Children’s Musical Theater San Jose artistic director Kevin Hauge is a precise gentleman.
In the rehearsal studio, he is having a conversation with a young actress while directing one of the opening scenes of Act II from the musical “Rent.” The show is part of the 2016 summer season, which has a serious summer stock quality to it. Rehearsals are bustling with multitasking – actors on the deck, costumers sizing up performers, and other cast members waiting to go on while discussing the musical sensation “Hamilton.”
While Hauge runs a piece of a scene, he stops the action.
“You can’t walk on that tape,” he informs the actress, referring to the thin, pink spike tape that forms the shape of a box on the studio floor. “That tape is a flat, and if you walk on it, you would run into a wall.”
The girl gives a bit of a quizzical look before moving on and trying it one more time. The second time goes as well as the first, which basically means it didn’t work out – the vision of a wall smacking her in the forehead is still not realized. So a third try is in the future for this young thespian.
While the young lady walks over to give herself another shot at rehearsal greatness, Hauge gives himself a soft, humored chuckle.
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Take a gander inside the office of Hauge (pronounced How – gee, the g being a hard sound as in geek) and you will see an office of intense precision. There are various mementos on the wall in the way of awards, pictures of his own children in various productions throughout the years, and perfectly manicured binders that make a horseshoe shape upon shelves that hug three of his four walls. The binders contain every detail about productions past and future. Productions are not run at CMT more than three times, so a binder containing a show in 1997 still might be used in 2020.
A room temperature bottle of diet coke is never far away, in the office or in the rehearsal room.
The office is a haven for the 58-year-old Hauge. It is where his vision is crafted, meetings are held, artistry is confirmed. He is completing his 20th year as a dean of sorts in the Silicon Valley arts community, presiding over a huge children’s musical theatre company, where 10 musicals are produced each year. The shows are large to gargantuan in scale, from the orchestras to the set construction to the cast size. It’s not uncommon for casts to be in the hundreds, since every kid who auditions is guaranteed entry into one of the two age groups of performance – Rising Stars for kids up to 14-years-old and Main Stage, up to 20. Marquee productions are not part of the guaranteed casting, yet they consist of every level of performer at any age, whether a CMT newbie, alumnus or a professional performer.
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Hauge’s story started as a young boy hailing from Park Forest, Illinois, a small suburban village just south of Chicago. His first exposure to the arts came when he was around eight-years-old in the form of a variety show for kids at a local gymnasium, a program he describes as kind of like having a season ticket as part of the school system. There were marionette shows, little musicals and plays, and the character he fell in love with – the “Jaunty Jester.”
“I was beyond amazed at what I saw in front of me,” said Hauge, reflecting on those early years that led to a life in the arts. “It makes our school shows we do here so important. There is nothing more empowering than for young people to feel they are seeing themselves so they can feel like this could be you next time.
“I think back to when I was that kid in the audience, which was my first exposure to the theatre.”
Hauge was not the only member of the family that was caught with the acting bug. His first peek into his own potential came through his older brother, who landed the role of J. Pierpont Finch in a production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” while still in elementary school.
“That was very empowering, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do that.’”
Hauge continued to explore his newfound love of musical theatre. He spent many days in subsequent years getting to Chicago to experience musicals at Candlelight Dinner Theatre, the first dinner theatre company in the United States. And seeing a production of “Candide” in 1973 in New York directed by Broadway legend and 21 time Tony Award winner Harold Prince, when Hauge was only 15-years-old, cemented his choice.
His life would be a life in the theatre.
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In the mid-1970’s, entertainment in theme parks other than Disneyland was big business. Nowadays, a show might offer something more localized in terms of the scale in the non-Disney parks, but then, according to Hauge, theme parks offered entertainment on the level of many summer stock companies, cranking out multiple musicals and productions all year long.
With the Marriott Corporation making their presence felt nationally at theme park’s such as Great America in Santa Clara, Hauge was in the thick of things, in charge of multiple shows running throughout the country, getting his feet wet as a young hire at Great America in Chicago, serving as a manager and dance captain. The shows took over entire summers, as well as weekends in the fall and springtime. Hauge was in charge of shows on land and on the sea throughout the country, with musical revues and full-blown musicals, a magical career that focused less on performing and more on management.
