THOUGH STILL A SENIOR in Thespian Troupe 6826 at Orange County School of the Arts, Mitchell Huntley boasts a theatrical résumé that would make some professionals envious. The author of six musicals and two plays, Huntley’s experience includes acting, writing, music directing, and producing, in addition to cofounding his own theatre company.

“I’ve always been interested in writing and storytelling,” Huntley said. “I would create stories, characters, fantasy universes, science fiction — anything imaginable. In elementary school, I came up with a comic book series about an anthropomorphic multiplication sign. When I was 11, I started to write lyrics for show ideas and hum melodies I would forget a few days later.”

Mitchell Huntley at the 2018 International Thespian Festival.

Mitchell Huntley at the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Corey Rourke.

Last summer, Huntley’s varied experiences culminated with the selection of his original musical How to Get a 5 on the AP Test (Without Really Trying) for the Thespian Musicalworks program at the 2018 International Thespian Festival. The story features five procrastinating students launched on a time-traveling adventure through history to cram for an important exam.

While the Santa Ana, Calif., native isn’t sure where his future adventures will take him, he knows they will include writing. “Wherever I go to college, I will continue writing musicals and plays and sharing my storytelling with the world,” Huntley said. “I will pursue the arts and find ways to better my community through music and theatre.”

What was your particular inspiration for How to Get a 5 on the AP Test? 
Like the protagonists of the show, I was heavily procrastinating on my AP world history test. It was spring break, and I hadn’t started studying. In a panic, I thought, “What should I do?” Then it hit me: What do I do best but write musicals? To challenge my knowledge and endurance, I decided to write the show in 24 hours.

I wasn’t just studying for the AP test or my final in the class but also for a quiz that my teacher planned to give on 40 dates he assigned, which are the same historic milestones mentioned in the show. Every time point the characters travel to — including the Great Schism of 1054, the death of Buddha, and even the mention of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, my proudest reference because I got to include one of my favorite historical dramas — was on the list.

How did the lessons from Thespian Musicalworks transfer to the high school premiere of your show at Orange County School of the Arts in September 2018? 
The advice I received from the wonderful professionals I worked with and the improvement to my storytelling and writing were invaluable. I was so grateful to work with such an amazing director in Brian Curl, phenomenal music director in Marques Higgins, and brilliant dramaturg in Joe Norton. As we cut and synthesized the story, I was able to see what stuck with audiences and what was sloppy. Working with professionals who had a different perspective helped me see How to Get a 5 in a new light.

When my Thespian troupe director decided to produce How to Get a 5 as part of our school’s Thespian Showcase, I was incredibly excited to share the rewrites I had done with the terrific professionals at festival. Performing as Brady in the high school premiere was fun. Playing the “nerd” wasn’t hard for me, but it was interesting to look at the show from inside the role, observing how Brady sees the world and how his relationships with other characters shift. As a writer, it’s easy to gloss over each of the characters’ experiences, but playing Brady really put into perspective every character’s contributions to the story and allowed me to give other characters more to contribute to the musical.

You cofounded Leatherbound Productions, a student-run company with the mission to promote and produce high school theatre. What has been the most satisfying aspect for you of this project?
In March 2018, I was talking with my good friend Riley Dun. After watching the Academy Awards, he was inspired to create student films and student work. I was eager to help make this dream a reality. We started a monthly open mic night at a local restaurant and helped promote the student-produced The Bright Blue Mailbox Suicide Note. The most satisfying aspect of Leatherbound has been the encouragement and excitement we’ve seen from students about creating new art. We’re launching a NewWorks Festival this June in Santa Ana to put on original plays by students. It’s my pet project, and I’m excited to get it off the ground.

How would you say your involvement in so many different aspects of theatre helps you write your own musicals?
I think that to be a musical theatre writer requires you to wear many different hats. While this accumulation of hats may seem excessive, I find it essential to crafting a narrative that can affect an audience. You must view your musical from the perspective of the actor, who must understand your meaning and intention so the audience can too, of the director, who must see a vision or message in your work, and of the producer, who must have the budget to create it.

While not an exhaustive list, these roles are vital perspectives to consider in theatrical storytelling. The different hats I’ve worn over the years help me make my stories believable yet fantastical, practical yet whimsical. I always look to make the story fun for the actor. And as someone who was always in the ensemble, I want every part in my shows to be meaningful and contribute to the story.

Do you have advice for other young people who want to write musicals?
Writing a musical is tough. There are moments when you’ll start comparing yourself to others’ work and find your work feels inferior. You will think your story isn’t relatable or your humor isn’t funny enough. Don’t listen to that little voice in your head — the pessimistic jerk. It’s wrong. You do you, enjoy your work, and the audience will enjoy it too. So many times when writing How to Get a 5, I wouldn’t know whether a joke belonged in the show. My bar was that if it made me laugh, it was worth it. If it didn’t, it wasn’t. Enjoy your work. Tell a story you want to tell, tell it your way, and you will find an audience that enjoys how you tell it.

One of the big worries is not knowing what comes first when writing musical theatre: the music or lyrics. In a master class, Richard Sherman [songwriter for Mary Poppins, among many other films] answered this way: “The story. The story always comes first.” And I think those are great words to live by. Getting started, it’s never about what your strongest aspect is. I’m a far better lyricist than composer, but for some of my musicals, the story has struck me through music first. Don’t ever feel you have to pigeonhole yourself into following a format, structure, or process. Art is fluid. Let the story take you on the journey.

Are you interested in writing? Learn more about Thespian Musicalworks, sponsored by TRW, online.

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