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The show goes on for Children's Musical Theaterworks
In 1996, when Joel Abels was faced with the question about what to do in Fresno, he created something new. Abels' daughter wanted to become involved in musical theater outside of school performances, but there weren't many options available. Abels, a teacher at Hamilton K-8th Magnet School, formed a musical theater company called Children's Musical Theaterworks (CMT) in response to this challenge.
Now after ten years as the organization's artistic director, board president, and prop maker (among other duties) Abels will be moving on. Bit by bit, Abels will step down from his duties with CMT over the course of the next few months. It's an important transition to note, because the history of CMT is intertwined with the growth of Fresno, both economically and culturally.
Back in 1996, children interested in theater had two options: Good Company Players and its affiliated Junior Company, and Fresno Children's Playhouse. The problem was that not every child got a chance to participate—they had to audition for a limited number of roles. That wasn't necessarily a good first exposure to theater for children in Abels' view.
So Abels took over Fresno Children's Playhouse, and recast it in the mold of the much lauded href="http://www.cmtsj.org/">Children's Musical Theater San Jose (which Abels participated in as a youth) where all who audition are cast in the production. Ten years on, over 2,000 Valley children have had a chance to perform as a part of CMT. Given its success in educating youth about the arts, why is Abels moving on?
Abels said he started pondering the difficult decision after a transformation took place about a year ago.
"After I got to the end of 'Side Show,' I was exhausted," he said. "I was so exhausted, I got sick. I missed a performance, and I had not missed an evening performance before," Abels recalled.
Abels said his condition caused him to re-evaluate how and what he did in life. With a doctor's guidance, he lost 130 pounds over the course of the ensuing months—without resorting to surgery, either. It wasn't just a physical transformation that occurred—his perspective on life changed, too.
"I was at a point personally and professionally where I felt a need to pursue another passion," Abels said. The passion: to make a career, a living, onstage.
Abels tried out for some productions on the East Coast to see how this move might pan out. Abels felt good about his auditions, and indeed was offered some roles. He also realized he couldn't run a production from the road. At that point, he decided to make a gradual exit from the stage he has held for so long. (Abels is also on leave from his teaching position at Roosevelt).
Abels will serve in an advisory capacity after this summer's productions. "I'll still guide artistic direction," Abels noted, but he will increasingly focus on pursuing roles. In the fall, Abels will be performing as Luther Billis in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" and he'll stay in Fresno to do technical directing for "Seussical," which CMT will do in 2007. After that, Abels intends to spend a lot of time auditioning for roles on the West Coast.
Abels proudly says he's achieved most of his goals for CMT. Children have gotten a taste of theater, and CMT has started to develop an audience for its productions.
"What hasn't been done is to place our productions in a prime location," he said. Memorial Auditorium, where CMT's performances are staged, has been sufficient, but the lighting and sound technology is "ancient" he says. If CMT is to continue to grow in stature, those limitations will need to be addressed, he believes.
Also, CMT itself could continue as an all volunteer organization, but it may need to follow in the footsteps of Children's Musical Theater San Jose, and hire full-time personnel in order to continue its mission to provide musical theater training. In any case, getting funding is a priority. That means finding grants, corporate sponsors, and generous individual donors.
Finding money won't be easy; like any arts organization, funding is an ongoing challenge. It appears from various initiatives (such as the Fresno Creative Economy Council) that citizens are serious about revitalizing Fresno's downtown and boosting its desirability as a place to live and work; hopefully, supporting groups like Children's Musical Theaterworks will become an important part of those efforts. However, there's a chance that CMT disappears after Abels leaves if enough support isn't forthcoming, and that seems to make Abels a bit nervous.
It will be hard to leave CMT, Abels admits, but he believes the organization will be able to grow in new directions under the guidance of a new artistic director, adding, "A lot of people in the community that want to see this continue."
Will it be hard to let go? Yep. But, "You have to let it [CMT] go out in the world and see what happens," Abels muses.
That's just how you let a child grow up, isn't it?