As fulfilling and successful as his career was at the time, there was still something missing, something he desired. Working locally and nationally morphed into working internationally for 10 years with constant, grueling travel, which began to get old. His marriage to his wife Kristin was in their relatively early years, and he was also a father to his first child, a son named Kyle who was three-years-old.
It was around this time that a theatre company in San Jose came calling.
That’s all the gig at Children’s Musical Theater San Jose was going to be.
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CJ Ajlouny, like many kids who spend hundreds of hours doing theatre, has found a home and community at CMT. His most recent production had him playing Kenickie in the Thunderbird cast of “Grease.” Casts are not named Cast A and Cast B at CMT. This summer’s rising stars musical “Crazy for You” had the “George” and “Ira” cast, an homage to the Gershwin brothers who composed the songs for the musical back in 1930. And the production of “101 Dalmations” has an even cuter moniker for their casts – one is the “Bow” and the other is the “Wow.”
Ajlouny, playing one of two Bennie’s in “Rent,” is fond of Hauge and his directing style. Hauge is fatherly and always aware that, when working with young performers, his job is to teach. He also creates a safe space for performers to experiment, take ownership of their performance. Two actors looking to do a special handshake at that “Rent” rehearsal exemplify this – it goes horrible. Hauge encourages the actors to try again. It doesn’t go much better, but maybe a slight upgrade to terrible.
Ajlouny remarks as he watches – “Kevin is the best. You have so much fun doing all the work, and you don’t even realize you are working.”
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The history of CMT is a unique one, started by a young kid with a passion for the arts and some serious parental support.
John P. Healy, Jr. was quite a visionary, and the vision he started out with is still on full display today. Back in 1968, he and 30 of his buddies, with the support of his parents and others, took over the bingo hall at San Jose’s St. Francis Cabrini School for their inaugural production, the company then known as the Cabrini Community Theater. That show, “Robin Hood,” written by Healy, cast every single kid who auditioned, fulfilling his vision of what a theatre ought to be.
Oh, by the way, when the company produced that first show, the founder/lead actor/playwright and visionary was only 17-years-old.
According to the San Jose Mercury News’ obituary on Healy, the company and their unique way of creating theatre was all about producing big musicals with every single auditioner being cast. News of their company spread quickly. Only a few years later, the bingo hall could no longer fit the fledgling company, so the band of children performers moved on to an old church across the street from St. James Park for rehearsals. Performances moved to the Montgomery Theater in downtown San Jose, the 475 seat two-tiered structure that was built in 1936, a theatre the company still calls home.
Healy ran his company as a teenager, even through his years at Stanford University, where he double majored in music and theatre, originally attending on a cello scholarship. His time at the helm of CMT lasted until 1982, ultimately leaving the area entirely in 1996 to start another theatre in El Dorado Hills. He passed away in 2007 after an accidental fall at his home near Sacramento.
Healy’s original vision is something that is not lost on Hauge, who is certainly fond of many of those original ideals that Healy proposed. The then executive director of the company, Michael Mulcahy, brought on Hauge in 1996 to serve as the company’s first full-time artistic director. Hauge, who had worked with the company before the full time job was offered, was certainly attracted to the nobility of what his new job would entail.
“What it meant for me to be here is that I knew I could really make what is passionate for me a part of the community,” said Hauge. “I enjoy seeing a process that provides transformation. And with my wife being a pediatric nurse, seeing kids progress was something she could get behind.”
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Hauge is at home in any part of the company. On opening night of “Crazy for You,” this time for the George cast, he comes onto the stage before the show to sing the praises of the audience, ensuring them they are in for a treat. He makes references to sponsors, artistic team members and to all of the performers, many who will be making their all-important, never to be repeated, stage debuts. There is also the Gypsy Robe recipient announcement, a special honor for the ensemble member that displays leadership and excellence.
It’s a big night that is not lost on Hauge, even though it’s the 20th year of big nights, and the start of the final three shows of the season, the company’s 48th. It may be another op’nin’ of another show, but every show is special, an event that takes over the charming theatre on the corner of Market and San Carlos many times a year.
