Compelling Kids

This producer of fare like 'Assassins' wants to teach your children theater arts

Kevin Johnson, the man who has produced local performances of such socially deviant musicals as Assassins (about president-killers) and Ruthless! (about a little girl who tries to murder her way to stage stardom), wants to get his clutches on your children.

Yes, as an offshoot of Arizona Onstage Productions, whose idea of a fundraiser is a screening of an opera inspired by trash-TV host Jerry Springer, Johnson has formed Arizona Youth Onstage. And the group's first show this spring will be ... Annie.

How could Johnson bear to expose kids in his charge to such an innocuous, feel-good musical?

"I'm pulling a crowd in that way," says the man who, along with everything else, is the fine arts director at the Basis School. "Every single kid I know between the ages of 6 and 12 is familiar with the piece and has a big love for it. So I hope to have them enjoy putting Annie together, and slowly coax them into creating different ways of staging scenes, and different concepts of set design. I'm hoping a large number of those students will want to stay on to create the next musical themselves."

For that is the mission of Arizona Youth Onstage: helping kids create and perform their own musicals from scratch. Four years ago, Johnson went through a Metropolitan Opera program that taught him and other enrollees how to create original opera in the classroom. It's the sort of thing Tucsonan Carroll Rinehart has been doing in public schools for years, but now Johnson wants to apply the concept to an independent company that meets on weekends.

"A lot of schools don't have a theater-arts program anymore, because it's not considered core curriculum," Johnson laments. "A lot of what I see coming out of Tucson is repackaged material like Jack and the Beanstalk and other fairy tales. I believe children should be involved in every step of a show--coming up with the concept, the characters, the conflicts, the resolutions and also the score, even if they don't play an instrument. I'm trying to get kids comfortable with the fact that they can move, sing, create a set design, and it's not a prepackaged deal. They'll even help with lighting design."

Johnson says he's used the program at the Basis School, and it's been so successful that parents have asked if their children can get involved even if they don't attend the school. Hence, Arizona Youth Onstage, a Saturday-morning academy.

With his experience in teaching theater to children, Johnson is ready to handle just about anything.

"The last time I did this," he says, "was when I did Annie with students at the Jewish Community Center last year. Sandy the dog was played by a 6-year-old boy with Tourette's syndrome, and during the performance, I was afraid he'd start cussing any second. But he was well-behaved; all he did was growl."

Johnson is the kind of theater guy who might growl when you bring up a conventional show like Annie; when he was young, he fantasized about directing a revisionist version in which all the kids, including the heroine, were still in the orphanage at the end, the whole thing having been a fantasy. With his current group, he's playing Annie straight, but when the children in his program begin crafting their own material, he anticipates results that won't quite be mainstream.

"My main goal is the process versus the product, and what they get out of it, how they can empower themselves to tell their own stories," Johnson says. "The operas that the kids at Basis write have had fantastic storylines, and they've been quite impressive and modern. Last year, they did one about a girl whose only friend lives in a mirror; the friend convinced her to trade places, so the girl lived in the mirror and saw how her friends were reacting to her through someone else's eyes. The year before, they did a really loud rock opera called Haze, about a man reflecting on his childhood and how he now has mental problems dealing with the fact that when he was a kid, he burned his house down, which killed his mother, who had charges against her for certain things, and he wasn't sure whether she was guilty or innocent, and he wasn't sure whether he'd set fire to the house on purpose or not.

"Kids' imaginations are big, and they dream a lot. All you have to do is turn them loose with a little guidance, and you get some really strange and compelling stuff."

Johnson started meeting with the first 18 kids in the program at the beginning of this month; he's looking for another 10, and is accepting children through the middle of January for Annie, which he hasn't cast yet. (Unlike in Ruthless!, none of the girls have yet been scratching each other's eyes out in competition for the lead role.) The performance will be given toward the end of April at Zuzi.

Tuition costs $68 a month, which covers costumes and other supplies. There are a couple of openings for disadvantaged adult helpers to get tuition breaks for their kids. Meetings are 9-11:30 a.m. at the Basis School, 3825 E Second St.

Johnson says participants should be prepared to work, think and be creative.

"I don't want this to be a program where the kids have these big shows for parents and walk around in fancy rented costumes and wave to mommy and daddy from behind the curtain. There's no educational value to making this a JonBenet Ramsey-on-parade camp."

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