I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when walking through the double glass doors that lead into the studio where the Area Stage Company calls home in Coral Gables. It's a conservatory, after all. That means young people singing and dancing and being theatrical.
Was I going to walk into a crowd of waiting kids snapping their fingers in unison and circling me like a gang from West Side Story? Was I going to get mauled by the cast of Glee?
I was set to meet the cast and crew of Batboy, a dark musical comedy about a kid who is half bat-half boy, to write up this preview. Area Stage Executive Director, Maria Rodaz, told me that the cast was excited to meet me and show me their stuff. And this was certainly the case when I entered the place and found a crowd waiting for me. An endless river of hands enthusiastically extended to shake mine. These are kids? They're too.... respectful! I felt like the mayor of the unassuming strip mall that houses the theatre just north of Sunset Place. But these kids were all pretty damn cool. All filled with gobs of talent, all dedicated to their craft, all hard at work and ready to put on a hell of a show. They're a great source of pride for Maria and her husband, John Rodaz, who operate Area Stage.
And, from the snippets of preview that I got, it looks like Batboy is going to be one kickass production.
John and Maria founded the Area Stage Company in 1989 and since then have churned out hundreds of productions, earned multiple awards, and even garnered the attention of Ted Koppel, who did a report on their groundbreaking original play about the Bay of Pigs invasion called Rum and Coke. Their conservatory has launched the careers of several writers and actors, including Oscar Isaac, who plays Prince John in the Russell Crowe version of Robin Hood ("I declare him to be AN OUTLAW!").
Rehearsing 'Batboy' (photo courtesy Area Stage Company)
Two summers ago, they turned Area Stage into a full time working conservatory that requires an audition process, as well as serious devotion. These kids gladly sacrifice their entire summer to be a part of Batboy and Area Stage. While their friends are spending vacation hitting the beach, playing with their X-Boxes, or just loafing around the mall, these guys are learning their lines, exercising their vocal chords, and immersing themselves into the art of theatre.
Take Marcos Alvarez, the 15-year old who plays the title character in Batboy. Encouraged by his middle school teacher to audition for the company's version of Sweeney Todd two years ago, Marcos decided to abandon his first love of baseball and threw himself into theater.
"When I first joined, I was really into baseball," he tells me. "But this place changed my mind because it's so much fun to me. It's fun to put in so much work, and then to see the end result on stage is a great feeling. So I quit baseball to get into this."
A kid after my own heart. A sportsman who also dabbles in stage. If I had a dime for every short stop turned thespian, I'd have twenty cents.
But as John Rodaz told me, the full on dedication is something that comes from these kids out of their own volition. "We attract very focused, very dedicated actors," he says, filled with pride. "And we try to give them a rounded approach, where they learn to do research and bring something to the table as actors."
To prepare for his role as Batboy, Marcos researched the behavior of bats. He also studied up on the nature of feral people. When I asked him where he found his information, he simply replied, "YouTube."
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Area Stage is prepping their students in every way possible since kicking off their conservatory three summers ago. "We just don't read them Shakespeare," Rodaz says. "We workshop blank verse and iambic pentameter, dramaturgy, and the history of the play itself."
And the results speak for themselves. I got a sneak peak at two songs from Batboy when the cast performed "Hold Me Batboy," and "Children, Children" just for me. And even though they've been rehearsing for only three weeks, they put seasoned pros to shame.
Area Stage is doing something special here. These kids that I met and performed for me are a testament to that. If you want to check out a different, daring play starring young dedicated actors who are eons away from your typical local high school drama productions, and possibly even veteran stage troupes, you should check out Batboy when it opens this weekend. Area Stage is too modest to say so, but you might just see the next big star there.
Batboy runs through August 13 at Area Stage (1560 South Dixie Highway, Coral Gables) at 8 p.m. (Sunday August 7, at 7 p.m.). Tickets are $20 ($10 for students with ID). Call 305-666-2078 or visit areastagecompany.com