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Hauge certainly realized that in 1996, he was being called upon to lead CMT to new heights. He was asked to steward a program that offered more than productions. Nowadays, the company offers different kinds of training in dance, technical theatre and acting performance through camps and shows. Children as young as six participate in musicals over the summer, and those as young as eight can take on a show during a traditional school calendar. Parents learn a lot too. They volunteer for everything – sewing during shows, supervising rehearsals, stage crew, building sets, you name it.
In 20 years with Hauge at the helm, he has seen exponential shifts in both the company and the community that the company serves.
“Twenty years ago, we were in a warehouse on a concrete floor with three full time employees, but the competition for the time of families and kids was much less,” said Hauge. “ Now there is homework along with activities in any variety, like traveling sports teams and other things. There are more and more activities that require full attention.
Especially in the arena of sports, the days of multiple activities for kids are long gone. A child who may do soccer in the fall, softball or baseball in the spring and a play in the summer has turned into soccer all year around. The pressure from youth coaches, the anxiety of losing a coveted spot on a high level team and a fear that an extended rest can mean not getting invited to certain tournaments have all changed the youth activity dynamic.
Hauge is a pragmatist. As the head of a large youth organization, one that constantly lives in the perilous reality of performing arts funding where dollars are never guaranteed, he does not live in a world of lament. Rather, he looks at these challenges and tackles them with his dedicated staff head on.
“A little competition never hurt anybody, and we have to offer services better and better,” said Hauge. “It’s okay to compete – if our kids have too many great things to do, that’s okay for our community.
“We have to work harder and harder to compete for people’s time. In terms of keeping our doors open, we have our heads in the right place about when times get tough.”
There are certainly advantages of producing theatre in a place such as San Jose and Silicon Valley, yet it’s both a blessing and a curse. Certainly, having access to potential donors and Fortune 500 companies in the region softens some blows. The digital video recording pioneer TiVo is a company that has firmly backed CMT this past season, for example. But regardless of where the funds come from, Hauge just needs to know one thing – how much do we have?
“There are not a lot of fiscal chances we’re willing to take. If we have only 24 lighting fixtures for the show, then tell me that. I don’t care if the stage is the size of a postage stamp; just tell me so I can deal with that. I’ve always looked at years when things are tougher than some, and we have to make more magic when times are tough.
“In those times, we have to dream bigger. The dreams become more important, not less. We have to be more creative, more clever, and more in touch with the things around you. You have to be your best when things are the worst. We know creativity is about making something more than is actually there, and we have to adapt and always look at it as a new adventure.”
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Adventures have been a theme in Hauge’s time at CMT. The company and Hauge have reached some dizzying heights in the form of accolades, with a very special one just this year – and honorable mention for Hauge from the Tony Awards for excellence in theater education, which included a spot in the Tony Awards playbill and on the Tony’s website. There have also been nine National Endowment for the Arts grants in the past, selection for various world premieres of non-equity productions and even the opportunity to collaborate with Broadway legends such as the aforementioned Prince, coincidentally on a production of “Candide” back in 2000. CMT regularly gets permissions to incorporate a Broadway production’s original choreography into their productions.
Hauge is quick to point out his role in these successes are a smaller part of a much bigger mission that includes thousands of artists and performers over the company’s long, storied history.
“When I think of the Tony award nomination, I think of myself for where I’m at in my life right now, and I’m really thinking about CMT all the time,” said Hauge. “Many of us here do that for our own reasons. Any success I feel I do feel personally and I don’t take it for granted. I am humbled by it and really appreciate it.
“I am a representative to a collective. I am proud to be a part of the name they say, because CMT is not my company but I know I am CMT. Nothing makes me prouder than to go on a website, see CMT right there and know it’s going to be there forever. Whether I’m here or not, CMT is going to say we did that.”
