SDJT Alum Returns to Compose Original Music for “Gruesome Gallery”

San Diego Junior Theatre’s world premiere production, Edgar Allan Poe’s Gruesome Gallery of Grotesquerie, is based on Poe’s works but was devised from scratch by director Blake McCarty in collaboration with the cast. An original play wouldn’t be quite as original without brand new music to accompany Poe’s dark and moody tales. Cue Morgan Hollingsworth, a Junior Theatre student from 2006 to 2011 who has been working as a performer, musician and composer since his JT days.

While performing was a big part of Morgan’s Junior Theatre experience (favorite JT productions include Into the Woods, Les Miserables and Hairspray), to earn his crew credit, Morgan played violin in the pit of several shows such as Stone Soup, My Son Pinocchio and, arguably, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (“I say arguably because David Siciliano and I went from playing bluegrass instruments off stage to being in full costume with lines and bits, and we even had our photos in the lobby!”). In October, The SpongeBob Musical was Morgan’s first time playing for JT as an adult. Today, voice is Morgan’s primary instrument (“for any vocalist is a musician”), followed by guitar, mandolin and violin/viola. “But hand me any instrument and I can probably figure it out to some extent!”

In recent years, Morgan has worked with McCarty and his theatre company, Blindspot Collective, on a number of projects. He also shares that outgoing Junior Theatre Artistic Director, Desha Crownover has been a mentor of his, both during his time at Junior Theatre and ever since. Both of them had heard of his various musical projects. Last September, during a social “catch up,” Crownover suggested he compose original music for JT’s Poe production. She was aware that Hollingsworth had been working on an original musical called The House of Edgar Allan Poe, the first draft of which he had written while still a student at JT! (He recalls that one day, during a student matinee of A Year with Frog & Toad, there had been a power outage and to keep his fellow cast members occupied, he read The Tell-Tale Heart out loud, by flashlight, in the makeup room.)

Morgan had some concern about doing another project with the same subject matter. He had felt fulfilled by the life his own musical had taken on, with a reading in New York followed by a full production at Weber State University. However, he came around to see that the two shows felt like very different explorations of Poe. Morgan’s musical had dealt more with Poe’s life – his struggles, his romances, his depression – and how they all manifested in his work. “Perhaps I saw a lot of myself in his struggles,” he shared. “JT’s production is much more about his work specifically, and how it still affects all of us in the modern day, especially those in the cast. It’s been incredibly special to see this cast be so impacted and inspired by these stories and poems in the same way I was at that age.”

Musically, the scores are also vastly different. “The House of Edgar Allan Poe was more intimate with just piano, some strings and orchestral percussion, while Gruesome Gallery became this large symphonic soundscape. I had already done so much research in regards to Poe’s life and his incredible body of work, even combining pieces of various poems to create lyrics that could progress the plot. From that process, I got to know his work intimately and therefore knew the exact tone that was needed for moments like ‘Annabel Lee’ and ‘The Masque of Red Death.’ To have the freedom of a limitless orchestra allowed me to explore these moments much further than I was able to before.”

When asked how his experience working at Junior Theatre now, as an alumnus, might be different from the production experience he had as a JT student, he shared, “Just by the nature of this being a devised piece, it’s already very different from the shows I experienced as a student. The craziest part about coming back to JT as an alum is seeing how my life has changed and grown since then and all the nostalgia that comes with it. I’ve gone from the wide-eyed and devoted musical theater actor hoping to make it big to instead becoming more intrigued and invested in writing, creating and pushing the boundaries of theater. Through that, I found so much more of myself. And now, here I am helping these students discover parts of themselves as storytellers, just like Desha and many others did for me, and it all seems to have come full circle.”

“As a writer, I will always applaud any company that produces original work! Not many companies are willing to do original work because they’re always riskier and present considerable challenges that you don’t get with existing material. Yet, because of this, they usually become much more personal and collaborative experiences. One of the great things about being part of an original production is that actors don’t have any point of reference. With any existing show, you can usually listen to the cast recording and pull up videos of the Broadway production to see and hear what was done then; but with an original production, the actor gets to explore their character on their own terms. Blake took this even further by making this a devised piece and working directly with the cast to create the script for this show. That means each student was able to bring a piece of themselves to this script and to these characters and stories through journaling, songwriting, improvisation, etc. And now they get to share that experience with their fellow cast mates and the audience. How incredible is that?!  I feel like so many people consider writing to be an isolated art form, which it very well can be, but I feel like some of the greatest work comes from creating with other writers and artists. I don’t know where else this cast would receive this kind of experience.

