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Mar 20

How I Created a Theatre Company at the Age of 14

I’ve been blogging on behalf of Camp Broadway for quite some time now, and I’ve discussed an entire gamut of subjects dealing with the state of theatre in New York City.  For many readers who live outside of New York, however, the world of Broadway may feel like a distant mythical entity–something that manages to exist, but seems unapproachable.  If this describes you, you may be thinking, “What can I do to become a part of it all?”

Trust me, I understand. I went through it myself, thus I feel compelled to tell you my story about how I, beginning at the age of 12, built a professional theatre company.

I grew up in a small town on the Canadian/American border named Derby, Vermont. It’s a small town in every sense of the stereotype. Everybody knows everybody.  Every business is family owned, and every restaurant is a local hang-out. The biggest division between the community is whether you choose to shop for groceries at Price Chopper or Shaws.

Theatre was never popular in my hometown. The region has two community theatre groups, only one of which offers short summer camps. Despite this, I had always known that I was meant to work in the performing arts. I didn’t know why I felt this compulsion or how I was going to accomplish this goal, but I knew that wanted to be a performer.

By the age of eleven, I had grown up being involved in as much theatre as I could get my hands on, and I was fairly happy with my successes. Whether I was onstage, backstage, or selling tickets, I didn’t care and I thought I was doing everything I could to become a performer.

Then I saw my first Broadway show.

I don’t remember anything in my life quite so vividly as my first Broadway experience, which was Beauty and the Beast. Every detail, from the smell of the theatre to the choreography in the show, practically left me in a trance. I remember confetti raining down on the audience after “Be Our Guest” and feeling absolutely beside myself. I felt like I had experienced something that my community knew nothing about. There was an excitement that they had never experienced, and I became determined to change that.

I went home and decided that somehow I needed to start my own theatre in that small town of Derby.  I didn’t know what in the world I was doing, but I knew that come hell or high water, I was going to make it happen. My first project was directing a musical number for my school’s talent show. I got thirty friends together, found costumes, built sets and rehearsed for two months, all for one performance of the song that had so exhilarated me,“Be Our Guest.” Looking back on the performance, I can’t tell you how good or bad it was. I can imagine that a sixth grade student directing a group of kids was pretty horrible, but the response wasn’t so and I was overwhelmed by the accolades. Everybody was ecstatic about what we had done, and that’s when my “addiction” to directing began.

The first performance wasn’t enough, and I felt that I had to go bigger. I went to the school board the following year, and got permission to start an after-school theatre program. Amazingly, they agreed and gave me the space and time allotments, and I started producing shows (Godspell Jr., Pinocchio!, Honk! the Musical, Seussical the Musical to name a few).  Every semester it grew, and as I made more and more mistakes, I learned more about directing and leadership. In three years, my productions moved on from a group of six singing with a backing track to a cast of thirty with a fifteen piece orchestra, plus a sold-out run that forced us to move to a larger venue.

We moved to the Haskell Opera House, a local theatre known for the fact that the stage is in Canada, and the audience is in the US.  As we developed more and more, we drew farther away from the school and I realized that I needed to branch out.  The following season, we officially announced that we were becoming established as our own company, Act Three Theatricals.  We started with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and we had grown again. With cast of fifty and an equally large production staff I was suddenly, at the age of only 14, the Executive Director of a monstrous company, and as the people kept coming, my ideas kept growing. Besides our main-stage productions, we now had dinner theatres, smaller secondary plays, and educational outreach shows aimed towards a younger audience. People began treating me as an actual director, being commissioned by various outside organizations to work in addition to Act Three.

The next season, we secured the rights to Hairspray, and I embarked on my largest project yet. With an amazingly talented team, I set out to create a show of Broadway proportions, including automated scenery, a full orchestra, professional sound and lighting design. You name it, we were doing it for Hairspray.  For the first time, we were having more people auditioning than we could cast, and the production suddenly took on a whole new air. It was prestigious. It was professional. The show became the talk of the town, and after a statewide publicized sold-out run that turned hundreds of people away, and turned cast members into local celebrities, we had again outgrown our venue. We moved again to the largest house in the area, seating just under 1,000 patrons.

Then came the final season, during which we produced the hit musical, Chicago, a touring production of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete History of America (Abridged) and the Vermont Premiere of Next to Normal. In the final season, we settled in as an establishment.  With a steady fan base, and consistently high quality productions, we had accomplished the unthinkable–a hugely successful and professional theatre group in a tiny rural town.  When the final performance of the season ended, I was filled with emotion as it all settled in. Reading a congratulatory letter from the Governor of Vermont, I thought about where I had been six years ago, and what had sprung out of that childlike desire to just want to create the same joy that I experienced in a Broadway show for other people.

Jumping to today, everything I’m working on now routes back to Act Three.  I’m currently developing a Broadway-bound production for a legendary producer, and honestly, I wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for that ambition at such a young age. I have to pinch myself everyday to make sure that it isn’t all a dream.

Here’s what I want you to takeaway: don’t think that being disconnected from New York is a disadvantage.  For me, it turned out to be the largest blessing of my life. It forced me to create my own work, and it allowed me to develop my skill in a completely supportive environment.  I urge you to do the same.  Maybe it won’t be creating a complete theatre company, but who knows what can happen. Get some friends together and do a skit, choreograph a dance for a talent show, or put a performance in the town parade.  If the opportunity isn’t there for you, create that opportunity. I promise you, it is the most rewarding and nurturing experience you can have.

For more information on the history of Act Three, visit www.actthreetheatre.com or www.michaelchasegosselin.com

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