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By the company’s own estimation, CMT reaches about 40,000 youth and families each year in the form of audience members, students, performers and volunteers. That is a lot of very satisfied people. Yet that doesn’t mean everything comes up roses every single time. Even though the word “Children’s” is in the name of the company, they are not ones to shy away from shows that have content that may be the antithesis of family programming. Shows with more adult themes such as “American Idiot” and “Miss Saigon” have been a part of seasons past and will certainly be there in the future. “Miss Saigon,” the Giacomo Puccini opera-adapted story of a young girl forced into prostitution towards the end of the Vietnam War yet falls in love and marries an American soldier, was a show where Hauge felt some blowback, but wanted to focus on doing a show where kids can grab a greater understanding of the perils of war by playing characters in their age range.
Even a show such as “West Side Story,” which features an ugly scene with Anita confronting the Jets at a drugstore, is not blind to the price of hatred, and is a show that’s a whole lot more than Maria prancing around the stage singing about how pretty she feels.
“I never hide behind the argument that ‘well, but it’s art,’” said Hauge. “That moment when Anita comes into the drugstore, we have to stage that. We have to have lengthy discussions, which have to be more than just harassing her, and decide what that looks like in today’s world.
“The first concern is always the kids – is this something that is interesting to be in, is it fun for them, and can we make all of the kids feel vital and important? They don’t just want to say bad words, but they want to be current and relevant. In our world, we want to get ideas across.”
The other big challenge for Hauge is navigating the most exciting, yet the worst day of his job – the day the cast list comes out.
“There is nothing fun about casting. For every person realizing what he or she hoped to do, there is a handful that isn’t realizing what he or she hoped to do. It’s hard to do this job honestly knowing that it’s not going to make everyone happy.
“Casting is not about a person’s worth and it’s not a measure of a person’s talent. There are so many other things. After the show is cast, I always respond to emails or have lunches and coffees to talk about it in order for people to feel better or just validate their feelings. That doesn’t change the fact that there is lots of disappointment involved.”
Yet, there are also other thrills that help balance out those tough days.
“It’s exciting to see a kid reach an important milestone like getting a microphone, getting in the front line of a dancing chorus, a speaking role, a biography in the program or a bow on their own,” said Hauge. “We were all there at some point in our lives and we get it. It’s my job to try and make sure everyone has a positive outcome.”
Positive outcomes are a huge part of the CMT experience. There are certainly journeys that have started in San Jose and ended up on the Great White Way. Names like Dennis O’Bannion, who made his Broadway debut in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” or Alex Brightman, who was nominated for a Tony Award this year for his work in the Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical “School of Rock” cut their teeth as South Bay kids who made CMT their home away from home.
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The long career that started off as a child growing up in the suburbs of Chicago doesn’t go past the CMT studios on Parkmoor Avenue. This is where Hauge will retire and pass the torch onto the next makers of theatre by and for young people. That isn’t happening anytime soon though. In the meantime, he will continue to share the experience with his wife Kristin and their two children. Both Kyle, now 23 and Katherine, 19, have continued in performing arts careers that started with dad’s gig, and Kevin immediately admits that his wife is widely known as the best part of him.
While the Hauge’s have seen many kids come and go in their time with CMT, they are certainly thrilled to see many of those return to the Montgomery Theatre in the form of season ticket holders, or even those parents who grew up going to rehearsals, now dropping off their own kids that represent the second and third generations of CMT performers. And even though his career did not go the way of an actor and singer, all of these kids help him feel like he has always done what he most loves to do.
“When people have said to me after many years, ‘Don’t you wish you were up there on the stage?’, I definitely see myself up there, whether anybody sees me up there or not. I can feel it and I feel like I’ve contributed to the whole. I can see myself reflected in a tiny way in all the work I see on stage.”
Broadway careers are a tough, grueling existence with zero guarantees, and while names like O’Bannion and Brightman are huge feathers in the CMT cap, the reality is that most performers will go on and do other things in life.
Hauge is perfectly fine with that.
“Success doesn’t have to be a kid on Broadway. It’s a fun sound byte and well deserved for kids that make it, but of course, children’s theatre is not about creating the next great actor. We are proud of our great teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers and architects that came through here. We are trying to help all kids with universal life lessons.
“My wife and I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to contribute artistically in a way that provides more than just an evening of entertainment.”