Jill Wheeler doesn’t try to fit her musical theater students into a script and score from Samuel French or Dramatists Play Service — the two major theater publishing and licensing companies.
Instead, Wheeler writes original musicals for her students, she said, drawing on their talents and potential. Wheeler, who attended the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University and the KD Conservatory College of Film and Dramatic Arts, is in the process of relocating her lessons and musical theater school from Ohio to Denton.
“It started back in 1991,” said Wheeler, who recently made the move back to Denton. “A friend of mine was teaching music and thought that I could teach drama. I had never done it, but I had performed most of my life. That’s what led me to the business I have now. I don’t know of any other children’s theater that teaches the way I do.”
Music and performance are in Wheeler’s DNA. She grew up in a family band. Her dad played the electric bass, and she and her sisters rounded out the band. Joy played piano. Julie played drums and sang harmonies. Jan played tambourine and Jill played banjo, guitar, drums and mandolin. The girls’ mom ran sound. The family toured Texas, playing on television shows and any stage or venue they could. Wheeler played opry stages as a teenager. She attended Marcus High School in Flower Mound, where she “did lots of theater” before studying theater arts and voice at UNT. She recorded an album, All of Me, that got some airplay in Dallas.
Eventually, Wheeler landed in Ohio with her first husband and a growing family — she’s a mom of seven children, age 26 to 3. When she started teaching in the early 1990s, she felt that typical children’s theater highlighted just a few students, pushing most of the young players to the periphery.
“The reason I started writing my own original shows was because I wanted every kid in that class to have a real role. I wanted them all to have lines, songs and time on the stage,” Wheeler said.
Her teaching gig turned into her own business, Curtain Call Productions. She teaches a foundational course — singing classes that teach breath control, singing in head and chest voice, ear training and songwriting. Dubbed “Voices of Tomorrow,” the class takes kids aged 8 to 16 through 13 weeks of training. She keeps classes small — seven students at the most. Wheeler adds as many singing classes as needed. Fall classes will focus on Christmas music.
The musical theater classes, Curtain Call Children’s Theatre, will open in Denton in February for ages 6 to 16. The company produces two shows a year.
“Curtain Call is all collaborative,” she said. “The kids can make suggestions and if they work, they go in the show. These kids are more creative than we know. They come up with great stuff.”
Wheeler said her classes and rehearsals are open to parents.
“It’s a very positive environment,” Wheeler said of the children’s theater. “It’s not as structured as other programs, though. I don’t say, ‘We’re working on this today, now no talking.’ There is kind of a chaotic beauty to the rehearsals. We rehearse and work on music and choreography — the choreography involves everyone on stage — and we work on the songs, but we also work on what needs attention. So it’s a little less structured than other programs.”
Her goal in both singing classes and children’s theater is to teach the young players solid technique.
“I want to build their technique, but the goal is not to change their voice,” Wheeler said. “I’m not trying to turn any of the students into opera singers. I don’t do scale work — it’s boring for a lot of kids and doesn’t always teach them what you’re trying to teach. We’ll find songs they like to sing, break them down and sing them. I look at is as shaping their individual voice and giving them confidence, not changing it.”
Registration is open for Voices of Tomorrow singing classes, which start Sept. 9.