But back to Morgan! With his new Poe music all set and the show opening this week, he has several new projects to set his sights on. Morgan again will be collaborating with Blake and Blindspot Collective by scoring a movement piece to be featured at La Jolla Playhouse’s upcoming WOW Festival. Before that, he will be performing in his third production of Once up at Laguna Playhouse. And in addition to The House of Edgar Allan Poe, he is working with New Musicals Inc. in North Hollywood as they help him develop two other original musicals, one of which will be a full-length version of a Mother’s Day podcast musical he wrote called Call Your Mother, which is still streaming on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

To experience Morgan’s rich and haunting music for our production of Edgar Allan Poe’s Gruesome Gallery of Grotesquerie, running January 13 to 22, click here and make sure to grab your tickets today!

Announcing “The George E. Oswell Box Office at San Diego Junior Theatre”

George E Oswell Box Office at San DIego Junior Theatre

George Oswell was a two-term member of the SDJT Board of Trustees, dedicated volunteer, alumni parent and annual donor. George ran the Junior Theatre box office as a volunteer starting in the 1970s, long before computerized ticket systems, credit card purchases or the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. He was diagnosed with Polio while serving in the United States Navy during the Korean War and was confined to a wheelchair. He was a single father raising a young daughter who happened to love the theatre. George’s daughter, Mary Oswell found her passion and community at Junior Theatre, and George found a service. He was the box office manager for over a decade. In addition to training students and volunteers in box office procedures, he helped create Junior Theatre’s Student Matinee Program and assisted with computerization of the ticketing system. George continued his involvement in the program as a season subscriber for many years to follow. (“Best seats in the house!” he would say as he pulled into the front row with his wheelchair.) Mary continued in her father’s footsteps, volunteering as the box office manager and serving two terms on the Board of Trustees.

In 2013, George and Mary both were recognized with the prestigious JT Honors Award for their distinguished service to San Diego Junior Theatre. To this day, Mary continues to be one of Junior Theatre’s strongest supporters. Thanks to the generosity of Mary and her husband, Stan Pedzick, and in George’s honor, the JT box office is now The George E. Oswell Box Office at San Diego Junior Theatre.

Spotlight on THE SNOWY DAY Director, Kandace Crystal

Jason Blitman

Kandace Crystal is an SDJT teaching artist and is currently working with Junior Theatre as the director of The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats. She was recently recognized by the Times of San Diego for directing two of San Diego’s top plays of 2021!

Kandace’s experience working with theatre kids goes way back. She believes there is an incredible connection one builds when working with theatre kids that you don’t get anywhere else. She says, “If the deep dive into social and emotional issues in a theatre class helps to transform one child’s experience as they navigate the muck of life, I am happy to be a part of that journey.” One of Kandace’s all-time favorite experiences was teaching a mime class at Nativity Prep, sharing that the kids were such naturals and jumped in feet first. Kandace has been a teaching artist at Imagine Brave Spaces, Blindspot Collective and Trinity Theatre Co., among others. “It’s one of those positions that I keep coming back to because it really keeps me in touch with the human side of this theatre world.”

Kandace began as a JT teaching artist this past summer and shares, “I didn’t know what to expect but the transition was so easy because the kids were awesome, the aides were professional and the environment allowed me to thrive as an artist and educator.” Her highlight from the summer was creating puppets with her students. “Building puppets from scratch allows for character development in a way that we may not have considered before. JT’s partnership with Animal Cracker Conspiracy for the puppetry in The Snowy Day is allowing the actors to explore this different medium.

When asked what drew her to directing, Kandace shared, “Everything in me tried to stay away from directing. But I was drawn to it, as I love putting the elements together in unique ways while helping people see themselves reflected on the stage and in these stories.” Someone in the field whom Kandace admires is Ava DuVernay, as both a storyteller and educator. “Her commitment to uplifting other storytellers is an admirable feat and that is something I hope to do as I continue in my career.”

Kandace shares that a snowy day is the perfect backdrop for what it means to be a kid and directing The Snowy Day is allowing Kandace to explore a beautiful story with a diverse cast. And, of course, there is the chance to work with puppets. “As an actor, I had to work alongside a puppet in the show Fuddy Meers.  Watching the intricacy that goes into building and operating a puppet intrigues me and I am excited for this opportunity to learn along with my actors as we work hard to get this show up and running.”

She believes that working with youth is a fascinating experience; to see the world through the eyes of kids today. Kandace wishes to remain a student to the craft. “Through it all, I hope to be a student at all times, as they help me continue to grow to be the best collaborative and educational director I can be.”

It should be noted that Kandace is not a fan of spare time. She has been working toward becoming a fully certified Intimacy Director/Coordinator, is Co-Chair of San Diego’s Theatre Alliance and just began a new position as San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Community Engagement and Partnerships Manager.

