Michael Berkeley wants you to forget all about the glittery top hats, extended jazz hands and hyper-choreographed chorus lines associated with musical theater. For him, the stage also provides an avenue for youth self-acceptance and even social change.
"Obviously not everyone chooses to pursue a career in theater, but [performing] isn't just about being a star," said the 54-year-old artistic director of Connecticut's TriArts Sharon Playhouse. "It's all about empowerment. The thrill in my life is to inspire people in their formative years, when it can really make a difference."
Though Berkeley's view of musical theater as a personal growth tool might seem a bit more mainstream in the era of "Glee," it's his ability to enforce those views in his work that's truly remarkable. Not only did the veteran director help establish the not-for-profit TriArts youth theater program, but he's also the composer and lyricist behind two original children's musicals created to promote ideas of self-discovery and equal rights. A modern re-telling of the "Humpty Dumpty" nursery rhyme, "Off The Wall" dabbles in themes of prejudice and self-esteem, while "Imagine That!" is aimed at inspiring children to turn off their TV sets.
Take a look at Berkeley's youth theater work here, then scroll down to keep reading:
And, if all goes according to plan, Berkeley will explore two additional, oft-ostracized social groups through his upcoming theater work. A revue about retirees -- "It'll play really well in Florida," he quipped -- is already in the works, and Berkeley is also hoping to obtain the rights to dramatize the story of Marc Hall, a gay Canadian teenager who fought to bring a same-sex date to his Catholic high school prom in 2002. After hearing of Hall's story, which was already the basis for a 2004 Canadian TV movie, Berkeley noted, "I immediately ran to my piano with ideas."
The role of mentor was an unexpected one for Berkeley, who grew up in Elmhurst, Ill., dreaming of a career as a professional actor. But he now says theatrical success had its limits, and after years of being on the road and performing throughout the country, Berkeley said he quickly found himself more suited to a community role. "I loved performing, I loved creating characters," he said. "But what I felt was missing was creative control. I really liked being able to put theater together for a specific reason, either to allow people to showcase their talent or to relay a specific message."
That passion also inspired one of Berkeley's most profound achievements, called "Potential Unlimited" -- a musical revue that celebrated the talents of performers with developmental abilities, including several with Down's syndrome.
Two of the director's most successful pupils say Berkeley's mentorship continues to influence their work in theater years later. "He is just so forward-thinking and progressive, and he goes about [his work] in such an incredibly passionate way," said 29-year-old actor Michael Baldwin, who first met Berkeley while auditioning for a community production of "Barnum" in Pine Plains, N.Y. "He's someone who's always thinking, always creating and has a rare ability to see a special talent in any person at any age." Added 21-year-old Trevor McQueen, a Broadway veteran who returned to the TriArts Sharon Playhouse with an original cabaret last year: "I think he focuses on the community before everything else … just sharing those stories and messages with people close to home. He's definitely recognized as a guiding light for kids."
A lesser man might be inclined to take those accolades in stride, but praise from former pupils is what genuinely keeps Berkeley driven. "I really believe that everyone has something wonderful to offer," he said. "I just want to give them an experience that will enrich their lives and improve their self-worth and self-esteem."
For more on Berkeley's work, click here.