Show Starters

Two McDonogh students get a real-life learning experience in theater -- and finance -- as they write, then produce a musical

March 24, 2000|By SANDRA CROCKETT | SANDRA CROCKETT,SUN STAFF

His partner, director/producer Jon Waller, sits at the piano giving commands from the orchestra pit. "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" He halts the singing, then has the cast take it, once again, from the top.

Clearly, these two are intimately familiar with every nuance of "Tale," the musical play they are busy rehearsing. And they should be: Deline, 17, wrote the script. And Waller, 18, composed the music. That makes this high school production in Owings Mills something out of the ordinary.

"This is definitely a first," says headmaster Bo Dixon.

Teens Deline and Waller are musical impresarios just waiting to happen.

"Back in sixth grade, I had done a little singing," Deline says. "My choir teacher made me audition for a solo, then I got the part."

From that modest start, Deline went on to act in numerous plays through the Young Actors Theater, a community program that operates out of McDonogh.

Waller also has performed with Young Actors. "I've played the Wiz in `The Wiz,' and in `Guys and Dolls,' " Waller says. "I like the energy of acting."

And there is this: Deline has been going to New York to see plays since he was just a tyke. "My dad takes me to New York a lot to see theater," Deline says. "He's been taking me since I was 5 or 6."

Waller has seen only a couple of Broadway productions, but he is so into composing music that his father bought him studio time for a Christmas present last year. He put it to good use.

"I made a CD," he says.

The idea of writing a complete musical took root last school year. Waller, an effervescent type with a ready smile, had written a song called "I Still Can't Believe." He liked the lyrics and thought, "Hey, this would be great for a show."

He bounced the idea off a few friends, who agreed, but without much enthusiasm; then he let the subject slide. "Then I mentioned it to Steve," Waller says, "and he took me seriously."

"I just loved the idea of writing a musical, then directing it," says Deline, a tall youth with a sincere manner.

They fiddled and tweaked it over the summer. Their finished product, which takes its bow this weekend in two performances, is a teen-age tale of "love, loneliness, mistaken identity, sarcasm, gossip, betrayal" and, finally, growing up, its creators say.

The two-act play has 18 cast members and 13 musical numbers, including "Guess What," "Make it Happen" and "Tell Me."

But why is their musical tale called simply "Tale"?

Daffodils are a recurring symbol in the musical. The main character gives a bunch to a girl he likes, and the flowers appear again later in the play. Because of this, the initial idea was to name the play "Daffodils."

Then reality set in.

"We thought in a high school, that would be too " Deline's voice trails off.

"It would sound a little corny and cheesy," Waller finishes.

So the enterprising duo went online to a Web site for baby names. Nothing caught their eyes. Then at a site for unusual baby names, they happened on "Tale." Inspiration struck again.

"We said, `That could be our main character's name. Dude! That's it! That's the name of our show!' " Deline recalls.

The school's administration thought it was all a fabulous idea.

"I think it's important to try to teach kids to find something they love, then explore the limits and take risks," Headmaster Dixon says. "And they get no credit for this. They are not graded on it."

Too bad. The teens learned more than how to write, produce and direct a play. They also got a lesson in the hard-core business of finance. The school, through its annual fund, provided $2,500, and Deline and Waller began their education in the "art" of budgeting.

They hired a professional lighting director, bought fabric for props, printed up tickets and programs and took care of other financial matters. But they are still sweating the budget details.

"Be careful of the slip covers!" Waller admonishes cast members at a recent rehearsal. "My mom worked very hard to make it. Don't slide your feet over it. It will rip."

A ripped slip cover would eat further into the budget. "Putting the cast together wasn't so bad," Waller says. "But staying in the budget is difficult."

Fund-raising has meant singing for their supper, almost literally. It was a coincidence that Waller sang in front of a McDonogh alumni gathering this school year. But he made the most of it, making a financial pitch to the captive and sympathetic audience.

"They gave us a $1,000," he says. "That eased our mind."

And so the show will go on, tonight and tomorrow. Both performances are open to the public. While producing "Tale" has taken up a lot of their time, neither boy's life right now is completely wrapped up in the musical.

Waller, from Westminster, is still writing music because he loves to. Deline, from Baldwin, reads a lot and is a movie buff. "I drag my family to the movies all of the time," he says. Both are also waiting word from colleges.

The stage isn't necessarily where either is headed. Both realize Broadway musicals are having a tough go of it these days.

"I kind of recently realized I want to go into films and screen writing and directing," Deline says.

Waller sees more recording studios in his future. "I like acting, but I'm more interested in music composition," he says.

Whatever they do, they will take with them one of the big lessons of "Tale": that it takes guts to be creative.

Waller felt somewhat edgy about opening himself up to peer criticism. He didn't have to worry. "Our peers have been very positive," he says. "And I think we needed the positive support."

Deline concurs. "It's the same thing with the dialogue. It's hard to show someone your work."

Yet both say the risks have been worth it.

"People have been nice," Waller says. "They haven't made fun of us. Well, for the most part!" he adds.

"Tale" will be performed in the Ceres M. Horn Theatre, McDonogh School, Owings Mills tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. Call 410-363-0600.

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