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Tue11242020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Every year, the McCallum Theatre showcases local performers via its Open Call Talent Project—but the series of April shows, like so many other events, was a casualty of the coronavirus epidemic.

However, the show must go on—so Open Call 2020 has moved from the stage to the screen: At 6:30 p.m., Saturday, July 18, KESQ Channel 3 will air a special half-hour video, produced by the McCallum and hosted by Patrick Evans, showcasing the Open Call finalists. The video was filmed in the desert adjacent to The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.

Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, the vice president of education at the McCallum, explained how Open Call normally works, during a recent phone interview.

“It’s a competition where people submit, and then we have callbacks; then we get to about 18 to 20 finalists,” Thuresson-Frary said. “The whole thing is a learning process, but there’s also an added competition element. What we always do with our cast is have all of them participate in a big finale number that is inspired by the finalists every year. A big part of the rehearsals for the show is practicing that finale number. That’s a big learning experience, too, because if you’re a vocalist, you’ll get to dance; if you’re a dancer, you’ll get to sing; and if you’re a musician, you’ll get to do both: Every cast member participates in a choreographed experience. It’s created to be an inspiration for the audience members, who hopefully go home and begin some risk-taking of their own.”

Thuresson-Frary said the McCallum announced this year’s Open Call finalists shortly before the theater shut down in March.

“Had it not been for us already announcing our finalists, we probably wouldn’t have done anything this year,” she said. “We had a few cast members this year who have tried out for several years and finally made it, and I really wanted to figure out a way that we could continue to do the show. We also already had the finale number written.

“We started trying to figure out how to do it this year and thought that we couldn’t really include the competition element. We have several large groups and dance companies, and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to practice anywhere. We have a pretty high standard for the McCallum Theatre’s Open Call project, so if we were to put anything out there that wasn’t at a certain level, it wouldn’t feel like a good alternative. We also were looking at how to perform the finale number—while following the (social-distancing) mandates. We really wanted to try to do something a lot more exciting than all the videos that have been appearing of people that are stuck at home.”

Thuresson-Frary and her team started the process by having the finalists record themselves.

“We met with everyone over Zoom and gave them the music and their parts,” she said. “They worked back and forth with Paul (Cracchiolo), our music director, and worked out a good-quality product to send in. While we were doing this, mandates started to be lifted, and we eventually arrived at a time where we felt it was safe to record a good-quality video that we would feel comfortable putting the McCallum name on. We collaborated with Tracker Studios’ Doug VanSant, and A. Wolf Mearns, who are also musicians. All of us brainstormed a way to complete this project in a way that is safe and good-quality.”

Filming inside the McCallum wasn’t an option; Thuresson-Frary and her team wanted a safe, outside location where mask-wearing and social distancing could take place.

“That’s where The Living Desert came into play,” she said. “We wanted to have a wild desert feel, especially under the circumstances, to be able to pay tribute to Mother Nature and the conditions we live in. We reached out to Judy Esterbrook, who is the sales manager of The Living Desert, and she just so happened to be at Open Call last year and was fully on board for helping us out. They were generous enough to let us use the wild desert area behind their zoo and gardens and provided us with shuttle service that transported our artists individually. There were a lot of logistics to work out, and The Living Desert was very generous and became a very lovely partner. That was the same week that the zoo was allowed to re-open, so everything worked out.”

After she saw the first video cut, Thuresson-Frary said she knew they had made something special.

“It’s now been a month of post-production and a lot of back and forth between Tracker Studios and us,” Thuresson-Frary said. “I didn’t really want to reach out to KESQ (too early), because there were so many variables that could’ve easily put a stop to this project at any point in time. Once I felt confident that we had something that was Open Call-quality, I called over to KESQ and asked for them to partner with us. We feel we have something really special that the community will enjoy. I naively thought that they had a little program that they could stick our (seven-minute) music video into, but they actually asked us to provide them with a whole half-hour. That’s mainly what we’ve been working on, and we’re almost ready to hand it over.”

However, transforming a seven-minute video into a half-hour show was not necessarily easy.

“We were able to already film our usual artist vignettes, so we decided to include those,” she said. “… Each performer will be introduced and have their vignette aired. We also had an intern, an aspiring filmmaker, who created a behind-the-scenes movie for us. I thought that many people wouldn’t believe that all of these performers were in the same place at the same time, so he has some behind-the-scenes footage. The music video is the ending of the 30 minutes.”

While Thuresson-Frary said she’s disappointed that the Open Call shows had to be cancelled, she’s proud that the video will give the talented performers their moment in the spotlight.

“We usually sell out our Open Call series, and we put on four shows, so I know there are a lot of people who really love this project,” Thuresson-Frary said. “There are some people who only come to the McCallum Theatre for our show. This music video can be a testament to the kind of work that we’re able to do for the community, as we’ve been doing Open Call for about 20 years now. … It’s designed to showcase all of the art this valley has to offer. All of these artists didn’t really get to work together, but we’re hoping that this will provide them a sense of community across this divide of distancing.”

