It’s a good thing I’m recording this conversation with Mike Dimirsky – who along with his wife Liz founded and runs the D Family Theatre – because he explains better than I’ve ever been able to the transformative power theatre can have, especially on kids.
“I remember we had this one student who was mercilessly picked on in school,” says Mike. ”The classic bully story. He was picked on for the way he walked, the way he talked, he had no friends, the whole thing. But he had this beautiful singing voice, so we gave him the part of the Ugly Duckling in Honk! the musical. He just embodied the character, and when everyone could see what he could do it was like he’d turned into a swan himself. He just blossomed. He was able to do things that these bullies even saw at the shows. By the time he was in the eighth grade he was one of the leaders of his class.”
This particular student, says Dimirsky, along with many others of his, went on to be accepted into the Governor’s School for the Arts.
We’re at Fair Grounds on Colley Ave, which Dimirsky owns and proposed as the place to meet up for the interview. He leans conspiratorially over the table toward me with a twinkle in his eye, as if he’s about to share a secret.
“Children are great,” he says. “As long as you don’t treat them like lesser people. They’re just learning people, and they can do a lot of great things if you give them the chance. A lot of times I think that people don’t have faith in kids and what they can actually accomplish.”
Mike and Liz, who have each been working professionally in theatre and arts education for over twenty years, have a nose for discovering talent in kids. Part of it has to do with their novel approach of working backwards from the audition process.
“What we do is we’ll hold an audition, and based on who turns up we’ll pick a show that fits the cast, instead of trying to fit the cast into the show.” This also eliminates completion, explains Dimirsky. “Say you tell everyone you’re doing Annie. You’re going to have 50 girls come out for Annie, and 49 of them are going to be very disappointed. And the point should be to get the kids doing it. If you are concerned at that age what show it is, this is the wrong thing for you to do. It’s not about the soccer game, it’s about soccer.”
“In fact,” he says, “I think a lot of times community theatres should do that too. You audition everyone first, see who they have, who’s interested, what the time frames are, because sometimes they pick shows and then don’t really have the people to do it so they’re like we’ll settle for this or we’ll settle for that.”
Mike explains to me how his and Liz’s philosophy informs everything about the D Family Theatre, including their enrollment fees.
“The arts should never be out of reach for kids or families because of funds,” he says. As parents themselves, the Dimirskys can tell you kids’ activities tend to get a bit pricey, theatre programs in particular. So the first thing they did when establishing the D Family Theatre was attempt to find a way to make their program more accessible to families on a budget. Enrollment fees are low, and there are multiple options available for kids and parents to work together in generating that revenue. In fact, kids and parents are encouraged to work together on all aspects of the shows.
“I don’t believe in keeping the parents out,” Mike says. “I’m a parent of a performer myself. If you can get parents involved in the same activity, not necessarily onstage, but in the same project… They’re doing costumes, or they’re building something, and their kids are there too. They’re all there at the same time, and then they see the effect of that at the end. We’re creating memories for families, and that’s really important to us.” Dimirsky beams with pride when he says this, but only for a second, before he brings himself back down to earth.
“Obviously this is nothing new—we’re not reinventing the wheel. But we are big on community. That’s why it’s important that the kids get out there and sell tickets too, and get local business taking out ads in the program and things like that. My personal theory is that life is about relationships.”
Far be it from me to contradict my own interview subject, but I think Mike sells himself and the D Family Theatre short when he says they’re not reinventing the wheel. Perhaps that’s so, but perhaps also his and Liz’s approach to introducing kids and parents to theatre in an innovatively positive and inclusive way is just what we need to inspire a new generation of theatrical talent here in Hampton Roads.
The D Family Theatre’s fall musical, Vaudeville!, an original homage to the golden days of live entertainment, is in its final week of rehearsals and will open to the public this Thursday for a one-weekend run. If you’re a parent looking for a way to spend your afternoon with the kids, or if I’ve piqued your interest in the D Family Theatre, come check it out with me!
Vaudeville! (a dazzling display of heterogeneous splendor designed to educate, edify, amaze and uplift) runs this weekend, Nov 17 – 20. Thurs 7:00pm, Sat 2:00pm & 7:00pm, Sun 2:00pm @ the Barry Robinson Theatre in VA Beach. Tix: $12. Click here for tix and info.