Rema Webb uses her own Broadway experience to teach young singers and dancers
When she's not performing in Violet at the Roundabout Theater, 16-year Broadway veteran and Upper West Sider Rema Webb teaches little ones how it's done. Her performing arts training program, On Broadway, goes beyond vocal training and dance, covering everything from auditioning, reading music, and finding an agent. The Lion King cast member of 15 years made her Broadway debut in the 1998 production of Ragtime, and most recently appeared in NBC's The Sound of Music Live. We sat down with her to find out more about her life and her teaching.
What inspired you to start the program?
I've been thinking about it since 2011, and I've been educating kids since I was 21. I've always had wonderful mentors throughout my career and knew I wanted to teach. During rehearsals for Book of Mormon back in 2008, I jotted down notes during the workshops about the program I wanted to have.
What motivated you to finally start it up?
It was serving on the PTA of my son's public school, P.S. 165 on 109th Street. It was up to the parents to research arts programs, bring them in, and try to find ways to fundraise to keep them there. We had to fight for it, and I thought, I'm not going to wait to find programs. I'm going to create my own. I called a friend of mine, Daniel Siford, who is now managing director of our On Broadway Performing Arts Training Program. He's worked with the child welfare system for over 10 years. He is also a member of Actor's Equity, and has a special knack for working with children of all ages. He is an amazing and giving human being, and he is the best business partner that I could ask for.
And you take a few kids from the foster system for each program?
Yes, interns as well. We also have older students that participate in our one-on-one mentorship program. Last summer, there was one little girl, Cheyenne, who couldn't speak in a lot of the classes because she was so afraid, but by the end of three months she had a solo and was wonderful. I didn't realize until the day of the recital, however, that she didn't have shoes. When I would check in on my instructors and classes from time to time, throughout the program weeks, I just thought she was wearing socks to be comfortable in classes. For any child that doesn't have tap shoes, ballet shoes, black pants or dance skirts, I buy them. I don't want to stress out any parent who can't afford them.
Tell me about the impact you have on these kids, beyond musical theater training.
I was shy growing up, and my son was shy, too. Working at Freedom Theater, we did a lot of work with children in the empowerment zone. We were with kids who were in all sorts of circumstances, and I found that my most disruptive and needy kids were my most brilliant kids, so they were the ones that I made my leaders. They were bright shining stars, but nobody had ever seen it. We want kids to come out of their comfort zone and not be written off as a disruptive kid or a hyper kid that comes from a broken home. We want to raise their self-esteem.
What's the summer program like?
Summer is the most intense. We invite parents in to warm up with the kids in the morning, and we do improv together. Musically, they have choir and vocal performance, we teach them how to read and write music, and for dance, they have modern technique and other classes. For theater they work on monologues and acting theory.
Who are some of the all-stars who come in and teach for you?
We have Heather Hill, who's currently in Phantom of the Opera, Mark Setlock who was the original Angel in Rent, Martha Banta, the resident director of Mama Mia and Rent, and Adam Danheisser, who's currently starring in Rock of Ages.
When did you expand from summer-only to after school and weekends?
Last year was our inaugural year. In January of 2014 we decided to develop a year-round program and offer annual membership to students.
This year you're offering classes in winter that will focus more on the business end.
As actors, it is important that we know all the ins and outs of the entertainment business. Our students will learn how to put together a noteworthy picture and resume packet, auditioning techniques, contract negotiations, union memberships, how to prep for meetings with agents, casting directors, and managers, and we will mentor them through the process.
The older kids won't be getting automatic acceptance anymore, right?
The 15-18-year-olds have to audition starting next year, because if they don't want it, they're disruptive. If you're going because your parents told you to go, it's not fun. They just play with each other's hair because they don't want to be there.
Is it a family effort on your end?
I'm the single parent of a 22-year old and a 10-year-old, and I have a 2-year-old grandson. Monday's my only day off, so I have be mom then. My son goes to all of my classes. My daughter helps with administrative stuff, and my niece from Atlanta can design any type of set.
How do you balance it all?
Balance is a work in progress. You can't be stressed and worry how to be a perfectly balanced person. It doesn't exist. I used my savings to fund this program, and it was so worth it. We have momentum going now and we just can't stop!