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An Interview with Tim McDonald

October 14, 2011

Timothy A. McDonald, a respected educator, playwright and director (Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter) founded iTheatrics to create innovative programs that allow students to experience the transformative power of the arts.

Before founding iTheatrics, Tim created Music Theatre International’s Education Division, working side-by-side with theatrical greats including Cameron Mackintosh, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Schwartz and Sheldon Harnick to create age-appropriate versions of classic musicals.

In partnership with Stephen Gabriel at Work Light Productions, Tim directed and developed four new touring shows: Broadway Junior on Tour, Disney’s Discover Theater!, Frankly Ben, and The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley. In partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center, Tim co-wrote the book for Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and directed The Phantom Tollbooth.

Working with Nick Manos of Theater of the Stars Tim created the Junior Theater Festival, which has become the Comic-Con for Broadway musicals, bringing together 3,000 kids, educators and the Broadway community each Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend in Atlanta, GA.

Tim continues to be an advocate for educators, working to design materials and create professional development seminars that give teachers everywhere the tools necessary to put on a show in their community.

I met Tim McDonald when I was just a kid. I played Rapunzel’s Prince to his Cinderella’s Prince in a production of Into The Woods at Chico City Light Opera, a company he helped found. It was the first production I had been in that wasn’t a school production, and I drove my ford ranger about an hour each way to be in the show. It was a great production, and Tim was already quite a force to be reckoned with even then. (1993?) Since then, Tim has had an amazing career. He’s the closest thing to a rock star there is in the world of theatre for performance by young people. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he completely changed the industry, and the list of people he’s worked with reads like a who’s who of modern musical theatre writing.  I caught up with him this week, and asked him some questions about his work with MTI and his continuing work with his new company, iTheatrics.

Music Directing The School Musical:  MTI as a licensing organization seems to be really concerned with putting out a quality, user-friendly product. What was it like to work there?

Tim McDonald:I loved working at MTI—it’s a great group of people who are really passionate about musical theatre.  And Freddie Gershon (Chairman and CEO) is a true visionary and has been a wonderful mentor to me.  Freddie knows how to identify talent, nurture it and then, in my case encourage me to “make it on my own.”  Why am I hearing the theme for the Mary Tyler Moore show?  Never mind.  I was fortunate enough to be at MTI when it was at the beginning of a major transformation and for someone like me that’s exactly where I want to be.

MDTSM: You were around for the creation of MTI’s Education division. What were your goals for that process?

TM: When I was recruited by Freddie to lead this project with the title “Musicals Made Easy” I had a clear vision of what it could be…and that became Broadway Junior.  (With a lot of guidance, support and input from many, many people.)  Once Broadway Junior was launched and starting to take off and transform musical theater licensing I realized that none of the major licensing firms had an Education division.  Why not expand into all areas of education?  From grade K through grade 12?  Why not provide high-quality, cutting-edge education products to professionals producing theater for young audiences?  Why not create musical theater curriculum for music text books? Why not provide teachers with professional development opportunities centered in musical theatre?  Why not create the “little league world series” for musicals?  Those were our objectives…and exactly what we achieved with MTI’s Education Division.  And had a total BLAST doing it.

MDTSM: What are some of the things that need to change as you retool a show to be done specifically by young people?

TM: Our adaptation process is a trade secret.  It’s literally thousands of changes some obvious, some tiny.   These changes range from the key of the music (there is a very specific formula we’ve developed over the years) to the arc of the storytelling, to the font of the music, to the tempi of the tracks.  Lots of people think they can edit a show to a shorter running length.  Our goal is to do it in such a way that the audience doesn’t feel like they’ve missed a thing.  There’s a reason our edits have been applied to shows running on Broadway and London’s West End.  There’s a real art and science to being good editors and adaptors.  My team is the absolute best in the business.  It’s what we do all day, every day.

MDTSM: Are writers generally easygoing about the changes you hope to implement, or do you have to sell them on the alterations to their work?

