SMTI Junior Session: Q&A with Elena McKinnis


The 2014 Summer Intensive Theatre Musical program is drawing to a close this weekend with three performances of Godspell performed by the junior class.

And one of the many dedicated young performers you will see onstage is Pulaski Academy 10th grader Elena McKinnis, 15, who hopes to continue her theatrical and dancing career beyond high school.

We had the chance to talk with this longtime ballet dancer about her experience with the summer program, her future goals in dance and how she has improved over the years.

Here is what she had to say:

When did you get started in theatre?  I started in theatre when I was about 11– it was my first year in SMTI. I had gone to see Follie Holidays the year before and I decided to audition the next year.

How has SMTI helped your theatre skills? It has really opened me up a lot. I’ve gained a lot of confidence through this program. When I first started, I was more of a dancer–because I’ve been dancing since I was three– so I’ve seen myself before, but through SMTI, I realized I can sing and I can do a monologue and speak in front of people, so it’s helped me just open up to everything.

There are quite a few students in SMTI. Do you think you will have any lasting friendships from the program? Most definitely! A lot of the people I’ve met through SMTI I probably wouldn’t have met. One of my best friends lives in Cabot and I probably wouldn’t have met her without this program.

You’ve been rehearsing for last few days for the upcoming performances of Godspell this weekend. What role will you be playing?  I’m mainly a part of the ensemble but I’m in a couple of the dance numbers and am one of the lead vocalists in the Godspell song “By My Side.” In the senior session production, I had a lot of dance solos.

What are some other productions people might have seen you in the last few years? I’ve done all the SMTI shows the last five years– Project elan and Singin’ on a Star were the most recent ones. I’ve also done Ballet Arkansas’ Nutcracker down at the Robinson Auditorium and I’ve also participated in the Arkansas Festival Ballet productions.

Do you plan on pursuing theatre or dance beyond high school? I plan on going to college [in California] and trying to make it as a dancer because I’ve been doing it my whole life and it’s just something I want to try and do. I’ve recently been taking a lot of hip hop classes, so I’ve been leaning toward that. Dance is my life– it’s what I do.

Are you excited about this weekend’s production? I am. It’s going to be so much fun! Doing the senior show with all of the older kids and then working with the juniors, it’s been such an amazing experience. It’s been an amazing opportunity for me!

Do you plan on being a part of SMTI throughout high school? I’m going to try to do SMTI throughout high school. Beyond that, I’ve thought about being a choreographer like Marisa Kirby– she’s the choreographer for director Nicole Capri. I’ve thought about doing something like that.

Why should young performers interested in theatre be a part of SMTI? It’s an amazing program. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and really work with a really good director and get that experience.

See her in this weekend’s productions of Godspell, alongside many other talented students! Call the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 to get your tickets for any one of the performances, which are at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, and 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2.

SMTI: Q&A with Instructor Tyler Rosenthal

Tyler Rosenthal

The Summer Musical Theatre Intensive program is still going strong here at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre with dozens of students singing their hearts out and putting their dancing skills to work on a daily basis.

Someone you’ll find behind the keyboard helping students with their vocals is assistant music director Tyler Rosenthal, a SMTI alumni who has been actively involved with The Rep for the last few years.

We had the chance to talk to the senior at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia– who also doubles as a professional photographer (he wears a lot of hats!)– about his theatrical experience, his favorite parts about SMTI and what he hopes student get out of the program.

Here is what he had to say:

When did theatre become a part of your life? I always grew up with my sister going to the theatre. I went to Little Rock Christian High School and she was always involved in the high school productions, so I always went to them and thought, ‘I want to do that someday.’ I started in sixth grade in the high school musical—my first role was in the Sound of Music. And throughout middle school and high school, I was a part of all of the school productions. I did just about every aspect of the shows– I starred in some and casted for a lot of the roles, along with directing, choreographing and helping teach musical parts.

How did you get involved in SMTI? I first auditioned for the SMTI Review the Revue show during my ninth grade year, but I was put on the waitlist. I still wanted to be involved, though, so I ended up doing an internship at the theatre and did the spotlight and helped with sound stuff. After helping backstage with Gridiron later on, they asked me to join Review the Revue— my first SMTI show. I then participated in the next few SMTI shows and then I was asked to perform in the Saints & Sinners event. Anytime Nicole Capri asks back some SMTI alumni, I usually come back and perform.

What are some of your responsibilities as assistant music director? Mark Binns is the music director, so I assist him with whatever he needs help with—from getting everything organized to figuring out what he needs to teach and making sure he meets with all of the students. We will also break off and I’ll take some of the soloists and the trios and work on their parts, teaching them harmonies or vocal techniques. For the actual performances, I am in the band. I play keyboard No. 2, so all of the organ, flute and string sounds are me. I also help cast for the show, so I sit in the auditions where students sing songs from the show and I help match their voice with a good song.

What do you enjoy most about your position? I really like the casting process because I like pairing a specific kind of voice with a particular song, maybe where a student would shine the most. I have one-on-one moments with kids and I love seeing how something clicks in their head, like ‘Oh, I could hit that note.’ That’s fun to see them get something. And, also to see the transformation from day one to the last day when they perform. So many of them have made a complete change– they sound completely different. A lot of these kids come in and aren’t really sure of their talent and then, they get out there and perform in front of all of these people.

What do you hope students are getting out of their experience with SMTI? I hope that they learned a lot about themselves– not just the performer they can be, but also the confidence level they can have and being comfortable in their own skin, especially the SMTI junior session. They’re still in this transition of who they want to be. Some of these kids I performed with were teeny and now they’re huge and their voices are changing. It’s crazy how quick it all happens and so hopefully, they have the confidence in themselves and the ability to relate to other kids their age. There are a huge number of students who pursue performing and I think this is an awesome program to give them special experience in a real equity theatre. There is no other program that really gives you the opportunity to perform on a real stage like this. There is professional lighting, professional sound and a professional band. People who do the actual MainStage shows here are doing this program for them.

Where will we see you after SMTI?  I have one more year of college left and it’ll be a crazy busy year. Hopefully after that, I’ll be back in Little Rock. I could see myself doing photography and communications, but also auditioning for shows when I can. I’m so involved in so many things, but I hope to still be involved in The Rep and SMTI. I still love to be able to have an impact on younger people. I’m excited for the new building [here on Main Street] and the whole educational side. I’m excited to see what opportunities come from that.

Hear some of his piano-playing next weekend’s productions of Godspell, alongside many other talented students! Call the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 to get your tickets for any one of the performances, which are at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 1, and 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2.