When you hear the phrase “world premiere,” you probably think about new works being presented for the first time on Broadway or at major regional companies. For many shows, there’s a second premiere of sorts that happens afterward as licensing companies ready the work for the educational market.
Licensing companies like Music Theatre International, Disney Theatrical, and Theatrical Rights Worldwide partner with schools to present “pilot” productions, providing a valuable test of how schools can tackle works that have often only been seen previously on Broadway or a national tour.
To find out what the show piloting journey is like, we talked to four groundbreaking educational theatremakers who lead programs at high schools across the country about their experiences piloting such shows as Bright Star, Matilda, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
For most, the piloting experience began with personal relationships forged with licensing companies. Jennifer Hemme, theatre teacher at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada, met members of the Music Theatre International team at a conference nearly 20 years ago. When Hemme saved the day following a technical mishap during a workshop, a relationship was forged.
“I love theatre technology and technology in general, so I ended up piloting what would eventually come to be called orchEXTRA with my production of Annie,” shared Hemme about her first piloting experience working with MTI’s electronic orchestral augmentation system. This relationship led to Green Valley being selected to pilot productions of Matilda, Mamma Mia!, Legally Blonde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to name a few.
For others, like Tara Whitman from West Orange High School in Winter Garden, Florida, the piloting experience came from a desire to do a specific show. Whitman fell in love with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s bluegrass musical Bright Star after seeing the show’s final Broadway performance.
“I felt like the show should have lasted longer on Broadway,” shared Whitman of her affinity for the work. “I feel like it’s a show more people need to know and more people need to see.” But Whitman also felt like Bright Star could speak specifically to her school’s community. “Winter Garden has an old soul. It’s the southern part of Orlando, so the bluegrass music had a huge appeal.”
Whitman contacted Jim Hoare at Theatrical Rights Worldwide after learning they’d be issuing stock and amateur licenses. Hoare became an advocate for West Orange being the first school to do Bright Star after learning about Whitman, her program, and her reasons for wanting to do the show.
When it came to actually working on these productions, all the teachers we talked to had lots to say about the incredible experience it gave their students. For Holly Stanfield of Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the best part of the piloting experience was the voice it gave her students.
“I find that students really want to have a voice in the culture that they live in,” reflected Stanfield. “When you pilot, [the students] have a voice in it as well, because how they feel, how it plays on them, and how it works in front of an audience all become so important.”
With new shows often still undergoing active revision, these inaugural productions can also directly result in changes made to the final version of the script and score. Samuel French, which doesn’t call initial productions of their shows “pilots” but asks early licensors of newer works to provide feedback, chose J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, to present the first high school production of Heathers in 2016. Pierce Theatre Teacher Heather Biddle remembers a change she made during the 11th hour of technical rehearsals go on to become a permanent part of the show.
“There was a part that called for a full set change into Veronica’s house [following an emotional scene], and it just killed the moment,” recalled Biddle. “I thought, ‘let’s just roll out the cafeteria tables and do the lunch time poll [which had been cut from the High School Edition of Heathers].’ Kevin [Murphy, Heathers co-writer] came to see our first show the next day and after he saw the new transition he said, ‘Yes, that’s brilliant. Why wasn’t that in this to begin with?’”
Heathers writers Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe also ended up liking a song written for the High School Edition—“You’re Welcome,” which replaces the original show’s “Blue”—so much that they made the same change to the original version of the show.
“We have always tried to explore material that maybe not every school has done, but there’s a challenge of doing a new or unknown title of not being able to recoup the costs,” shared Whitman on the biggest difference between piloting a new work versus producing a stalwart with lots of name recognition like Oklahoma! or Grease.
There’s also the challenge that in a pilot production, students may be only the second or third actor to ever play their role, which leaves them forging new territory.
“There wasn’t a lot of material for them to look to and base their character work off of,” shared Whitman of her Bright Star experience. “That could be seen as a negative, but I think it was such a positive because as high school actors they were challenged to do their work and character development on their own in a way that they aren’t necessarily with older shows.”
After the production closes, the piloting experience isn’t fully over. The licensing companies typically send schools a questionnaire that helps them get a handle on the highs and lows of producing the show.
“Disney has us fill out a questionnaire,” says Stanfield, who has piloted productions of High School Musical, Camp Rock, The Little Mermaid, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “We discuss some of the technical challenges, and some of the cultural challenges that are a part of the piece so that they can take our feedback. They also want to know how we approach the rehearsal process and if we’re using specific games or exercises to help the students find the story.”
This also allows pilot schools to form the beginning of a community for other schools looking to tackle these shows. Pilot schools become instrumental in showing that high schools are capable of handling the technical challenges of a show like Mary Poppins or Shrek, or even of adapting the ensemble size of a relatively-small show like Bright Star for a large high school cast.
Ultimately, pilot productions result in a lot of good for both licensing companies and schools. Licensing companies get lots of good feedback that better equip them to help future schools looking to produce these works. Schools get to be among the first to produce exciting new titles, all while offering students an experience that challenges and enriches them in ways they’re sure to remember long after the production has ended.
Logan Culwell-Block is a musical theatre historian and Playbill's Director of PLAYBILLder Operations and Community Engagement. @loganculwell