TM: It depends on the writers—but “easygoing” is not a word I’d associate with the process.  We always submit to the writer’s vision and intentions as our touchstone.  Each show has a unique history and there’s usually a reason for every single beat.  It’s sort of like remodeling a significant home.  The architect (writer) had a specific vision, so how do you remove a porch or add a window while staying true to that vision?  The best adaptations are a result of working with an author who is completely collaborative—someone like Stephen Schwartz, or Ahrens and Flaherty, or Dick Scanlin and Jeanine Tessori, or Douglas Carter Beane, or Sheldon Harnick, or the late (and wonderful) Arthur Laurents.  Musical theater writers of this caliber understand musical theater and respect what we do and that’s why I get up every morning chomping at the bit to get to work.

MDTSM: You’ve worked with some big names. Do you have any favorite stories about working with great writers?

TM: Too many!  My favorite is this: Early on we got a lot of pressure to create West Side Story Junior, which didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but I wasn’t seasoned enough to know why.  So I embraced the project and created a one-hour adaptation for middle school kids to perform.  Then I got a message on my phone from Arthur Laurents who was none to pleased that I was doing anything with West Side Story and told me so in quite colorful and stinging language.  However he had not reviewed my script.  The very next phone message was also from Mr. Laurents who had just finished reading my adaptation and praised it with great effusion!  In four and a half minutes I felt completely inadequate as a human being and then completely elated.  I had a series of sessions with Arthur and we continued to tweak the show and he paid me the ultimate compliment—Arthur asked if he could use some of my edits for the upcoming West End revival of the show he was getting ready to direct.  You may note that there isn’t a West Side Story Junior available.  That’s because the show played horribly with kids as actors.  Instead of a poignant musical, West Side Story JR. played like a side-splitting comedy.  There’s something hysterically funny about tiny boys dancing with towering girls (‘cause the girls are much taller than the boys for this age group) belting out about “getting their way tonight.”

MDTSM: You started your own company, iTheatrics, to create versions of existing shows for kids to perform. What does your new company deliver that sets you apart from your competitors?

TM: Well…we don’t really have competitors.  Who else would be mad enough to build a company focused exclusively on making sure the world is safe for kids performing musicals everywhere? That’s not a business model…it’s a lifestyle. What iTheatrics brings to the table is years of expertise and passion.  We’re dedicated to our mission, dedicated to our clients and we have an amazing list of clients—MTI, Disney Theatrics Productions, Tams-Witmark Musical Library, New York City’s Department of Education, The Shubert Foundation where share our passion.

MDTSM: How is working with kids different from working with adult actors?

TM: I can cuss when working with adults.

MDTSM: My blog is directed at the school based music director. Do you have any advice for M.D.s working with kids in schools?

TM:

1. Never talk down to kids.

2.  When you’re wrong (and you will be) admit it immediately.

3.  Never make a threat you’re not prepared to fulfill.

4. Start rehearsals on time and be prepared.

5.  Never give up on a kid for any reason.

MDTSM: Make me a pitch for using an itheatrics show!

TM: It’s simple—compare an iTheatrics show to any other show and decide for yourself which one is the better adaptation, has the better support materials, and is intuitive. I chose the name iTheatrics because I wanted to bring the innovation Steve Jobs created for Apple to musical theater education.  Wait until you get your hands on The Wizard of Oz Young Performer’s Edition (Tams-Witmark Musical Library) or the new ShowKits being released by Music Theatre International (The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley is the first to be released). AMAZING!

MDTSM:  What can we look forward to from your organization in the future?

TM: We’ve just passed our five year mark.  (Hooray!) And I have just outlined four new initiatives which will be launched in 2012. I can’t give them away here…but stay tuned–we’re really going to have a major impact.

MDTSM: You have spoken inspiringly about changing the world through theatre. Care to do that here?

TM: Musical Theatre is one of only two art forms that bring together all of the arts disciplines in pure collaboration (opera is the other).  Music, poetry (lyrics), dance, visual arts (sets and costumes), technical arts (digital sound and lighting) and language arts (storytelling) all work together at the service of telling a story in a musical. By being a part of a musical, young people experience working together for the greater good, they learn what it is to build a community, and they learn acceptance, patience and time management.  And the feedback they receive isn’t passive, it’s their peers and parents standing on their feet, wildly applauding their accomplishments.

For up-to-date information check out www.TimothyAMcDonald.com or
www.iTheatrics.com.

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