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Entering college, Kari Collins was certain she would study acting. A course on directing quickly changed that, and she’s now helping North Branford and East Haven teens find their ideal spot on the stage. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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For six years, Kari Collins has been directing young North Branford and East Haven performers for the East Haven Arts Commission (EHAC). The effect is similar to how the two towns partner up for a combined marching band—it’s all about getting bigger and bigger performances.
Last month, EHAC put on its rendition of Bye Bye Birdie with a cast of 10- to 18 year-olds with Kari in the director’s chair.
“The opening night, sometimes they get a little nervous, but it went splendidly well,” Kari says.
This year’s play is a bit of a throwback.
“I, personally, have always wanted to do this show,” Kari says. “It’s a classic. It’s part of the golden age of musicals.”
Often, EHAC puts on more modern shows. In recent years, it has staged High School Musical 2, Camp Rock, and Suessical. Kari says, it’s easier for kids to get into a musical that’s set in the modern day.
“I think it’s important for the kids to have that background…to understand where it came from and how theater got to be where it is today,” Kari says.
“To have these kids that were born in the 2000s do a show about the 1950s…was fun, too,” she says. “It was fun exploring a completely different time period in every way.”
Still, Kari says the kids were able to relate well to the show. In one scene, for instance, the characters gossip on their rotary phones. Save the technology, it’s not much difference from life today.
“Even though the references may not make sense to them…they can still connect to it,” she says.
Kari has been involved with theater since she was in high school. Her interest took her to the University of Massachusetts where she majored in theater. But when she was growing up, there were no theater options for kids in the summer. That’s why she came back to help out.
“It’s really important to me and Cindy [Genzano] and everyone to have something in this area, especially that is high quality and affordable for kids over here,” Kari says.
While she was at UMASS, Kari’s love of directing was born.
“When I went into college as a theater major, I was team acting all the way,” she says. “I took one directing class and I absolutely loved it.”
To earn her degree, Kari had to take classes on every part of theater from sewing to lighting techniques. All of it goes into directing.
“I just like being able to have a hand in every aspect of the process,” she says. “When you’re an actor, you can only really manage your part. Directing, you get to be a part of every single part of it.”
She brought home other lessons about theater that she brings to the group of mostly North Branford and East Haven kids who attend the theater program.
“The phrase is: Go bigger. I want to be able to tell you to pull it back,” Kari says.
At school, Kari directed student productions and was the assistant director for a few grad school performances, but directing teens and pre-teens at EHAC is a different challenge.
“To do theater, you have to be big and huge and not be afraid of getting embarrassed, so you have to pull [the kids] out of their shell,” Kari says. “That’s always rewarding.”
Directing plays is as much about all the technical aspects of theater production like lighting and set design as it is helping the kids to gain confidence and give their best performance possible.
“It’s about creating a space that’s safe…where they’re all going to be supportive of one another,” she says.
Rehearsals often include games to energize and focus the kids and also to help them get to know each other. This coming year, Kari will be bringing her expertise with directing to East Haven schools.
This past school year was Kari’s first as an English teacher at East Haven High School and next year will be her first directing Joseph Melillo Middle School’s musical.
“I really do like working with kids,” she says. “[But] high schoolers are not the easiest to enthuse.”
Kari thinks that her background and enthusiasm with theater helps her to connect with kids and get them to be enthusiastic about reading and writing. Theater, Kari says, can teach people important lessons.
“It means so much to me and it id so much for me and my life…and my confidence,” she says. “To be able to help them grow that, too, is wonderful.”
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