National Youth Theatre Company: Wiz kids

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright visits the National Youth Theatre Company at rehearsal.

The cast get on with the fine tuning under the direction of James Doy.
The cast get on with the fine tuning under the direction of James Doy.

Ponsonby Primary School is a busy place on a Sunday. A group of 7-year-old netballers practise, teens with dogs play on the field and kids on scooters race past playing tag.

Inside the school hall, over basketball court markings, the cast of the National Youth Theatre Company's The Wizard of Oz warm up to Pharrell Williams' Happy. Upstairs, where I watch the budding stars practise, volunteer mums sew monkey tails, twist crepe paper and yellow pipe cleaners to create orange flowers, and add sparkles to the costumes.

The room has energy and the children are totally engaged, as happy as the music.

It feels a very friendly atmosphere, nothing like the sometimes-uptight singing or dancing classes I've been to in the past, which had a distinct element of stress involved, with parents watching anxiously, even correcting from the sidelines.

"It's a very supportive atmosphere here," says James Doy, general manager of NYTC. "We foster the spirit that we're all in it together.

"After a few shows the kids see that it all comes around and they'll get a chance to be in a lead role some day, too."

The company is a charity devoted to bringing confidence and life skills to young people through the theatrical arts. It presents two productions a year, as well as school holiday programmes.

Children sign up to be part of an NYTC show through the Onstage programme, which includes weekly rehearsals (or twice weekly for those in lead roles and frequent rehearsals as the cast get closer to opening night ), as well as a weekend camp at country Auckland campsites.

The kids get to be part of a professional production at theatres such as the Aotea Centre or the Dorothy Winstone Centre. As well as learning singing, dancing and acting techniques, children also learn behind-the-scenes crafts, such as a prosthetics workshop with Body FX on The Wizard of Oz production.

NYTC production of The Wizard of Oz marks the 75th anniversary of the movie. Next up is Disney's Little Mermaid.

The best part is that kids don't have to wait to be chosen for the production, just by signing up they are in the show.

Rehearsal for the National Youth Theatre Company production of The Wizard of Oz. Photo / Richard Robinson
Rehearsal for the National Youth Theatre Company production of The Wizard of Oz. Photo / Richard Robinson

"Because of this not everyone in the class starts with the same knowledge, talent or experience, and that's what makes it what it is," Doy says. "They all come up to standard by the opening show and we've never had to stop any of our shows because of stage fright or mishaps to the set -- it's a professional performance."

Assistant director Seamus Ford started out as one of the children before moving into the behind-the-scenes role seven years ago.

"The great thing about the kids who sign up is that they clearly want to do this," he says.

"Those kids sitting at the back of the shows often go on to get lead roles -- it might take a little while, but then it suddenly clicks."

NYTC gives everyone a better chance by choosing three casts -- ages range from 6 to 19 -- for the three-day season.

This production has a cast of 200. "The sound guys hate us," Doy says.

And there are no pushy stage mums in the wings. Instead, NYTC has kept them out of harm's way and busy making costumes under the direction of Leoni Willis.

Outside in the sunshine I meet the three brown-haired Dorothys -- Xanthe Pavlovich, Carla Te Paa (both 15) and Emily Robinson (13).

Emily tells me it's her first big role and the thought of facing the audience of 2200 on opening night is going to be quite scary.

Carla says the behind-the-scenes aspect of the show is what she finds really interesting.

She has been most surprised about the amount of work everyone does to get the set and costumes looking amazing.

For those of us obsessed with Dorothy's glittery shoes, the girls assure me they'll be wearing red ones when clicking their heels.

Fans of the book will know that the original shoes were silver, but MGM changed them to red because they looked better in Technicolor -- despite the symbolism given to the colour silver in the book.

Doy tells me that as long as it's officially sanctioned by MGM, you can use red shoes.

One of the girls' favourite lines is in the final scene: "Oh, Auntie Em, there really is no place like home."

Carla says that sums up the whole moral of the story.

It also sums up the aims of the National Youth Theatre Company, which is all about creating a feeling of a home away from home for these talented kids, soon off to the merry old land of Oz.

Follow the yellow brick road

The four-month Onstage course is $385, or $430 with a show pack including a T-shirt and souvenir programme. There's an additional cost of $115 for the lead camp. School holiday programmes (called AllStars) are $230 and end with a revue show for family and friends. Weekly drama classes, called Acting Up, are also available; a 10-week programme is $150. The next show, The Little Mermaid, starts rehearsals on August 2; registrations open in June. nytc.co.nz

The Wizard of Oz

Friday, June 6 7.30pm; Saturday, June 7 2pm, 7.30pm. ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland. Tickets: $22 to $25 ticketmaster.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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