Tom Moser is asking 37 young performers to grow up, in a hurry.
“I don’t want to see 12-year-olds,” he called to the cast of Youth @ Performing Arts during a Sunday rehearsal for Disney’s “High School Musical.”
“You’re all 18!” he commanded.
They’re not all 12; members of the YPA cast, who stage the musical May 14 through 16, range from fourth to eighth grade, with one high school student.
“I’m pushing you now, for a reason,” Moser said. “I need you to act older. When you’re 12 or 14, being 18’s cool.”
“High School Musical” is beyond cool. It’s hot, the new adolescent coming-of-age standard presented on stages across America, each production fueled by the nonstop frenzy of young people.
Moser demands the energy.
“What’s the main theme?” he asked the troupe during a break and before pizza at the Ina Road studio of Gotta Dance.
“It’s time to free us,” said one actor.
“Is it?” Moser replied. “I don’t think you know what you’re saying. If you have that in your mind, that’s what you’re communicating to the audience. What’s the message? You can do anything you want. You’re breaking free. That’s what you’re selling.”
Moser’s belief in the possibilities of youth is fundamental to Youth @ Performing Arts. For “High School Musical,” Moser, artistic director Joyce Rychener and others have created three casts. Each night, there are different lead actors.
“All the young people have a chance to shine,” Moser said.
“We want to give as many kids a chance to have a major role as we can,” Rychener agreed.
“It comes from our real purpose here,” Moser said. “Number one, we’re inclusive. We believe everyone is capable.”
When kids show an interest in theater, they audition.
“It’s not a talent audition, it’s a heart audition,” Moser said. “If they really, really want to do it, that is key.”
Kory Chinn, 12, a student at Coronado K-8 School, really wants to do it. He’s become a veteran of YPA productions.
“I like acting,” said Chinn, who plays Ripper, a skater, and Zeke, a basketball player who wants to be a baker, in “High School Musical.” “It gives me the chance to let my personality flow and be someone I’m not.”
Chinn sees the crossover from the stage to life. “In school, from this play, I’ve learned I can just be myself and do what I want to without anybody telling me. I can break free.”
“The play really does have some interesting messages,” Rychener said. Kids learn to “care more about what they really want to do, to break out of molds and expectations.”
Kelsey Glass, 13, another Coronado student, is in the role of Sharpay, president of the drama club, the “rich, stuck-up girl of the school. She thinks she’s all that, perfect, and that everyone loves her. I’m not like that.”
For Glass, the acting experience has made it “a lot easier to talk in front of people and not be nervous,” she said. “And I’ve made a lot of friends through here.”
“I’ve seen her become much more outgoing and outspoken,” Rychener said.
“You can speak in front of people and don’t have stage fright,” agreed Jack Crawford, 13, an outgoing Coronado student who plays Sharpay’s shy brother, Ryan.
YAP, including young actors and their parents, has been working on “High School Musical” once a week since January. Behind the scenes, there are parent and volunteer set builders, sound technicians, costume makers and more.
“This isn’t my thing, it’s really a community thing,” Moser said.
“There isn’t a community theater in Oro Valley, so we’re just doing it,” Rychener said.
YAP has purchased velvet curtains and a thrust stage that doubles the size of the St. Andrew’s stage. The church can use those improvements as well.
Youth @ Performing Arts began in August 2007 as an outgrowth of the theater work Moser did for 25 years as an elementary classroom teacher. Many of his current cast members were his students.
There is one production each May.
Chinn says there’s more singing and dancing in “High School Musical” than “Annie” and “Aladdin Jr.,” two previous shows he’s done. “It’s fun. I normally feed off the audience. That’ll be easier with a larger venue.”
He’ll work to “rally my cast members and get them excited for the play.”
Moser does the same, in rehearsal.
“I hear the girls,” the director said during a song. “Boys?”
And they grow louder.