an island utopia that is invaded by pirates. For the latter theme, they wrote a play about the real reason the Titanic sank, called ‘The Legend of the Unsinkable Ship,’” he explained. These are two of the 12 productions young playwrights have created in the program. They generally have five to six songs in each show and the shows are between 30 to 45 minutes long. Each play will be presented on the Mainstage at the end of each two-week session (Friday afternoons at 4 p.m.).
Acceptance into the program is on a first come-first served basis. Auditions for roles will take place once the session has begun.
So, what makes a child stand out as a rising young actor? According to Hinojosa, it’s all about natural instincts.
“A good child actor will underplay the role until they are asked to step it up or tone it down,” he said.
What are some tips for creating an awesome musical? The director said the best advice he can give a young musical theatre writer “is to know what your characters want more than anything. That’s what makes for good drama and good song lyric material.”
While kids from other boroughs have participated in Queens Theatre’s summer program, they generally come from Queens communities.
Here are three young stars who have enjoyed taking part in Show Stoppers.
Alessandro Bello, a second grader at PS 174, lives in Middle Village with his family. His theater class created “The Waking World is About to Explode or Sincerely, Taco Cat,” in the summer 2017 program, according to his mom, who said it was about a group of friends who helped save a dream world from an evil villain, Taco Cat.
“Alessandro collaborated with all the students to imagine, create, write the script and songs, as well as set up and perform the musical,” she said. “He learned so much in only two weeks. How a production is started from a single (or many) ideas; how to listen to others’ ideas and be heard as well. His confidence multiplied as he was encouraged to take risks and do his best. He learned about theater and how hard work, practice and fun can be combined to succeed in a goal.”
Katie Amanda Chan is another Show Stopper fan. She’s in fifth grade and attends PS 32 in Flushing, where she and her family reside. Katie has been with Show Stoppers for the past two summers and the first show she was in was called “Tombstone Hallow.”
Last year, she was in “The Legend of the Unsinkable Ship.” In “Tombstone,” Katie played a ghost named Sam, according to her mom, Kelly. And in “The Legend of the Unsinkable Ship,” Katie played Edith, the little sister of Siobhan.
“They were on the Titanic and wanted to explore America for a better life,” Kelly said. “The students go on this trip to learn about the Titanic. As they read the diaries, they go back in time to and view what happened,” Kelly recalled.
Katie is currently in her school’s drama, “Aladdin, Jr.”
Lilly Petraki, 10, lives in Astoria and attends PS 85. She was part of Show Stoppers last year and participated in all three sessions. Her mother said she enjoyed “the preparation of the plays each time,” and liked that they were “deciding as a team the songs, the words and the costumes.”
Lilly will be returning to Queens Theatre this summer and, according to her mom, “wants to be an actress only if she can make lots of money to buy a big house with a swimming pool.”
When it comes to choosing a story, everyone has a say, according to Hinojosa.
“We take input from all participants and create a single story,” Hinojosa said. “Generally, Broadway musical writers collaborate in pairs, but they do some of the same things we do in terms of how they establish setting or general story arch before they start writing and once they establish character they decide what that character wants most of all and what they are willing to do to get it.”
Hinojosa said he hires a musical director to help the students create original music. He, along with the students, also create their own costumes and props.
It’s not always easy, but Hinojosa wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I am fortunate to have a great job like this. I get to work with students from very diverse backgrounds on building community through the arts,” said Hinojosa. “I see shy students come out of their shells. I see kids learning English gain the confidence it takes to speak a new language loud and proud on stage. I see senior citizens light up when they get to tell their stories and sing songs they love. I see the parents of students with disabilities beam with pride when they see their child taking the lead role.”