Before Jennifer Lopez’s fans laid claim to this three-letter combo, it was the acronym for the unique youth theater group I participated in from 1970 to 1975, playing a role either backstage or, later, onstage in over twenty musicals, comedies, dramas and children’s theater. During the years I was a member of ‘Junior Light Opera’, it was a group of some seventy youth, ages five to twenty and just two facilitating adults — my speech and stagecraft teacher Michael and a school orchestra teacher named Sue. Michael played a pivotal role in funding the enterprise, picking the plays, pulling the key team members (producer, director, etc.) for each play. Sue, our musical director, would recruit and rehearse a full youth orchestra of maybe twenty kids from her various orchestra classes.
Given that, the bulk of the responsibility was distributed to their company of talented youth. Unlike any other youth theater group I have seen where all the key jobs — director, producer, lighting and set design, costumer, choreographer — are performed by adults, a typical JLO musical had teenage youth in these critical roles. For example, we did the musical ‘Oliver’ with a seventeen-year-old director, a thirteen-year-old choreographer, an eighteen-year-old costume designer, and me, age sixteen, designing the set and lights and wearing the hat of the overall producer. My three hats included: Coming up with a design for the set, documenting it on paper with renderings and construction diagrams, for final approval by the director and Michael; Supervising the building of the set by a crew of maybe six other high school kids in Michael’s latest stagecraft class; designing, hanging and positioning the lights, then designing and documenting all the lighting cues in collaboration with the seventeen-year-old director and thirteen-year-old choreographer; as producer, co-managing the play’s budget with Michael and managing the logistics for six days a week of rehearsals, so the director could focus on working with the actors; making sure the costume designer got approval of their designs from the director and the props and costumes were being acquired or built on time by the prop and costume crews (also mainly youth with a few parents chipping in their time and sewing machines); and working with the graphic-artist (age sixteen like me) to design and compile the content for the program The above was mostly all done five afternoons a week after school plus Saturday afternoons and an occasional Sunday as well.
After six hours of regular school our ‘work day’ began in the theater wing of my high school where the company was based. My homework in my regular classes suffered. I was taking an advanced placement math analysis class, featuring lots of proofs and number theory which I enjoyed, but by the second semester I was struggling to keep up with this very challenging class, where things you learned one week were building blocks for things you wrestled with the next. Though some of the youth members of our company were true prodigies in their particular crafts, most of us learned by trial and error as we went along, and we had our share of ugly sets, poor direction, sophomoric choreography, squeaking clarinets, and so-so productions. But we damn near did it all ourselves, with Michael and Sue taking over tasks here and there, but generally cheerleading all us youth types or even reading us the riot act when time was running short and one or more aspects fo the production were not coming together as needed.
Our troupe was also a soap opera of on-and-off romances straight and gay, occasional rumors or allegations about sex or drug use in the balcony, and some definite marijuana smoked at cast parties (not by me but I saw and smelled it). We navigated through all this sturm and drang united by the principle that the show must go on. Though happy to collaborate with and befriend my comrades, I generally steered clear of the drugs and the romances, but it did force me to develop a social sophistication. Another aspect of the group’s logistics I took on, was providing dinner during evening rehearsals. In any given production we had 20 to 60 youth who needed to eat, and it was easier for most kids to bring a few bucks to buy food rather than to bring food themselves. So I took the lead in a number of the productions organizing the run, generally to Mcdonald’s, for food. The challenge was to keep the whole thing as simple as possible and under control. So I set up a system where I took orders from people and calculated in my head how much there order would cost. Then they would pay me for their order, but I gave no change. Not trying to give change, and keeping that extra bit from everybody kept the process simple and provided a bit of extra money for kids who might have not brought any money for dinner.
Looking back, there is nothing I did in school that was nearly as significant to my development as my experience in this unique theater group. In school I learned mostly about things and how to work on my own, whereas in my theater group I learned how to get things done working with others. Much of the project type work I do today depends on skills first learned in my theater group.