The Talent Machine Company’s Gift to Children
Self-confidence lasts long beyond the holidays
by Dotty Holcomb Doherty
“It’s not just about the show,” says Lea Capps who co-directs The Talent Machine Company with her aunt Vicki Smith. “It’s about life lessons.” Capps, like her mother Bobbi Smith who founded the company, believes in kids.
Bobbi Smith began teaching dance in Laurel and Burtonsville at age 13. Later, choreographing and directing for Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, she wanted more opportunities for the gifted young people she was meeting. Smith, collaborating with Steve Evans, Mike Gilles and Mori Norkin, wrote The Talent Machine Show, launching the fledgling company in 1987. The show’s professor, like a benevolent Wizard of Oz, helped the children realize that talent is not a quantity you get but a quality you grow.
The company flourished. Smith, with boundless energy and high standards, added splendor and pizzazz to all her shows, featuring well-trained and enthusiastic young dancers and singers. Then, in January 2001, Bobbi Smith died.
Her sister, Vicki Smith, and daughter Capps have kept the company and traditions going. Both have deep theatrical backgrounds and the same desire to help young people surpass even their own expectations.
Getting Ready for the Show
Harmonies pour from the multi-aged chorus. Sweet solos and dynamic duets make Nicole Fickes nod approvingly. An alumna of the company, Fickes performed in the original Talent Machine Show, returning six years ago as music director.
Capps watches as the young performers dance and sing their way through the well-rehearsed pieces. The holiday show debuts soon, and today fine-tuning is underway. Final movements, dialogue and instructions are given; soon these young people, aged five to 17 will be on stage.
“Extend, extend, stretch … make your knees disappear,” directs Capps. Six young teenagers float on pointe shoes, dancing a Nutcracker ballet. That morning, these girls and other company members performed at Buddy’s breakfast buffet. December keeps this company busy.
Ballet and tap training show in the oldest teens, as does conditioning. The floor shakes as intense concentration takes them through an audience-thrilling percussive Jingle Bells. Leading the Frosty Follies with top hats and canes, the teens usher in other dancers, jitterbugging and jiving to a host of Christmas songs.
Every age plays an important role. The youngest romp through “I’m Getting Nuttin’ for Christmas” and “Happy Hippo,” while high school juniors Noelle Hollis and Taylor Rector dazzle with spirited solos. There are no stars holding this show together. This close-knit company relies on each person’s hard work and support. Sideliners in one number jump up to perform in the next. No one sits still for long.
Bringing in the Family
Taylor Rector, who’s been with the company for 10 years, leads dancers through a waltz during an early rehearsal when director Capps was out of town. Taylor’s mother, Susan Kreps, plays an active role in every rehearsal and plans Talent Machine’s local events.
“It’s a demanding schedule,” Kreps says, “about seven hours each weekend, though the whole cast doesn’t have to be there every time.”
Parents and friends do most of the work, running the box office, backstage and tech crew.
Samantha Curbelo, a sixth grader at Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School, has done holiday and summer shows with Talent Machine for six years. “It’s just so much fun,” she says. “The Christmas show is a tradition, especially in my family. Both my Mom and Dad help.”
Samantha’s father, Roland Curbelo, works as stage manager; her mother, Judy Curbelo produces the youth summer program and does costuming for the December show.
“Samantha began with summer camps and wanted to audition for a show,” her mother says. “Our lives haven’t been the same since.”
Capps and the children are grateful for the parents’ support.
Extending the Family
“Auditions are open to all,” Capps says. “If you’ve got good energy, we look at that, not just at your technique. It’s not all about the pointed toe.”
Newcomers to Talent Machine arrive with mixed experience.
“When I auditioned with Talent Machine in seventh grade, I had never taken a dance class,” says Kyle VanZandt, a junior at Severna Park High School who recently choreographed his high school’s fall show. “After getting into a show, I wanted to get better and began taking classes at Stageworkz.”
Stageworkz Theater Arts Project, a separate business from Talent Machine, was started by Bobbi and Vicki Smith in 1999. A non-competitive studio, its focus is on musical theater, with classes in ballet, voice, tap, conditioning and acting.
Lessons are not required to be part of Talent Machine. Some children take none at all. Others, especially the older performers, enjoy taking a variety of dance and theater classes, either at Stageworkz or from other schools.
David Grindrod, a sophomore at Indian Creek Upper School, takes 12 hours of classes at Stageworkz each week, plus weekend rehearsals. “It’s a lot of hard work, but when you are out there on stage, it really pays off,” Grindrod says. “Dance can be harder than sports because you have to sell it to the audience.”
These high-energy kids make time for school sports and other activities, too. Elizabeth Burdick, a junior at Annapolis High School, plays soccer, performs in her school’s dance company and theater productions and takes two classes a week at Stageworkz. Her commitment to Talent Machine? “I love the theater because it makes other people happy,” she says.
Getting on with the Show
This month, the energetic kids of Talent Machine work their hardest at keeping people happy. Rehearsals end and the show starts the first three Saturdays of December with the annual Breakfast at Buddy’s shows. The young actors interact with the audience, serve breakfast, then entertain, bringing Santa and his elves.
“The atmosphere is more intimate,” Capps says. “They have a whole different performing experience than being up on a stage.”
December’s third and fourth weekends, the young talent return to the stage for their annual holiday show, Home for the Holidays. Transformed into bears, tiny elves, Christmas trees, Rudolph and Santa, the youngsters dance to a medley of traditional Christmas songs: energetic tap dances, Nutcracker ballets, sashaying waltzes, swinging polkas, the rock-and-roll of Frosty Follies and the twirling Santa Claus Parade.
At Easter, Breakfast at Buddy’s returns, starring VIB, the Very Important Bunny.
Two summer shows, one for older performers ages 13 to 18 and one for ages seven to 14, attract many of Talent Machine’s newest members and have become a summer tradition for local theater buffs.
The kids of Talent Machine also perform their dancing and singing for special audiences. This year, as in past years, the company joins Southwest Airlines and Johns Hopkins Children’s Center for a Fantasy Flight to the North Pole. Young cancer patients and their families arrive at BWI airport, board a plane and ‘fly’ to the North Pole, where Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves entertain them with a holiday show and special treats. Many of the performers mark this as their favorite show.
See for Yourself
Ages up to 8 join Talent Machine’s Santa’s Breakfast Party. Doors open 8:30am Sat. Dec. 9 & 16 at Buddy’s Crabs & Ribs, Annapolis. $10.95; rsvp: 410-956-0512; www.talentmachine.com.
All ages come Home for the Holidays 2006 Dec. 15-17 & 21-23 at 7:30pm ThF; 2:30 & 7:30pm Sa; 2:30 & 6:30pm Su St John’s College’s Key Auditorium, Annapolis. $12 w/discounts: 410-956-0512; www.talentmachine.com.
Dotty Holcomb Doherty of Annapolis is a regular contributor to Bay Weekly. Her last story was Anticipation: The Winter Sojourn of the Tundra Swans (Vol. xiv, No. 46; Nov. 16).