Interview: Joey Landwehr, Artistic Director of the J*Company Youth Theatre

by Nancy Bockoven

Joey Landwehr is the Artistic Director for J*Company Youth Theatre, he moved to San Diego after being a professional actor and director in New York City working on and off Broadway, national tours, regional theatre and directing and soloing at Carnegie Hall.
Currently Joey is directing the J*Company Youth Theatre Production of The King and I, running Dec 3rd - Dec 13th, 2009 atthe David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre, San Diego Center for Jewish Culture.

For those unfamiliar with J*Company Youth Theatre, can you give us a little background – when was it established? How many productions do you put together each year? That kind of thing.
This is J*Company Youth Theatre’s 17th Season, our glorious tribute to Rodgers & Hammerstein and the Golden Age of Musical Theatre, and it has most definitely grown to be San Diego’s premiere youth theatre companies. We produce at least four large scale productions each year in the David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre a 500 seat state-of-the-art theater. We attracted the best talent from across all of San Diego County receiving accolades and awards annually for our work in the community and the arts.

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Outside of being youth oriented, what makes J*Company unique? 

J*Company is what I like to call a professional youth theatre. We challenge audiences and young artists alike by pushing the envelope while keeping everything we do youth oriented with things such as the award winning productions of Yours, Anne, Elton John & Tim Rice’s AIDA, and the world premiere of FIREFLIES: The Story of the Artists of Terezin, Featuring the Original Children’s Opera BRUNDIBAR. Teaching our youth annually about Arts Advocacy, conservation through the arts, and how the arts can be used to help charities and those less fortunate through our Artists Taking Action program. In particular, with our current production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King And I, the lead and myself are shaving our heads “Yul Brynner” style, who himself was a cancer victim, to raise awareness and money for kids with cancer. To donate to this worthy cause visit www.lfjcc.org/miracle.

To date, what has been J*Company's most challenging production and why?
Our most challenging production --my standard response would generally be that I like to challenge myself with every production. If my work had no challenges than I would want to stop doing it, but I have the best job in the world. Whether our challenges are volume: 101 young artists in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians; musical: we are the first youth theatre in San Diego to have a 20-piece orchestra in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King And I ;or content: producing a haunting musical production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” called Yours, Anne.  However, if you would like one particular show that was the most challenging it would be our final 2008-2009 production of FIREFLIES: The Story of the Artists of Terezin, Featuring the Original Children’s Opera BRUNDIBAR. I am very proud of this piece because its content of the incredible true story of the strength of young Jewish artists in Terezin, who were put on display by the Nazis during the holocaust as a model concentration camp and ordered to produce and perform this work entitled BRUNDIBAR for the International Red Cross. BRUNDIBAR is a short children’s opera that could and has stood on its own, but FIREFLIES brings the reason for the performance of BRUNDIBAR to the forefront of our minds. It was my brainchild and I orchestrated the connection of the two pieces as well as created the two study guides that when along with the production for two different age groups. It was definitely a labor of love that was quite a challenge.


What have you found to be the biggest difference between working in youth theatre as compared to working in a more traditional adult-oriented theatre? 
I moved here from New York City where I did Broadway, National Tours and Carnegie Hall. Most of my work in NYC was with adults, whether I was performing or directing. After I moved to San Diego and discovered J*Company (now my dream job), I knew my life would never be the same. I love working with both adults and youth and the one thing I always say is that my favorite place to be in the world is in a room with actors. But working with young artists is such a dream because there is an uninhibited abandon, a child-like quality that they bring to the stage. As we get older the world seems to teach us to question ourselves and we get weighed down by lots of baggage and emotional damage. I think that as performers if we could see life through the eyes of a child and stay young at heart all of our performances, whether they be dramatic or comedic, classical or contemporary, straight theatre or musical theatre, would be much fuller and connected to our hearts.

As the Artistic Director, are you involved with all aspects of the play – script selection, costumes, scenery, directing… the whole shebang? 
Every single solitary part! Luckily I have a fantastic support system with Nan Pace, my Managing Director, Chris Plonka, our  Technical Director, the Executive Staff of the SDCJC and Dr. Monica Handler Penner our Executive Producer, coupled with an dedicated Board of Directors and an incredible parent volunteers! Most theatre companies have many more people working for them, but the passion and dedication that these people bring to the plate allows us to do the work of many multiple others. When I studied directing with Anne Bogart, the first lesson she taught was, “Always surround yourself with excellent people” and I am happy to say I have done just that.

Were you involved in youth theatre when you were young? And if so, what was your first role and how old were you?
I grew up in a small rural community in Missouri. I never had the opportunities which our J*Company kids have. I remember performing in gyms, cafeterias and church basements. My life was very similar to the TV show GLEE with a very “Up With People” sort of show choir and the shows I performed were the golden oldies such as Our Town and The Fantastiks. However, I was very lucky with the fact that the year I turned 18, I started being cast in professional productions and by age 19 I had all three of my acting union cards, so my professional career happened quite early on.

How does casting for your productions work? Can anyone audition?
J*Company is a very inclusive professional youth theatre company. I am pleased to say that anyone between the ages of 7 - 18 may audition. Our auditions are announced on our website at www.sdcjc.org/jcompany and we also have pre-audition meetings scheduled, so parents and young actors can find out all that is required for our audition process and rehearsals. The one thing I love to let people know, is that no one should ever be nervous about auditioning for a J*Company show. I think people feel that at auditions the directors want you to do poorly, but that is not the case. A good director is rooting for you and wants you to be the best you can possibly be. I also believe that the audition process should be fun and not stressful. When the joy of live theatre looses its fun, then there is no point in doing it.

What are some of the goals you have for the J* Company Youth Theatre? 
J*Company has grown so much and continues to make leaps and bounds every season. Yes, of course, there are long term goals such as a small black box theater for more experimental works; touring shows; and some more original productions, which can be brought to other regions, but the most important goal is the care and training for our young artists to always be at the highest level and to grow every season.

I read in your bio that you studied under Twila Tharp, Joel Grey and Betty Buckley among many others – is there one person who most inspired you in your dramatic career?
I have been blessed to have the chance to work with some of the most incredible people in the theatre industry: Howard Keel, Kaye Ballard, Kristen Chenowith, Patti LuPone, but the theatre great that I have learned the most from was Betty Buckley. Betty was my acting instructor in NYC for three years and helped me to break out of my shell and to really discover my inner actor.

Outside of becoming the Artistic Director for J*Company, what has been your most fulfilling role, either as an actor or a director, to date? 
Oh my, that is one difficult question. As a performer, I can’t express the joy and fulfillment  I felt when I soloed at Carnegie Hall.  To stand on a classic stage like that, where the likes of Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Joan Sutherland and so many other incredible performers have stood and performed, is incredible and the acoustics are absolutely perfect! As a director, it would have to be the direction of the adaptations of Romeo And Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I adapted from the original Shakespeare text. I taught Shakespeare to third graders (yes third graders) and they loved every moment of it. It amazes me the depth and breadth of incredible young people.

Lastly, do you have any sure-fire cures for stage fright? 
Stage fright? Just remember to breathe.

 
For more information on Joey Landwehr and J*Company Youth Theatre, please visit their website:
 http://sdcjc.lfjcc.org/jc/