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June 11, 2010

Land O' Lakes teacher brings 'Fame' to life with Patel Youth Theater
By Geoff Fox, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

Jun. 2--TAMPA -- Besides a tireless zeal and thorough understanding of the intricacies involved with theater productions, it requires exhaustive patience and steadfast discipline to lead almost 40 teenagers through rehearsals for a two-hour musical.

Watch Lisa Vorreiter work with the Patel Conservatory's Youth Theater students on stage, and it's clear she has those qualities.

On a recent weeknight, Vorreiter of Land O' Lakes directed her cast through rehearsals for "Fame -- The Musical" in Ferguson Hall at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.

Rehearsal had gone well, and it was time to practice something rewarding: how to bow.

Some students practiced their poses more theatrically than others.

"OK," Vorreiter said in an authoritative voice honed through 23 years as a drama teacher in the Hillsborough County School District. "You're not 3 years old. You're not at your first recital. We're not going to hold hands."

The students are from around the Tampa Bay area and wanted to be there, learning from director Vorreiter, vocal coach Nancy Garma, choreographer DeMario Henry and the conservatory's other skilled instructors. Many of the students have aspirations of a career under the lights, and Vorreiter can help them make it; her former students have found professional work as singers, dancers and actors.

Knowing how to properly acknowledge the audience and exit the stage can be just as important as learning a line, hitting a note or nailing a dance move. After taking their bows, the cast left the stage in a choreographed stream, but one performer stepped the wrong way; while the teens are learning valuable skills, they are not coddled.

"Come on, girl," Vorreiter said to the misstepping cast member. "Pay attention."

Garma, the vocal coach, is working directly with Vorreiter for the first time on "Fame," a revamped version of the popular 1980s television show and movie about the struggles encountered by a diverse group of teenagers at New York's famous High School for the Performing Arts.

"She has absolute command of the kids," Garma said. "She does not take any nonsense. When it's time to work, it's time to work. But she does give them a little rein to relax when it's necessary."

Besides her work at the conservatory, Vorreiter has been the drama teacher at Alonso High School in Tampa for several years. She has earned Teacher of the Year awards, the Director's Chair Award from the South Florida Arts Council and the Coca-Cola Distinguished Teacher in the Arts Award.

Also, Alonso High's recent production of "And the World Goes Round" -- directed by Vorreiter -- was the only play chosen to represent Florida in the Chapter Select Showcase at the International Thespian Festival in Nebraska next month.

Work on "Fame" began in January. The one-time-only performance is Friday night at the Straz Center, formerly known as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

"It's one and done and open to the public," Vorreiter said last week during a break off-stage, her serious director's demeanor replaced by an easy smile. "There are some days when you walk out at night and wonder if you're going to be ready. But we're coming toward the end now and will start doing live runs."

The off-stage break is one of few Vorreiter seems to take. During the school year, her directing duties at the conservatory mean her days start before the first school bell rings, and usually end late at night.

But she has had a profound interest in the arts since about age 2, and her passion fuels her efforts. At Alonso this year, she has directed five productions -- three musicals and two plays. She described the high school's drama students as "extremely motivated," which makes them easy to direct.

And after "Fame" is finished, she will start preparing for the conservatory's presentation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella" to be performed in July.

Leslie Farrell, who does public relations work for the conservatory, said the "Fame" production has been altered slightly from the original series and movie, but there is still some adult language and content and drug references.

Vorreiter said the drama's "feeling" is faithful to the original.

"The characters' names are changed and the music is totally different, totally new for the stage," she said. "But it still has the 'Fame, I'm gonna live forever' part." Theater machine

Garma said she was excited when she learned she would be working with Vorreiter for the first time.

"She came with a stellar reputation," she said. "I asked another high school drama teacher what her level is and she said, 'She's an absolute theater machine.' I took the job mainly to work with Lisa. I always want to learn and observe others in action. Her background is stronger in dance and acting" than mine.

"I wish I had more time to sit back and watch her."

During her brief break off-stage, Vorreiter watched as Henry, the choreographer, positioned people onstage.

"Pay attention," she called.

One of "Fame's" themes is that the characters can achieve their goals, but they must be willing to work hard and persevere through turmoil.

Vorreiter smiled and watched attentively.

Her cast was putting in the effort she expected.

"These kids are great," she said. "I think they're attracted to 'Fame' because it's about performing arts kids. I've directed adults for corporate functions and other things, and they're probably more difficult to direct.

"Kids have less fear."

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