More students swoon for musical theatre

Some say program director Karla Kash is keyMore students swoon for musical theatre

Sophomore Matt Haupert has worn many hats in his short time at Drake University — and that’s not just a figure of speech.

Sure, there was his role in a two-man musical production that had him portray 15 characters, each with a distinct cap.

But that’s not the end of it: In just three semesters, Haupert has performed in seven theatre productions, including four mainstage shows and three student-directed plays. Plus, he’s already participated in Midwest Theatre Auditions — and landed a paid role at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in Holland, MI, this summer.

“I acted in plays and musicals all through high school, but I wasn’t planning to do much with theatre at Drake,” Haupert says. “Then I took an acting class and realized how much I missed the stage. It took being around people of such passion, enthusiasm and commitment to realize my own commitment to the craft.”

A swell of students

Haupert is one of dozens of Drake students to swoon for theatre arts in recent years. A contagious enthusiasm for the department — especially the musical theatre program — has spread through the University and is reaching into high schools across the United States.

Four years ago, there were 10 musical theatre majors enrolled at Drake. As of spring 2011, there were 36 students seeking musical theatre degrees, who now comprise nearly half of the 80 majors in the theatre department.

The number of students majoring in musical theatre is expected to grow to about 50 in the fall. In addition, nearly 30 students plan to minor in the program.

There are many theories behind the uptick in interest. Assistant Professor of Theatre Karla Kash offers one theory: “Most students have participated in musical theatre before entering higher education, and it’s also what they’re seeing when they go to shows,” Kash says. “They’ve seen musicals like Cats, Wicked, and Les Miserable. It’s what they’re interested in.”

More students swoon for musical theatre

Assistant Professor of Theatre Karla Kash

But other members of the Drake community suggest that Kash is responsible for a large part of the program’s growth. She joined the faculty as head of the musical theatre department in fall 2007.

“Professor Kash’s energy is what attracts many students to musical theatre,” says Deena Conley, associate professor of theatre arts and chair of the directing program at Drake. “She has extensive knowledge of the musical theatre canon. She works very hard to maintain contact with prospective students once they express an interest in the major. She also ‘preaches what she teaches’ by acting in musicals.”

Kash, who moonlights as a union-affiliated actor, director and fight choreographer, enforces a high level of discipline and professionalism during rehearsals.

Encouraging success

Kash has performed, directed, choreographed and fight choreographed in New York, California, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Hampshire and Iowa. She says the primary reason why she teaches full time and acts part time, rather than the other way around, is because of the fulfillment she gets from helping students break into the profession.

Haupert traveled with 20 classmates to a regional theatre audition in February; and, though they traveled without a professor, Haupert says he received seven encouraging text messages from Kash throughout the trip.

Seven proved to be a lucky number — at least seven of the students, including Haupert, landed summer work at professional theatres.

“At Drake you learn the technique of how to perform, but, just as important, you learn how to audition and find work,” Haupert says. “It is so important to our professors that we succeed.”

Diversity of experience

Great musical theatre performers — even those who are the strongest singers — need a solid foundation in acting.

At Drake, it’s not uncommon for a student to perform in three, four or even five shows at one time. Students often find themselves in an upbeat musical theatre production like Cabaret (which was performed in November 2009) while also acting in a downtrodden, classic tragedy.

Cameron Reeves, a first-year musical theatre major from McHenry, IL, has embraced that duality. The singer and actor is so dedicated to musicals that, when asked whether he plans to have a career in theatre, he adopts a puzzled look and asks: “What else would I do?”

Since Reeves arrived at Drake, he’s appeared in one musical and two plays. His favorite role was in a winter 2011 production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a borderline drama and comedy with no singing and definitely no dancing.

Renowned theatre professor Clive Elliott, who closed the curtain on a 20-year career after directing the production, challenged Reeves to portray an 87-year-old man.

“I had usually approached parts first from a vocal standpoint,” Reeves says. “But because of my character in The Cherry Orchard, I had to learn to approach it first from a physical standpoint. Clive taught me to get into his body and into his head.”

New students

There’s at least one more reason behind the influx of musical theatre majors at Drake: Kash actively recruits them.

She scouts up-and-coming performers as if they were top athletes — learning as much as she can about them, greeting their parents and sharing stories about Drake. She also has a group of current students who communicate with interested prospects.

But despite all of her effort, Kash downplays her role in the musical theatre boom. She shares the credit with all seven faculty members in the theatre department and, of course, the students.

“Word just got around about how great the program is,” she says. “We strike a keen balance between the personal nature of our community and the professionalism of our rehearsals. The students learn a lot from each other, and I learn a lot from them. We’ve become a family.”

— Aaron W. Jaco, JO’07, AS’07

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