Jayne Gottlieb serious about children’s theater
November 15, 2007
BASALT ” Jayne Gottlieb confesses that she had her Peter Pan in tears the other night. It’s been tech week for the Jayne Gottlieb Productions version of “Peter Pan,” which means after-school rehearsal every day, from 4-8 p.m., for her young troupe. Gottlieb is aiming for something beyond a school play: There are costumes and sets and multiple run-throughs of scenes; for “Peter Pan,” which plays this weekend at the Basalt Middle School, there is even a Las Vegas company hired to handle the onstage flying. And on occasion, that can even mean tears.
“She’s scared. It’s a humongous role. It’s overwhelming,” said Gottlieb of Rosie Mertz, an 11-year-old who plays the boy who refuses to grow up. “But she’s going to be amazing.”
Gottlieb is unabashed about how she works her performers, who range in age from 5 to 16. Her productions ” to date, all musicals ” typically require nine weeks of preparation, with two rehearsals a week, followed by a grueling tech week, during which participants are advised to talk to their schoolteachers about the extracurricular load. (The summer schedule is different, with three weeks of daily rehearsals.)
But Gottlieb is hardly the crusty old taskmaster, receiving pleasure in seeing how far she can push her kids. For one thing, she asks even more from herself: Since founding Jayne Gottlieb Productions, with her business partner Adam Bartley, in summer 2005, she has presented a stunning nine shows, with two more to come. Following “Peter Pan,” which features mostly kids ages 5-10, she will stage “Singin’ in the Rain,” for the 10- to 16-year-old age group. “Singin’ in the Rain” runs from Nov. 30-Dec. 9, with performances in Basalt and, in the company’s Aspen debut, at the Wheeler Opera House. This past summer, Gottlieb worked with some 120 kids, split into two age groups: the younger ones in an “Annie” that featured 65 orphans; the older ones in “West Side Story.” Because of the number of actors, “Singin’ in the Rain” has a double cast, requiring more of Gottlieb’s time.
For another, Gottlieb is 28 ” young enough to remember her own experiences as a child performer. As a kid, growing up in the Marin County town of Kentfield, north of San Francisco, Gottlieb devoted herself to theater. From third grade through high school, she appeared in productions staged by Marilyn Izdebski. She played Val in “A Chorus Line,” Ado Annie in “Oklahoma” and Marty in “Grease.” It was three shows a year, executed at a professional level. And the children were expected to act like professionals.
“We worked our little buns off,” said Gottlieb, a Basalt resident with bright green eyes and an upbeat personality. “I certainly gained an appreciation for how hard [Marilyn] worked all those years.”
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Gottlieb draws on her memories to know when to ease back on the throttle. “Marilyn really pushed us,” she said. “I remember at times thinking, ‘Oh God, we have to do this It is tedious; going through a tech rehearsal is incredibly tedious.
“I think my gift is in really, absolutely loving the kids. Being at that line of loving them while I push them. And knowing that they’re going to be great.”
Even more than an understanding of how difficult the work can be, Gottlieb brings her memories, both distant and recent, of the rewards of that effort. If she is a believer in pushing hard, she is fanatical about looking back and savoring the fruits of the labor. And, especially with child actors, Gottlieb thinks that lessons learned onstage can be carried offstage, and on into their futures.
“Going through that process is worthwhile, really worth it,” she said. “To work hard for something, and give up other things, and then to have everyone else come up and tell you how good it was ” it’s a great feeling for a kid, to have everyone tell you you’re doing great.”
If the children ” and, more important, their parents ” have any doubts about Gottlieb’s approach, they are not borne out in the numbers. For the first production, “The Jungle Book,” there were 20 participants. Just two years later, Gottlieb had to break down the troupe into age groups to handle the 120 kids who enrolled. The current season features 100 kids, split into two productions. It meant more work than Gottlieb imagined, but she happily takes it on.
