The Path To City Hall Was Child’s Play
Author’s note: The pandemic has caused many dislocations and missed opportunities. The story below was based on an interview conducted 2/26/2020 so does not reflect the current situation. Thanks to David Howard King for editing.
There are many ways to prepare for a leader’s role in city governance. It makes sense that in the Capital Region which has over 60 community theater groups, an excellent avenue to the Mayor’s office was founding and running one of the area’s most successful children’s theater groups, the Saratoga Children’s Theatre. That’s how Mayor Meg Kelly of Saratoga Springs found her way to City Hall.
And we would have had our conversation at City Hall if there hadn’t been a fire started by a lightning strike to the attic nearly a year and a half ago. The Mayor is working in a temporary City Hall at the Recreation Center. The mayor’s office has set up room dividers and desks on the basketball court so there’s room for the building and planning departments but pickleball and Zumba are cancelled until further notice. Just like theater, “You never know what’s going to happen. Every day is something different. You show up and your lead actor is sick and can’t perform, or…” her voice trails off and Mayor Meg Kelly gestures around at the makeshift office which has been her 9-5 for the last 18 months. “You have the show’s director step in and take over on-book. We had a fire at City Hall. We had to move out and we were up and running in three days. You figure it out. The show must go on.”
So, how did it begin? How do you go from wrangling children and deciding which pre-teen moppet would make your company’s perfect “Annie” to running a city of over 25,000 that becomes the summer place to be and has been named one of the top 10 places to live in New York by Movoto. First, how and why did she form a children’s theater company? “I was a golf pro by profession, I did that for 25 years. I adopted my daughter (Egan Mills) and at that time in Saratoga Springs, there was no musical theater. My daughter’s birth mother was a singer/dancer, I know because we had an open adoption. I’m not a singer/dancer so I was going to Cohoes to take her to shows, to get her into programs and I said this is ridiculous. I live in Saratoga which is an arts and cultural center so I decided to start the Saratoga Children’s Theater.
“I started with 12 kids. First year, I struggled through and then made some changes and went to musical theater. When I went to musical theater, I started hiring professionals because I know nothing about musical theater…although I enjoy it. We went to Ogunquit, Maine for summer camp. We spent a summer in New York City for all the experiences and the theater. I actually took my model from Ogunquit and Marc Tumminelli at Broadway Workshop.”
Ogunquit Playhouse is after nearly 90 years of operation a Cadillac of summer stock theaters and has transformed itself into a regional theater that produces 5-7 musicals a year over a 24-week schedule often developing new works like this summer’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus” as well as running a nationally recognized children’s program. Broadway Workshop is a vast educational program based in NYC that holds summer camps, workshops, small group trainings and stages full-scale productions in Manhattan and elsewhere with a faculty that’s a who’s who of Broadway including Tony winners Laura Benanti, Christian Borle and Ben Platt.
“I would pick the director’s brains at all these other theaters to see how they run their programs. Ogunquit introduced me to how to purchase the rights to a show. I had no idea, so they took me by the hand and walked me through the whole thing. So, that was a gift that I received when I went up there. They were just open arms, let’s do it. If you look at my program and look at Ogunquit’s, they’re identical.”
“Marc Tumminelli at Broadway Workshop was my go-to guy. He would send me people to teach my workshops. I would tell him I have this much money and he would get great people to come up and teach dance class, I would make them dinner, they would stay overnight and they would get to see Saratoga Springs. I think my success was having adult professional staff directing. Parents really want to get the theater experience from professionals for their children. I would get people from off-Broadway and Broadway and they taught my classes and directed my shows. It became very large, very fast. Serving over 1,000 kids every year.”
Marc Tumminelli enthused over working with Mayor Kelly, “I loved working with Meg Kelly and the Saratoga Children’s Theatre. Meg saw an amazing opportunity with the kids of Saratoga and jumped right in to create something special. The children who were part of that program were so prepared and ready for life in the professional world. It was thrilling to have her kids be a part of my program Broadway Workshop in New York City. Meg is always looking for the best possible training and she would not settle for just ok and it showed in all of her work.”
As with the rest of the Capital Region, there is a great desire and interest in producing theater but there is precious little real estate to accommodate theater performances or rehearsal and Saratoga Children’s Theatre has been borrowing spaces from Lake Street Elementary to Skidmore to the Senior Services Center.
“We had no theater. We were using St. Clement’s Catholic Church which was just a church stage…it had nothing. I brought in Michael Lotano (a Crane School MFA graduate who teaches at Shenendehowa) and we bought a great sound system which changed everything. Some people don’t like that in kids.” Amplification is almost as common in amateur theater as it is on Broadway but many say part of the point of theater training for the young is to get them to develop their speech and voice, specifically their ability to project and fill a theater unassisted electronically. “But you have to realize most kids aren’t going to be Broadway stars, they just want to be a star for a day and the microphone at least gives them a voice.
