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An Interview with Manhattan Children’s Theatre’s Bruce Merrill

October 28, 2011

Bruce Merrill is a veteran director of both childrens theatre and youth theatre, so he has an insiders understanding of working with children as actors and as an audience.  Bruce toured with Missoula Children’s Theatre for two seasons as a Tour Actor/Director. In those two seasons, he directed over 3,500 kids in over 70 different productions. Bruce holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Theatre Arts from Santa Clara University and a Master’s of Arts from University of Montana, where he wrote his thesis, An Investigation of the Missoula Children’s Theatre Process and How It Promotes the Aesthetic Development of Children, directly on his experiences working with children. I met Bruce in the ‘90s when he gave me my first job music directing a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in Mountainview, CA. He was a great collaborator with a lot of patience as I learned the ropes and found my sea legs.  He moved to New York, where he became director of Children’s Theatre at Vital Theatre Company before founding Manhattan Children’s Theatre, where he is currently the Artistic Director. They’ve been producing theatre for kids and families since 2002.

Music Directing The School Musical: You’ve been doing theater with children for a long time. What drew you to that field, and how did you start directing kids in shows?

Bruce Merrill: I started directing kids in shows back in college.  I wanted to focus on directing…but as an undergrad, the only two emphasises were acting or technical theatre.  So I took as many directing related classes as they offered and looked for work outside of the school to gain some experience, which led to work at a few of the local elementary schools starting drama programs and directing their annual productions.

MDTSM: What are you looking for when you choose material for a family audience?

MERRILL: I look for material that appeals to both the parents (or teachers) and the kids.  It shouldn’t talk down to them…and hopefully challenges them to think/view things in new ways.  As an example, many of the shows are comedies…some of the humor appeals to the adults (situational, word play, etc)…some to the kids (slapstick, etc)…and some to both.  Also, obviously as a small, non-profit theatre, meeting the budget is important, so we look for shows that are current, popular…and again, something both the parents and kids would want to see.

MDTSM: Tell me about your directorial process. Do you use an exploratory process, or do you have your final product in mind from the first rehearsal? Does improvisation figure into your rehearsals? How much time do you have with your actors before the show is on its feet?

MERRILL: Directing style is definitely exploratory.  I have some ideas what I ultimately want to see…but within that vision, many possible routes to take depending on what the other team members (actors, designers, etc) contribute.  I like working on different types/genres of shows, so not every show uses improvisation…but, as an example, our final show of last season, The Complete Tales of Brothers Grimm, Abridged, used extensive improvisation in not only creating the show, but within the show itself once it was running.  Typically, a show has about 4 weeks of rehearsal before opening.

MDTSM: How did Manhattan Children’s Theatre come to be? What is their focus as an organization?

MERRILL: MCT sort of came to be through a right time/right place situation.  When I first moved to New York, I was looking for any kind of directing experience I could get.  While I landed a few adult gigs, one of the first companies to respond was Vital Theatre, which noticed the extensive children’s theatre experience I had on my resume.  They had just started a children’s theatre production (that ran concurrently with the mainstage production) and wanted help running/managing it.  Eager for any New York work, I took the gig…which led to directing the next children’s theatre show…which led to managing the program and directing most all of the shows.  However, even though there was a large interest by the company in what the program brought in (money and review-wise), we were still the ugly stepchild in many ways, especially budgetary.  So, one of co-founders of that company (who had been working exclusively with the children’s shows during her last year there) and I decided that a theatre just focusing on children’s theatre could do well in New York…and so we broke off and founded MCT, which has been going relatively strong since.

MDTSM: Why should I bring kids to see theatre?

MERRILL: Theater is a wonderful experience for kids that not only introduces them to live, immediate art, but also further expands their imaginations while teaching them to “actively” listen, which is important in every kind of learning experience.  Plus it’s just plain fun seeing a unique performance, since every show is different by simply being “live.”

MDTSM: what advice do you have for young people who are interested in directing as a career?

MERRILL: See as much theatre as you can.  Read as many plays as you can.  Get as much hands-on experience as you can!  Assist other directors.  Intern with companies you have respect for.  An MFA program is a good way to obviously learn technique, philosophy and the skills needed to succeed, but a good program will also provide you with opportunites, whether through internships/apprenticeships and/or connections in the working world of theatre that can get your foot in the door.  Finally, I may be biased because I live here, but New York is the place to be for early career directors.  There are so many “stepping-stone” theatres looking for young directors to take on small projects…and if all else fails, I know many actors/directors who banded together to put on a production on their own.

MDTSM: How can people find out more about MCT or purchase tickets?

MERRILL: Our website contains most of this info… www.mctny.org.  People can also get tickets by either going to Theatermania.com and looking up Manhattan Children’s Theatre or calling 212-352-3101 if they know which show they want to see.

Thanks, Bruce!

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