“In response to the really incredible, crazy response this summer, I thought holy smokes, I better do two shows,” she said. “Because I didn’t want to turn anybody away. I figure if they’re brave enough to audition, they should be in a show.”
Gottlieb has some devoted allies. One is her music director, Corey Simpson, who makes a nearly orchestral recording of the score for the children to perform to. Another is her partner, Adam Bartley, an acting coach who comes from his home in Los Angeles as each show gets cranking up. (Bartley demonstrated his onstage skills in Aspen when he had a featured role in Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “Pippin” two years ago.)
Also playing a major behind-the-scenes role is Jacqui Gottlieb, Jayne’s mother, who dutifully trots out from California to help put the finishing screws on each show. “The kids know it’s time to get serious when Jacqui comes to town,” said Gottlieb. “They know she comes for tech week, so they know when she gets here, we’ve got a show to put on.
“She’s my jack-of-all-trades ” tickets, costume ironing, answers a lot of parents’ questions. She’s like another me. And she knows a lot about it, because she was a backstage mom when I was involved.”
Gottlieb also counts among her supporters the community of parents. “I have a ton of parent support, which is obviously crucial to what I do,” she said. Equally critical are the veteran kids, those who have been through it five or more time with Gottlieb, and know the rainbow awaits them once the storm clears.
“What’s nice now is, the kids who have done quite a few shows, they know what a sense of accomplishment it is when we get to showtime,” she said. “So they lead the new kids: The harder we work, the more fun you’ll have, the better the payoff. And the prouder you’re going to be. We build them up a lot, and we expect a lot.”
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Gottlieb’s first gig in Aspen was performing for adults, not directing children. After graduating in 2001 with a B.A. in performing arts from the University of Virginia, where she also swam competitively, she headed straight to Aspen. Destination: the cast of the Crystal Palace dinner theater, whose show she had attended on previous trips. Her self-critique is that she was not a great singer, but a strong dancer with “great stage presence. A really great character actress.”
Thanks to her early experience, however, her heart was set on the kids. In 2005, she and Bartley, who had been a fellow cast member at the Crystal Palace, formed Jayne Gottlieb Productions. The company started out relatively slow, but the growth has been explosive. “When kids see the shows, they really want to be in them,” said Gottlieb. “It looks like fun.”
Gottlieb got her start working with local children over three summers as the education director for Theatre Aspen (known then as Aspen Theatre in the Park). The productions in that program were done without costumes; Gottlieb refers to it as “just a fun camp.” Again, reaching back to her own experience, she wanted a higher level of ambition.
“My hands were tied about how big I wanted to make these shows. And I wanted it to be a year-round thing,” she said. “So I just went for it. I knew how much I gained from it as a kid. You learn such confidence and leadership and cooperation, big time. I felt there was no reason not to have professional shows in this great valley.”
Jayne Gottlieb Productions has staged “42nd Street,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Grease” and “Crazy For You,” with “A Chorus Line” already slated for the older kids for next summer. A highlight was the production of “The Wizard of Oz” staged outdoors in Basalt’s Arbaney Park. “That’s the show that everybody saw and went, ‘Wow.’ Because it was a whole new thing,” said Gottlieb.
Looking ahead, Gottlieb sees an adult performance, presented as a fundraiser for her scholarship program, and hopefully a performance space in Basalt, possibly at Willits. Gottlieb, who still works at the Crystal Palace, though as a wine steward ” she has passed her first-level certification as a sommelier ” is also looking to get back onstage. She is waiting for Aspen Community Theatre to come up with just the right role for her, maybe something that will spotlight her tap-dancing abilities.
And, of course, there are a lot more kids’ productions ahead. Gottlieb doesn’t see herself burning out on that anytime soon.
“I can’t wait to have kids,” she said. “I have a hundred kids of my own. That’s the way I feel. Especially for the older ones, I’m starting to become a mentor big sister. That’s great. I’m close to them.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org