“Getting into theater was a whole different game for me when I saw what the theater did to children. When they came in, they would be shy and crying and then by the end of the day…they’re singing and dancing. This amazing turnaround…in one day! I saw these kids come alive and evolve. A lot of our kids went on to big theater schools. They went down to NYU, Carnegie Mellon, Pace, it’s exciting to see.”
What happened to Egan Mills, her daughter who was the reason for founding the company? “She was very petite, a great dancer. She has since moved on to the neuro science world. I’m kind of sad about it.” A sly smile escaped as her beaming pride shone through. “She loved it. She just wanted to be part of group. My daughter didn’t have a lead with me until her senior year in high school. She could be as well trained as she wanted to be but she didn’t have the lead.” Her lead when it arrived after 8 years was worth the wait, Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”
The audition process was an eye-opening experience for Kelly and she always hired different directors so there were no favorites and certainly not preferential treatment for her daughter. “As a parent it was an interesting thing looking at all kids equally with these professionals. You would see this kid right off the street. Green, green, green but there’s something that’s going to be really special onstage. So that was fun for me…not for my daughter.”
Kelly also videotaped the auditions “The teen troupe would become very competitive so when the parents complained, I would say ‘Come here, let’s take a look at it.’ I would sit them down, very kindly and I said ‘I just want to tell you, children are so different in their own living room. Auditions are nerve wracking, anxiety driven’ and we would watch the video and they would just look at it and say to me ‘Doing a great job. See you later.’”
“I personally did not know what theater did for children, how it could change their lives within a couple of hours. We watched it every day, it would bring tears to your eyes to see these kids at the end of a two-week camp and you’re like ‘Where did that come from?’”
The transition to City Hall was quick, “I had two days off,” when Meg Kelly moved abruptly from curtain calls to City Hall in July, 2016. She was called to service by Mayor Joanne Yepsen to fill a mid-term vacancy created by Deputy Mayor Joseph Ogden’s departure for SUNY. ”I didn’t know anything about the inside of City Hall or city government. It was a huge learning curve. I was Deputy Mayor for a year and a half and got my feet wet. I was elected to my first term as Mayor, I was just re-elected. I brought in Lisa Shields as my Deputy Mayor. We’re a good team. We worked together at Saratoga Children’s Theatre many years just for the betterment of the children, never took a penny from it. As you know, for the love of the theater.”
Deputy Mayor Lisa Shields who brought her daughter Carolyn to SCT in 2009. “My experience at SCT was focused on the children in the community and the performing arts and a great foundation for my work in City Hall…as Deputy Mayor, the scope of my work is the entire community, and we have helped to bring customer service and collaboration to the forefront of city operations. And during Meg’s administration, the importance of the Arts has been elevated through new partnerships, like with SPAC and UPH.”
Tumminelli agrees that Kelly was well served by her experience founding SCT. “Running a youth theater is a lot like running a city. You have to do what is best for your student body while creating spectacular performances and doing everything possible to make sure everyone is working as hard as you, while engaging the community to be part of the magic!”
When asked what she feels she learned in the children’s theatre that contributes to her success today and she says “Two big skills. One is listening. One is patience. You have to be a listener. You have to be patient and you have to be understanding in the theater world with the parents and the children. You have to be patient with the children and give them a space to be free to create. In city government you have to be very patient and you have to be an excellent listener of your constituents. I don’t run my meetings like a theatrical event. They’re very business like and straight to the point.”
Deputy Mayor Shields agrees mostly, “When given the opportunity to join Meg in the Mayor’s office, I was eager to work with her again because it meant our hard work, results and accomplishments would be for the city we live in. The bonus is that we have fun working together!”
It takes little prodding for Mayor Kelly to blow her city’s horn. “The arts in Saratoga is booming. UPH opens this weekend. Caffe Lena was reopened with a redesign. Every restaurant has somebody playing downtown. SPAC has a musical theater program that’s approaching 60,000 kids right now. It’s crazy big. Pitney Farm has music events from SPAC plus SPAC’s shed schedule which has never been bigger. NYRA is doing more music than ever. They wanted to sell out and go to New York City people but I won that battle and we’re going to have local performers singing and dancing all around the track. Summer downtown is a musical mecca.”
Perhaps the city’s arts scene is benefiting from the actions of its chief executive whose mission at the theatre included the line “At SCT, we not only provide a forum for creating theatre, we are building a future audience with a lifelong love of the theatre arts.” When I asked about this line, she responded “That’s most of our kids. They’re going to be audience members. That was the whole idea. We want them to enjoy the experience creating but knowing they’re not going to be up there professionally but they will always continue watching. That was something I always expressed in my curtain speeches was what you are about to see onstage is the deciding factor, whether we are going to sustain this in 25 years is up to them, this is the future of the arts.”