Summer Stock Austin Trains and Entertains

by Cate Blouke

Special to the American-Statesman

For 10 years, Austin’s pool of talented musical theater performers has grown steadily, fed by the rigorous training of Summer Stock Austin’s extraordinary repertory program.

Brainchild of Ginger Morris and Michael McKelvey, Summer Stock Austin pairs promising high school and college performers with seasoned theater professionals. In a tiered mentorship system, students work on three shows simultaneously, receiving training in all aspects of theatrical production: from voice to choreography, costumes to marketing. When they aren’t performing, the students run lights, help with wardrobe, and support their company from behind the scenes. This season features “Footloose,” “Chicago,” and the world premiere of a Biscuit Brother’s “Stone Soup.”

And thanks to the tireless yearly fundraising efforts of Summer Stock’s creative team, students get to participate tuition-free.

Granted, the 50-member company works an intense schedule to earn their keep and put up award-winning productions on par with professional companies (Summer Stock Austin won the Austin Critics’ Table Award for best musical in 2012 and won numerous ACT and B. Iden Payne awards for their 2013 season).

While a typical rehearsal schedule for college and high school productions is six to eight weeks, Summer Stock puts up its high-quality shows in less than half that time. Operating in “true repertory” fashion, shows go from zero to stage-ready in just two and a half weeks.

With days that run from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., McKelvey describes the whirlwind of rehearsals as feeling like he’s been “shot out of a cannon every morning.”

Morris seconds this, explaining that at the end of the day, there’s no time to process what just happened because it’s time to start planning for tomorrow.

But McKelvey says this is the summer stock model that students need to learn if they plan to pursue futures in professional theater — a very real possibility for alumni. Both this year’s Zilker Hillside Musical (“Oklahoma”) and Zach Scott’s current production of “The Who’s ‘Tommy’” feature numerous Summer Stock veterans.

In a special event this year, Summer Stock Austin will showcase the talents of a decade’s worth of alumni in a one-night retrospective on Aug. 4. But that’s just one of the many exciting features of this season.

As part of their family-friendly Theater For All program (providing live theater experiences for at risk youth populations), the season includes the premiere of “Biscuit Brothers” co-creator Allen Robertson’s “Stone Soup.”

A musical re-telling of the classic folk tale, the show seems like a lovely metaphor for the Summer Stock process itself. In a short promotional video, cast member Sarah Yoakley (Mayor Imperia) describes it as the transformation of a group of people, “leaving behind those selfish, individual wants and fears to do what’s good for everyone, not just yourself.”

Community building and teamwork are the backbone of Summer Stock Austin’s mission.

Also new this year, and a byproduct of a newly formed partnership with the Long Center, the company will offer an educational outreach program for young audiences. In the third week of the run, SSA will host workshops where Morris explains that children “ages 5 to 12 can have an extended day with us, where they come see the show in the morning, and then the college mentors will offer classes with the kids, teaching them a song and dance from the show.”