Kandace will be teaching a JT Studio workshop for our winter session: Tips, Tools and Trick for the Pre-Professional Actor. For more information, and to register, follow this link.

The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats opens on January 21 and runs through January 23. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please follow this link.

JT Mark Circled Purple

Junior Theatre Welcomes New Education Director, Elissa Russell!

San Diego Junior Theatre, the nation’s longest-running youth theatre program, welcomes Elissa Russell as its new Education Director.

Elissa comes to SDJT from Theatre Aspen in Colorado, where she held the position of Director of Education Programming and Administration. Elissa has also worked as a teaching artist and administrator at Midland Community Theatre, Austin’s ZACH Theatre and Virginia Repertory Theatre. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin with a specialization in Shakespeare, and formerly reviewed theatre for the Austin Chronicle.

In Elissa’s position at Theatre Aspen, she made active strides in expanding outreach efforts in neighboring communities, placing the utmost urgency on expanding their current programming beyond Aspen to include areas with limited access to arts education.

She says, “It is vital to me to grow my career with a company that prizes equity, diversity, accessibility and creating a generation of future theatre lovers. San Diego Junior Theatre’s commitment to upholding these standards makes me confident that our ideologies are in alignment.”

JT’s Executive Director, James Saba says, “We are very excited to welcome Elissa as Junior Theatre’s new Education Director as we recharge, recalibrate and reimagine in-person educational programming in the Casa del Prado. Elissa is passionate about arts education and its power to transform lives and she will be a wonderful addition to senior staff.”

Spotlight on FROG & TOAD Choreographer, Emily Shackelford

Jason Blitman

Get to know Emily…

Emily Shackelford is a professional actor, teaching artist and San Diego Junior Theatre alum who spent 10 years with JT growing up. After earning her B.F.A. in Theatre from Stephen’s College, Emily went on to perform with many theatre companies in the Midwest, East Coast and New York, including the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, The Coterie Theatre, DC Arena Stage, Baltimore Center Stage, Syracuse Stage and Off-Broadway at The New Victory Theatre. As a teaching artist she has worked with The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Musical Theatre Heritage, KC Starlight Theatre, The Coterie Theatre and, of course, SDJT.

While a student at Junior Theatre, Emily appeared in a whopping 24 productions, including Annie, Peter Pan, Charlotte’s Web, SchoolHouse Rock Live, Once On This Island, Cinderella, Footloose, The Sound of Music, 42nd Street, Seussical, Beauty And The Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, Our Town and The Wiz. When asked about her favorite show, she says, “It’s hard to choose, but I remember especially loving Really Rosie and Zombie Prom.”

On the education side, she remembers loving the workshop classes, many of which were taught by Artistic Director, Desha Crownover. “Each course would focus on a musical or play, and we would put it on its feet by the end of the multi-week session. I was introduced to many amazing shows this way – A Little Night Music, Newsies – before it was the Broadway musical, 42nd Street, Pirates of Penzance, and more.”

Regarding her time at Junior Theatre, and how it impacted Emily as an adult, she says that it gave her confidence and drive. “It taught me lifelong lessons not only about the craft of theatre performance that I carry with me into my professional career, but more essentially, the importance of showing up for one another.”

Emily is excited to now work with Desha, as the choreographer on A Year with Frog and Toad. “I used to choreograph more often in my youth. Throughout that time I had the privilege of working with truly incredible and renowned choreographers, such as Sam Pinkleton, Darrell Moultrie, Lorin Latarro, Richard J. Hinds, Jeff Calhoun, Erika Chong Shuch and Jerry-Jay Cranford, and I hope to incorporate what I have gleaned from my experiences with them. They each were so inspiring to me, with distinct styles and skills for storytelling.”

And Emily is a big fan of this musical! She had the pleasure of performing in a production of Frog & Toad at The Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri a few years ago. Emily played one of the Birds, as well as a Mole, a Squirrel, a Mouse, and the Large and Terrible Frog.

When asked about her goals working on Frog and Toad, Emily shares that she wants to give back to the kids at Junior Theatre today, the joy that she experienced when she was here as a kid. “It was a safe space to learn, feel challenged and develop friendships and community.”

And asked about her experience so far, she enthusiastically responded, “I am so impressed with this cast! These kids are energetic, sharp, hardworking and full of ideas! Which is the best thing for an actor to have.”

Junior Theatre is so excited to have Emily back with us for Frog and Toad’s adventures! Come see her innovative choreography in the show, which opens October 29 and runs until November 14. Tickets on sale now!

Photos below: Emily in Junior Theatre productions of Really RosieOur Town and Annie.

JT Mark Circled Purple