SW Florida’s Dana Alvarez one of six theatre educators from across the globe chosen for the 11th annual Freddie G Fellowship program
Home to more than 20 equity and community theater companies, Southwest Florida is gaining national, if not international recognition for producing tomorrow’s stars of the stage and silver screen.
One of the theater educators doing this important developmental work is the Director of Theatre Education at Cape Coral’s new Belle Theatre, Dana Alvarez. In July, Alvarez was one of just six theater educators from around the world who was invited to take part in the 11th Annual Freddie G Fellowship in New York City.
The Freddie G Fellowship honors instructors and teachers who are working to make a difference for their students and communities through the process of staging musical theatre productions in their schools and educational theatre groups. The four-day theater intensive workshop is underwritten by Freddie (“G”) Gershon and his wife Myrna. Among his many accolades, Gershon helped bring “La Cage aux Folles,” “Evita,” “Saturday Night Fever,” and “Grease” to Broadway.
Since 2018 he has co-chaired Music Theatre International, which licenses amateur rights to Broadway shows.
Alvarez could not have been more thrilled to be chosen as a Freddie G. “The Freddie Gershon Teaching Fellowship is a really special privilege. It is a complete honor,” said Alvarez.
Two factors proved instrumental in her selection for the fellowship. First and foremost is her overall body of work.
“I have been involved with teaching children and with theater since I was a teenager,” said Alvarez. “I began a program at Oasis Elementary that’s still going to this day without me being there. At Melody Lane, we started up a theater program there when the performing arts center was brand new. So, those sorts of things, I suppose, are noteworthy.”
As an elementary school teacher, Alvarez twice received “Teacher of the Year” honors. She’s directed more than 35 major musicals, including three Disney pilot productions, and has performed as a principal in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Seussical,” “Music Man,” and “Jekyll & Hyde.”
While musical theater is her forte today, Alvarez is no stranger to the Bard. In High School, she represented Southwest Florida in the International Shakespeare Competition, performing at Lincoln Center.
However, it was a group of young performers she took to the Junior Theatre Festival in Atlanta in 2019 who were responsible for helping Alvarez appear on the Freddie G selection panel’s radar.
“The Junior Theatre Festival is the world’s largest gathering of young performers,” Alvarez said. “Students present 15 minutes of one of the Broadway Junior kids’ titles for adjudication. So they receive feedback from Broadway professionals. There are awards. It’s not a first-second-third place thing. It’s more like Excellence in Acting, in Music, in Dance and ensemble work … And then there are workshops and lots of performances, and the weekend ends with a big concert from one of Broadway’s best.”
Out of 133 groups who performed at JTF Atlanta in 2019, Dana’s students were one of only eight that earned a coveted Outstanding Production Award.
“I think when your team receives that kind of exceptional recognition, and they were chosen to perform on the main stage in front of 6,500 people to show one of their numbers – we had brought Lion King that year and it was so inspiring – that that sort of thing puts you on the map, at least, and has something tangible to back up what it is that you’ve been doing for years.”
Alvarez returned to JTF Atlanta in January 2020, a mere matter of weeks before COVID shut down Broadway and shuttered theater companies around the world. While there, she decided to throw her hat in the Freddie G ring, and, to her surprise and that of the young performance team she was shepherding, was chosen for the fellowship
“I didn’t tell them that I had applied for this award, so it was a complete surprise to them other than the one student I had to ask to write a recommendation letter. So, that was also really cool because they didn’t expect that and then it was a surprise.”
In New York, the teacher became the student, with Alvarez taking part in three full days – from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. – of workshops and developmental programs.
“We were the students doing all of the activities, the choreography workshop, the music and audition workshop, the directing workshop, and experienced it from the kids’ point of view and were able to feel where we got nervous and how to allay those kinds of fears for our students, about things; being put on the spot or how could we change this or that to make sure that students feel comfortable in that learning environment. So that’s a big takeaway for me, seeing it through their eyes again.”
She not only received tips, technical advice and mentorship from Broadway professionals and theater greats, she received one-on-one feedback from Tony Honor-winning “Newsies” director and choreographer Jeff Calhoun.
