If an average high school boy’s heroes include Samuel Beckett, Tom Waits and the Marx brothers, then eighteen-year-old Bishop Miege senior Matt Bukovac is in the mainstream. That he is about to have two of his plays produced on the main stage at Missouri Repertory Theatre hints, though, that he may swim a little more vigorously than most of his peers.
“When I saw the Shakespeare Festival’s The Tempest, it was different from anything I had ever seen,” he says of the 1993 production he attended when he was ten. “Everything about it was foreign: the language, the lights, the costumes.” The experience left an impression that would lead to Bukovac’s current gig as the author of Variations of a Proposal and A Man’s Relationship to His Telephone, the pair of one-act plays that launches the Rep’s Metropolitan Youth Company the first week in June.
“The genesis of the project was an idea that [artistic director] Peter Altman wanted to pursue — that is, finding talented teenagers interested in pursuing theater professionally,” says Risa Brainin, the Rep’s associate artistic director. With the Metropolitan Youth Company, she says, the Rep “wanted to create a theatrical event that gave voice to the feelings and ideas of Kansas City’s young people — What are they thinking about? What are they grappling with today? — and create something to let these voices be heard.”
What Altman, in his first year as the Rep’s director, forgivably didn’t realize was that the Coterie had been nurturing a similar project for nearly a decade. The Coterie’s Reaching the Write Minds seminars are dramatic-writing workshops, and the scripts with the most potential are workshopped in an annual Young Playwrights’ Roundtable. Then, in early May, the top scripts receive staged readings at the Young Playwrights’ Festival — this year’s event featured several short plays, including Bukovac’s.
Brainin’s discovery of the Coterie’s projects prompted a call to artistic director Jeff Church. “We had been talking about a Missouri Rep-Coterie collaboration, and this seemed like a natural fit,” she says.
Church agrees that Brainin’s call was serendipitous. “We had never had a mechanism for moving our kids’ plays from a reading into a full production,” he says. “And certainly some of these plays have shown merit enough to be full productions. When the Rep said they wanted to do something with teens, we knew we wanted to be involved.”
Brainin contacted high school drama teachers, putting out word that the Rep was looking for young talent. “Sixty to seventy kids showed up, and we’ve cast ten to appear in Matt’s plays,” she says. This year’s Youth Company includes students from Shawnee Mission North, South and East; F.L. Schlagle in Kansas City, Kansas; Hickman Mills, Rockhurst and Paseo high schools; and Oxford Middle School. The three-and-a-half-week rehearsal lets the children interact with such theater professionals as lighting designer Jeffrey Cady and costumer Jennifer Myers-Eckton.
Bukovac’s Variations has been staged before: at two high schools and at Westport Coffee House. He says he wrote the play after his junior year. “I gave myself a writing assignment and would write one Variation a night. It came pretty naturally.” He proceeded to build the production from the ground up. “I worked in a lumberyard to raise the $200 to rent the theater and put it on,” he says. “It made $217, so I came out $17 ahead.”
He says the fact that he’ll see his work onstage at the Rep is “mind-blowing. I mean, I’m working with so many amazingly talented people and never thought my plays would be on the same stage where I saw Julius Caesar.” He calls his other play, A Man’s Relationship to His Telephone, “an existentialist piece that deals with hope.”
Church agrees that Bukovac’s plays are remarkable. “He has had three productions of Variations at his age. He wrote Telephone during his tenure in our Young Playwrights’ Roundtable, and what’s extraordinary about Matt and the other teenagers is that their voices are different from adult voices. Yet they don’t want to just talk to their peers. They want to talk to the adult world, and they don’t play by anybody’s rules.”
Now that Starlight Theatre’s push for season-ticket sales is being supplemented by single-ticket sales to its kick-off production of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, head honcho Bob Rohlf wants people to know that Aida is not in any way, shape or form Evita. That’s just one of the misconceptions Rohlf says people have expressed about the show.
“I think the serious theatergoers know what it is,” he says, “but I guess I’m not totally surprised by the confusion. It’s been bizarre to hear what people think Aida is and isn’t,” he says. “They’ve confused it with Evita, and I’ve heard, ‘Why is Starlight doing an opera?'”
For the record: Aida was an opera by Verdi. It has been reconceived as a pop Broadway musical by John and Rice, whose last collaboration was something you may have heard of called The Lion King. And in New York last year, Aida contained one of the year’s most exciting performances: that of Heather Hedley in the title role. “The tour stars Patrick Cassidy and, as Aida, a performer called Simone,” Rohlf says. “I hear from people who’ve seen both her and Hedley that they liked Simone better.”