PHOENIX: Blocks away from both Arizona Theatre Company and Orpheum Theatre Phoenix in this city’s downtown sits a playground for imaginative young theatremakers. The Valley Youth Theatre is no ordinary children’s theatre: The space boasts a 30-foot-wide proscenium stage with an orchestra pit, scene and costume shops, rehearsal studios, and dressing rooms. The theatre has launched the careers of many performers who have gone on to star on Broadway and even receive Academy Award nominations. We caught up with producing artistic director Bobb Cooper via email to learn more about mounting children’s shows for audiences of all ages.
Who founded Valley Youth Theatre, when, and why?
Valley Youth Theatre was founded in 1989 by Gary Lamble and our founding board chair, Hope Ozer. Gary started the company, and Hope believed wholeheartedly that the arts were so important to the full development of a child. She brought her daughter to audition for a show, and she could see that Gary needed some help. She convinced him to let her start a board of directors who could be great ambassadors for the company. Hope did not reach out to moms and dads of the children in the show; instead she sought out business leaders and professionals who could champion the organization and sustain it.
Tell us about yourself and your connection to VYT.
I came to VYT in March 1996. I relocated to Phoenix from Los Angeles a little over a year and a half after the devastating Northridge earthquake in 1994. I had run my own children’s entertainment company in L.A. for nearly 13 years, and I wrote and produced magical musical shows and performed everywhere from the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, Calif., to Jim Carrey’s backyard.
When I came to VYT, I joined forces with the amazing powerhouse Hope Ozer and helped her take this theatre company from the basement of a vacant mall and a $100,000 annual budget to a budget of more than $1 million in the first five years. We are currently at nearly $1.4 million, and in March 2016, I celebrated 20 years at the helm of Valley Youth Theatre, along with our resident musical director, Mark Fearey, and our resident costume designer, Karol Cooper. (Yes, she is my wife.)
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
What sets us apart is quality and consistency though our process and our results. We function as a true professional theatre for young people. Our actors are not adults—although we have done several Equity guest artist contracts—they are children. We do what we call size-appropriate casting, generally casting teens in the adult roles and the younger children in the other roles. Our rehearsal processes are rigorous. Depending on the complexity of the show, rehearsals range from four to six weeks. Our rehearsals run Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m.-9 p.m. and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. We rehearse even longer during tech week.
Every time we do a show, we do everything we can to make the experience challenging and inspiring for our young performers. We have produced numerous Arizona premieres of musicals, like Jason Robert Brown’s 13, Julianne Moore’s Freckleface Strawberry, and many more. We have an incredible theatre education program, and our outreach to the community impacts the lives of thousands of disadvantaged children each year.
The highlight of what sets us apart is the success rate of the young people who have graced our stage over the years. Here is a list of just a few: Emma Stone, Jordin Sparks, Max Crumm, Chelsea Kane, Kimiko Glenn, Charity Dawson, Wesley Faucher, Nick Cartell, and Krystina Alabado.
Who is your audience?
We have a very broad audience, from grandparents to grand-babies. We do a variety of shows each year to appeal to this audience. We have such a great reputation that people come to see our shows even without a child in tow.
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own and why you admire it.
First would be a local professional children’s theatre company Childsplay. I respect the founder and artistic director, David Saar, their amazing managing director Steve Martin, and their entire company of adult actors. They are innovative and top notch! Second, I would have to say Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. They are just plain amazing!
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
This is a very difficult task. I choose shows that will appeal to our audience and that will appeal to the young actors in our community. It is a very delicate balance. We produce five musicals including our annual holiday offering, A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail, and one non-musical each year. Four of the shows are produced in our 202-seat proscenium theatre and two are produced at the 700-seat Herberger Theater. In choosing shows for the Herberger, the task is much tougher—a lot depends on whether we can find a set to rent or if it is something we can build that lives up to our standards. We always look for opportunities to do premieres and new musicals.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?
Our annual budget is $1,370,000. We employ more than 50 people each year.
What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?
We just closed Charlotte’s Web and will open the 21st anniversary production of A Winnie-the Pooh Christmas Tail over the holidays. I am looking forward to our April production of The Secret Garden and to return to the Herberger in June 2017 for The Wizard of Oz.
Strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
Toto going to the bathroom in the cornfield in The Wizard of Oz during a performance.
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
I love to watch football, travel, and spend time with my family.
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
That is a very interesting question. Theatre is ever-evolving. I believe it will become even more high-tech and interactive with the audience.