With the close of their second season of Pre-Professional training just two weeks ago, I had a chance to catch up with Department Chair and Artistic Director Kevin Kuchar, from “Act Two @ Levine” to talk about what is trending in educational theater here in the greater metro area and what’s next for their program at Levine Music.
Lauren: After your season of shows with Act Two @ Levine, do you get a break?
Kevin: I wish! Summer is about planning the year ahead. A lot goes into selecting shows, getting together with partner organizations to look at collaborations and laying out the nuts and bolts for our process next year. Last season was a fantastic one for sure, but that means its time to start looking ahead to what we can do to keep ourselves fresh and relevant.
On the topic of your last season, you had a number of exciting things going on, so do you expect more opportunities like that for your coming year?
It’s a great time to be a training artist in the Washington Metro Area, that’s for sure! There is a lot of buzz about the theater world here and it’s propelling some really fantastic energy around educational theatre. In fact, there are new programs and new organizations popping up on the map every fall it seems. Some last a season, others reinvent themselves after some false starts; but regardless there is some really great energy here in our region and that makes everyone better at offering something great.
During the past season we really distinguished ourselves from the pack by not only offering fully produced musicals at Arena Stage, THEARC, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (which we are very proud of), but its not often students get to work with the likes of Jason Robert Brown, Sutton Foster, Adam Ben David, and Cynthia Kortman Westphal (University of Michigan) all in one season. The process was really fantastic to work in. We produced some great work and helped develop some pretty unbelievable talent.
It’s interesting that you mention other training opportunities in the area – we do have quite a few it seems – Does the number of programs out there create problems with getting students involved in your program?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? I’m sorry I couldn’t resist. Truthfully, there are tons of programs all over the metro area. Some of them are established and some of them are working to establish themselves now – I think that is great! At the end of the day it’s about consistency and quality. If you are secure in what you are offering and how you are training your students, then the rest is just fun to see. After all, something must be working if your program is being copied elsewhere and I think the young theater artist is smart. They know a copy of an original when they see it. We see new applications from all over everyday and that’s great!
What distinguishes Act Two @ Levine from the field then? Many organizations call themselves “the best” or a one of a kind, so what can you tell us about that?
It seems everyone is claiming to be “the best” or have “the top” – the “leading” faculty members in the region. That makes me smile. I think they are all fabulous turns of phrase. I may have even used it once or twice. But I think it’s deceptive unless you are going to take the time to do a comparison between organizations and be prepared to “put your money where your mouth is” for lack of a better cliché.
Arguments can be made in a lot of different directions and it’s hard not to participate in that “particular fight in the sandbox,” I think for any organization. Here’s what I can say for certain: Levine Music has been an institution in the Greater Washington Metro Area for nearly forty years. It is one of the few such schools to be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music and it is the only All-Steinway community music school in the world. Levine is also certified by the National Guild of Community Schools of Arts as exemplifying the highest standards of excellence and access in community arts education. Beyond all that, there are almost 200 faculty members at Levine and nearly all of them have a master’s degree in their field or better and that’s a level of education and credits unmatched by any studio in our region, period.
Our teaching artists perform professionally all over the country and with regularity; they know the craft from a very real perspective. What I think is even more valuable then that is that our faculty members are teachers who have been hands on in the studio or rehearsal hall for years. Our faculty undergoes an intensive review process and our students participate in a Jury panel to gauge how they are learning. In fact, our current curriculum in Act Two @ Levine is slated to undergo another development stage; this time with the help of the musical theater department at a major University program next fall.
Working with Act Two @ Levine doesn’t mean you might have a “meet and great” or a “class hour” with an accomplished teaching artist; working inside our programming means you will have consistent time with coaches like Duane Moody (Associate Professor of Voice at Berkeley College of Music) and teaching artists who graduated from the Peabody Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, and the Manhattan School of Music.
Well, that certainly is a good argument.
At the end of the day Levine Music has a track record that when held side-by-side doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation. But it is fun to read the claims out there even if there isn’t much to back them up. It makes me smile when I read about who is producing the next Broadway or regional stars of tomorrow.
Is that real or is that marketing?
