I am a freelance theater and opera director who was an actor before stepping to the other side of the proscenium 20 years ago. I am also the Artistic Director of the 12.14 Foundation where I produce and direct musicals involving both working professionals and the youth of Newtown/Sandy Hook, CT.
I have enjoyed a long collaboration with The York - directing many readings over the past ten years. Those readings led to Jim Morgan asking me to direct the Muftis of Knickerbocker Holiday in 2009 and Big: The Musical last fall, starring John Tartaglia, Kerry Butler and lyricist, Richard Maltby, Jr. himself, stepping in at the last minute as MacMillan.
For the past couple of years Jim Morgan and I have had meetings about the position of Associate Artistic Director which finally came to fruition this past February. I have been longing for an artistic home for many years and am thrilled to join the York's small but mighty team of creative artists.
Can you tell us about your role as Associate Artistic Director?
An Associate Artistic Director's job is to support the Artistic Director and the artistic vision of the theater. Also, to bring in new ideas and connections to performers, designers, directors, etc. My first task was to direct a concert celebrating 100 Musicals in Mufti which took place on March 30th - and was a great success. We had about 42 performers - including many Broadway stars coming back to show their support and love for The York. Miraculously, all 100 Muftis were represented in some way.
The second task was to start a Musical Theatre Training program (MTTP), which will launch this summer, with a three week summer intensive for Junior High School and High School students.
All instructors are working professionals; and by working professionals I mean literally making their livelihood with a career in the Performing Arts. It will be a nurturing program that focuses on acting, singing, and dancing. We have guest artists scheduled to teach master classes including Tony Award nominees: John Tartaglia, Kerry Butler, Danny Burstein, Rebecca Luker, and Richard Kind.
By working with professionals, young performers who are inclined toward a career in the arts see a world of possibilities, while those who simply enjoy the arts get a rewarding and fun atmosphere in which to flap their artistic wings. These classes will offer an environment of collaboration, cooperation, community and confidence building - all things that will help them in their daily interactions - regardless of their chosen career paths. Visit www.yorktheatre.org/mttp for more information.
What sets The York's Musical Theater training Program apart from other such programs?
Any training program rises and falls on the quality of its teachers and we have some wonderful teachers, very active in their performing careers, as instructors in this program. Another thing that sets us apart is that Musical Theater is all that we do here at The York – and we have been producing musicals for 40 years. Given our family of artists and our know-how about putting together new and old musicals, we have a very unique vantage point and skill set to train the next generation of theater artists.
Was there a particular training program that first made you passionate about the theater?
Absolutely. Several! I grew up in Chicago in a family that went to see lots of ballet, symphony, and theater. When I was in the 7th grade, my mother found a local acting class for me - and there was no Internet so they weren’t as easy to find back then! One of the really cool things about this class was that they were also doing a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at The Renaissance Faire in Chicago - I got cast in the role of Puck. I had been playing the violin for eight years but when I stepped into that rehearsal room, I got the bug, put down the bow, and thought to myself, “Why would anyone want to do anything else with their lives?”. I also took acting classes in high school with the fledgeling (at the time) Steppenwolf Theater Company and went on to major in acting at Ithaca college. I was an actor for about a dozen years before starting my directing/teaching career.
I think I can speak well to this because I am a father of thirteen-year-old twins with varied interests. I firmly believe in giving children the opportunity to pursue whatever their passions are. If you can love what you do in life, that's a very special thing - and I do love what I do. So I think it's important to encourage whatever interests kids may have, be it sports, music, film, robotics, cooking, speech and debate, etc… or the performing arts. I would say that if there is any inkling of interest in theater and performance, there is no better way to explore that passion than through a program like this. I think the only advice is pursue what you love.
There are many outgoing kids who do shows at school and are obvious candidates for our program. But there are also those kids that are shy and may be scared to get up and speak in front of their classrooms. This program will be great for them as well. Through the training, exercises and nurturing environment, these less overtly confident kids are going to break out of their shells while the more experienced students will grow their artistry and become empowered as mentors.
Finally, as the new Associate Artistic Director of the York what do you hope to accomplish?
One of the things that you can't help but love about The York is that they are one of very few theaters that re-discover old works and discover new works and new writers in equal measure. However, we, like all theaters, need new audiences. We certainly want to pay attention to the audiences we already have because without them we would not be where we are; but I think, simultaneously, we have to develop an expanding demographic of ticket buyers. I'd love to start a series, similar to Musicals in Mufti, that showcases newer, edgier work. One we can actually tailor fit to cultivate that new audience.
I'd also love to expand the Musical Theatre Training Program to include year-round youth classes as well as classes for professionals. I'd also like to start a children's theater program in which professional actors perform for children coming in from New York City schools. I know how formative seeing theater was for me as a young child; and I see it time and time again in the work that I do in other theaters with thousands of eager young faces coming to see shows for the first time. Many of these programs would not impact the current activities at the York so they are hopefully win/win ideas.
Where can parents or young performers find out more info about this program?
The best way is through the website http://www.yorktheatre.org/mttp. Feel free to call or email me directly if you have any questions about the program and to see if it’s right for your young performer. My number is (212) 935-5824 x220 and my email is [email protected]. You can view our video right here:
Michael Unger is a theatre and opera director whose work has been seen on stages from Los Angeles, to New York, to Yekaterinburg, Russia - and many places in between. In addition to being the Associate Artistic Director of The York Theatre, he is the Artistic Director of the 12.14 Foundation (www.1214foundation.org) which brings high-level performing arts education and programming to the inspiring and resilient community of Newtown, CT. Upcoming credits include Liberty Smith and Lion King, Jr. for the 12.14 Foundation, Time Stands Still for Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre and A Christmas Carol for McCarter Theatre.
Recent directing credits include A Christmas Carol (McCarter Theatre – 17 seasons), Period of Adjustment (Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre and The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival), Two Point Oh (59E59 Theatres - New York Times Critics' Pick), Rigoletto (Opera Idaho), Susannah (St. Petersburg Opera – soon to be available on DVD) and Big: The Musical (York Theatre - Mufti - starring John Tartaglia, Kerry Butler and lyricist, Richard Maltby, Jr.)
World premieres include The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Barrington Stage), Caligula (NYMF – Audience Favorite Award), Retribution (Off Bway - Lambs Theatre) and Haven (University of Judaism). Michael also produced the Richard Rodgers Production Award-winning musical, Whatnot (Musical Theatre Works). Michael has also directed operas at Sarasota Opera, Opera New Jersey, Vertical Player Repertory and the Sverdlovsk Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy in Russia.
At Steppenwolf Theatre, in his hometown of Chicago, Michael assistant directed Buried Child for Gary Sinise (also on Broadway) and A Clockwork Orange for Terry Kinney. Other Broadway assisting credits include Steel Pier, King David and A Christmas Carol. He is married to actress, Janet Metz - favorite production: twins, Phoebe and Nathaniel. www.ungerdirect.com