For more information, visit www.mccallumtheatre.com/index.php/education/open-call.

Published in Local Fun

Meet Chris Hoggatt. He’s a 20-year-old student at the College of the Desert and a graduate of Palm Desert High School who works at the Yard House.

Oh, and one more thing about Hoggatt: He’s a hip-hop dancer.

Hoggatt will be making his big-stage debut alongside 21 other individuals and groups this week as part of Open Call, the McCallum Theatre’s annual talent project. This is the 15th year for Open Call, which is part of the McCallum’s education and outreach program.

Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, the director of education at the McCallum, has been a part of Open Call since the beginning. She says that Open Call started as part of an effort by the McCallum to live up to a then-new slogan—“It’s your theatre”—as the organization emerged from tough times in the late 1990s.

“It’s an effort to closely work with the local community to create a community event,” she says.

Here’s how it works: In the fall, non-professional members of the community (within 45 miles of the theater) who are least 8 years old are invited to send in a CD or DVD of themselves performing—dancing, singing or doing anything else that would work on a stage. The McCallum folks call in the performers with the most talent and/or potential for in-person auditions. The judges then select the finalists, who must commit to six straight days of mandatory rehearsals under the direction of professionals, as well as four open-to-the-public shows over three days at the McCallum. While there’s no fee to enter the contest, finalists receive a stipend and compete for three prizes: a $2,500 grand prize; a $750 second-place prize; and a $750 audience choice award.

Hoggatt says he’s been dancing all his life, and joined a dance company—he can’t remember the name of it—when he was 8 years old. (The company, interestingly enough, performed at the McCallum, Hoggatt says.) However, Hoggatt then put dance aside for sports, before getting involved in “dance battles” while he was in middle school. In high school, he performed at assemblies as part of Palm Desert High’s Hip-Hop Club (yes, the school really does have a Hip-Hop Club), and performed at the COD Live show last spring.

It was the College of the Desert show and an increasing interest in theater, he says, that led him to take dancing more seriously, and to look at it as a possible profession. That’s why he decided to send in an audition DVD for Open Call last fall.

“It was a real chance to test myself and challenge myself,” he says.

This is actually Hoggatt’s second brush with Open Call fame. He says he sent in a video during his freshman year of high school, and was asked to come in for a live audition—but got sick and could not go.

So why did he wait five years to try out again? He says he lost confidence in his abilities; he started watching shows like America’s Best Dance Crew, and thought: “I can’t do what these guys do.”

“I was sitting there, and I didn’t know if I wanted to try out again,” Hoggatt says.

Hoggatt says the Open Call experience has been rewarding—especially the chance to work with choreographer Jennifer Backhaus, the founder of Orange County’s Backhausdance contemporary dance company. He says Backhaus has been very helpful in pointing him toward studios and other ways to help him go beyond his current, largely self-taught dance methods.

Joana CiurashAnother finalist, opera singer Joana Ciurash, 50—who, by day, is an associate professor of chemistry at College of the Desert—took a different path to Open Call. She was born in Romania and came to the United States 27 years ago. Her mother was an opera singer.

“I was never interested in singing,” Ciurash says. Instead, she was interested in dancing, and wanted to become a ballerina.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t good,” she laughs.

Around the age of 40, she started singing in church choirs, and while she earned her master’s degree at Cal State Northridge, she took an opera workshop—not for singing purposes, but to help her overcome her fear of speaking in front of a crowd.

When she got her job at College of the Desert about seven years ago, she took an opera class there, and kept getting the lead singing role in the class productions. (Look for videos of her singing in La Boheme on YouTube.)

It turns out she inherited some talent from her mother.

“My mom came to a performance, and she was shocked,” Ciurash says.

Those opera-class shows (sadly, Ciurash says, the class was a casualty of budget cuts) were followed by several other performances—she sang at a benefit concert a colleague organized following the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake, and she performed at her own recital at COD.

She credits her friends for nudging her into trying out for Open Call.

“Many of my friends, they want to hear me sing again, and want me to take any opportunity to get exposed more,” she says. “I thought it was a good opportunity to send in my tape.”

At the Open Call, each of the performers/groups does an individual number; then, for the finale, all of the performers come together onstage—where everyone sings, and everyone dances, regardless of whether one is a singer, a dancer, a ventriloquist or something else.

Both Hoggatt and Ciurash cited the finale as one of the biggest challenges.

“An opera singer usually just (stands) on the stage,” Ciurash says. “I mean, they do acting … but they don’t dance. And for me, all the moves I have to do (in the finale) … oh my gosh. I told them to put me in the back.”

The Open Call shows take place at 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday, April 18 and 19; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, April 20, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. A limited number of tickets remain; the shows will sell out. Tickets are $7 to $55. For more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Local Fun