“He was actually tasked to watch us Freddie G teachers direct a scene for a half an hour and then give us feedback on our own direction and offer suggestions and encouragement. It was terrifying. It was one of the scariest things that I’ve had to do was stand in front of a crowd and have people just like, watch my process of teaching, and of course I had to go first being an ‘A’ name but, in any event, he was so, so nice and encouraging and gave a couple of suggestions, but basically just kept saying ‘There’s no right or wrong way to direct and I really love this thing that you did. Oh, I didn’t think of that.’ It was just very validating and inspiring to have that kind of interaction with a director,” said Alvarez.
Her three biggest take-aways from her four-day Freddie G experience involve auditions, warm-ups and the way she directs. The changes are designed to make young performers feel more comfortable, less anxious, and more integrated into the creative process.
For example, gone are the old days of one-by-one auditions. Going forward, Belle Theatre auditions will resemble “A Chorus Line.”
“We’ve started instituting doing things in more group settings where you teach small pieces of music and have everyone sing it together and have them in small groups, then do it one by one. You would think singing in front of other students would be more nerve-wracking, but it actually makes it less scary because they’re all in the same boat and they’ve had so much repetition with it that they’re just sitting there like, “Okay, now it’s my turn to do that.’”
Alvarez admits that the warmup she’d been using with her performers had gotten rather stale.
“Being able to come back and bring some new fresh warmups to get them in the mindset of theater, and also just remembering how important warming up before a rehearsal and performance is. How it helps kids focus and helps them get rid of their day, wash that away, and now be immersed in whatever experience they’re about to have. It’s a good reset for the brain and body.”
The biggest change is a profound and fundamental shift in the way she directs a show.
“I really love the idea of having main pictures, main points in each scene that you want to be able to create, but giving the students that main point and seeing what they do with it, what kind of a picture they create, what kind of a tableau is that really getting across and letting things happen organically as opposed to just line by line telling them what to do. So, definitely a more hands-on interactive type of theater experience that involves the kids as part of the team.”
Alvarez is excited to not only use her experiences and network of new contacts to make her young performers the best they can be, but to share the tips and skills she learned in New York to others as a Freddie G peer-to-peer guiding light.
You can see the results for yourself in Belle Theatre’s upcoming production of “Chicago Teen Edition,” with Dana Alvarez at the helm.
- Dana Alvarez and her five fellow Freddie G instructors were selected in 2020, but their New York theater intensive was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Junior Theater Festival is the world's largest musical theatre festival dedicated to educational musical theatre groups that work with elementary, middle, and high school students.
- In addition to workshops and developmental programs, Alvarez and her five fellow Freddie Gs attended productions of “Between the Lines,” “Beetlejuice,” and observed a developmental workshop performance of “Beetlejuice JR.”
- Music Theatre International is one of the world’s leading theatrical licensing agencies, protecting the rights and legacies of composers, lyricists and book writers. MTI’s core business is issuing licenses, scripts, musical materials and dynamic theatrical resources to schools as well as amateur and professional theatres across the globe.
- With over 400 classic and contemporary show titles from Broadway, off-Broadway, and London’s West End, MTI shows have been performed by more than 100,000 theatrical organizations in the U.S. and in more than 150 countries.
- MTI is a strong proponent of educational theatre. In 1996 (after a two-year developmental incubation period) then MTI Chairman and CEO Freddie Gershon launched “MTI’s Broadway Junior musicals” - 30 and 60-minute shows for younger performers. In 2012 he was awarded a Tony Honor for conceiving and creating this revolutionary program. During the past twenty-one years over 5,000,000 students and over 500,000 educators have been involved in at least one of the close to 200,000 global productions of a Broadway Junior musical.
- MTI maintains its worldwide headquarters in New York (mtishows.com), with additional offices in London (MTI Europe: mtishows.co.uk, mtishows.eu), and Melbourne (MTI Australasia: mtishows.com.au).
- In addition to all of her other accomplishment, one of Dana Alvarez’s most exciting life experiences was competing and winning on “Wheel of Fortune” in 2020!
To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.
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