It’s a little bit of both, I think. But it’s not the goal nor should it be. I think I’ve touched on this before in an interview, when they audition for us they aren’t joining a legacy program from the 80’s and 90’s whose founding faculty has long since retired. They aren’t auditioning for a start up program that promises great training but hasn’t yet developed anything, they are auditioning for an established program with a consistent faculty and mission that have been developed over a course of time and have a proven, current, track record.
And you have some pretty great success stories to back that up?
Absolutely! We have an amazing alumni group and its great to talk about your history. I see it on the landing pages of every training ground out there. Though some of it seems a bit funny at times.
What do you mean when you say – you find some of it funny?
Let me see if I can frame this the right way- when you talk about where your students from ten years ago are – it’s important, I think, to disclose that you are laying claim to legacy; not to the “here and now.” Especially when an organization has undergone massive shifts in faculty, methods, and philosophy. When you do that you are “selling” something to your students that may or may not actually exist anymore- really you are laying claim to a building and that’s misleading and unfortunately, it happens all the time across the whole spectrum. But listen, I get it, there is a lot of pressure to be competitive. I guess its just different tactics.
How does Act Two @ Levine handle that pressure?
We focus on what we are doing today; this season and this process for our cast members. Absolutely, Act Two @ Levine is proud of where our alumni are. But we talk more about the alumni from yesterday, not yesteryear. That’s really the only reasonable barometer for how your programming is doing in the present. Our graduates are leaving our programming [today] and being accepted to nationally known and respected schools with reputations for producing today’s working artists. Among them are programs like the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Boston Conservatory, Baldwin Wallace, Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, Northwestern, University of Minnesota-Guthrie and many more. They are taking to the stage in professional roles with regional theaters like Signature Theatre and The Studio Theatre here in DC and VA. They are doing that now, weeks after they graduate.
So Act Two @ Levine has some “Broadway babies” out there?
Yes, they are working on Broadway and tours today and they are currently releasing albums and directing projects, but would it be fair of me to use their headshot and bio to sell a prospective student on our programming? We are proud of what we have here and how that experience and training lines our students up for a high likelihood of success in the future. I think that speaks for itself, but if I ever need to dust off some headshots from ten years ago, then I’ll forget I said any of this.
I’ll remind you. So what is on the horizon for the upcoming year?
Well, I can’t give you everything all at once. How about I spill the rest of the beans over the summer?
Is it Top Secret information?
Truthfully, it’s a competitive market out there and we want to give our students the best opportunities we can. It seems more and more these days when something is “working” and you come up with a great vehicle for reaching these kids, then suddenly there is a new program being offered that looks a lot like what you’ve been doing.
Is that frustrating?
No. It means we are doing it right. You just have to be protective of your program. What I can tell you is this: we work very hard to keep ourselves developing experiences that are fresh for the young artist. We seek out and cultivate partnerships that make sense and are going to position our young cast members to have “as close to professional” of an experience as possible. This means continuing to work with institutions like Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Round House Theatre, and CityDance to provide a level of experience and training you can not find in the stand alone studios. It means continuing to host artists like Sutton Foster, Jason Robert Brown, and Adam Ben David, so that our students are consistently exposed to new perspectives on their craft.
So more of that is coming next season?
We are crafting it now and I can tell you we are going to have a very exciting season, one that is definitely “cut of our usual cloth.”
How about a hint? What is one of the show titles we might see from your program next season?
Spring Awakening. Is that enough of a hint?
‘Spamalot’ at Act Two @ Levine’s Pre-Professional Program review by Robert Monetenegro on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Act Two @ Levine Music Students Perform ‘Parade’ for Show’s Composer and Lyricist Jason Robert Brown by Lauren Selman.
‘Urinetown’ at Act Two @ Levine’s Pre-Professional Program reviewed by Terry Byrne on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Eitan Mazia on Playing Leo Frank in ‘Parade’ at Act Two @ Levine This Weekend at The Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage.
Amanda Silverstein on Playing Lucille Frank in Act Two @ Levine’s ‘Parade’ This Weekend at The Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage.
‘In the Heights’ at Act Two @ Levine’s Pre-Professional Program reviewed by Bev Fleisher on DCMetroTheaterArts.
‘Next To Normal’ at Act Two @ Levine’s Pre-Professional Program reviewed by Max Johnson on DCMetroTheaterArts.
Bat Boy: The Musical at Act Two @ Levine’s Pre-Professional Program by Yvonne French.
Act Two @ Levine’s website.