A performance troupe achieves a mission with a future of uncertainty

The Pauper Performance Troupe faces financial stress that will require more than the power of music to alleviate.

By Karen Stahl

The young woman’s eyes brimmed with tears as she watched the director, Parker Jenkins.

Jenkins stood with his performance troupe in the stairwell under the children’s hospital cafeteria. They quietly rehearsed “Morning Glow” from the musical, “Pippin.”

“While we sing tomorrow’s song,” they sang. “Never knew we could be so strong.”

The woman, who had just checked her child into the hospital, patiently waited for the group to finish.

After the final note, she silently wept.

“It just made my day hearing you guys sing in this space,” she said between tears. “It just really touched my soul.”

Jenkins gave the woman a hug, and a doctor ushered her away. They were achieving the mission of the Pauper Performance Troupe – to bring musical theater into unreached communities.

But as they moved from the stairwell, Jenkins didn’t know how much longer that mission could last.

He knew funding was running out.

The Pauper Performance Troupe was established at UNC-Chapel Hill in spring 2017 and has always encountered money issues. Without funding from the student government, they rely entirely on donations.

In fall 2018, the troupe raised $300 in donations, their entire budget for the rest of the school year.

Prior to that, the troupe found free karaoke tracks to sing to online. They did not go to nonprofit organizations that required costly background checks before performances. They relied on members paying out of pocket for rides to venues.

Producer, Emily Pirozzolo said the donation funds have given the troupe the ability to travel to more areas in the community, but it does not completely alleviate the financial stress.

They still need a new speaker.

 A Lack of Resources

The 11 troupe members at rehearsal sat red-faced and sweaty in a circle after running the same dance number four times in a row.

“Y’all look dead,” Jenkins said with a slight laugh. “Energy is your best friend. And there was not much of it in us.”

One of the troupe members let out a sigh.

“Can we just sing?” she asked.

“She’s tired,” someone defended.

Jenkins queued the karaoke track, and they got up to rehearse the number a fifth time.

“We can’t hear the music,” called out troupe member Liz Kunesh.

Frustrated, Jenkins mashed the volume button on his laptop, which was connected to a small, black speaker through a tangle of thick cords.

The troupe continued, unsure of where they were in the song. When they finished, they stood panting and more flushed than before.

“I don’t know if it’s been a long day, or it’s a Monday or whatever,” choreographer, Claire Willmschen said. “But the energy was not there.”

Kunesh knew it was not the troupe but the lack of resources.

According to the university’s annual financial report, the department of dramatic art received $12 million in 2018 to support the program. This was the most funding ever donated to the performing arts program.

This funding primarily went to support both the PlayMakers Repertory Company, a professional theater company on campus and the academic side of the department of dramatic art.

The Pauper Performance Troupe did not receive any of the funding.

Music director, Andrew Knudsen still uses a piano app on his phone to teach the troupe songs, rather than an actual keyboard. Jenkins still books rooms in the Carolina Union since they do not have money for a rehearsal studio.

“I wish we could get a super amazing, fancy speaker,” Jenkins said. “But that takes time. It takes money out of our funding.”

And time is something the Pauper Performance Troupe does not have.

High Hopes Conquer Cold Feet

“I’ve improved. I’ve gotten better,” said troupe member Kenan Poole in rehearsal, as he worked on the mashed potato, a dance move where he rapidly flips his feet out and back in.

“Kenan, you have it,” said Willmschen.

Poole was trying to focus on what weight was on which foot. He was trying to slow it down. He was trying to remember what came next.

They were preparing for the next day. Traveling to Jordan Lake School of the Arts to perform for students with special needs was daunting, especially with only one night of rehearsal.

Poole was nervous. They all were.

Especially with what happened last time they performed there.

Troupe member Kunesh walked up to Jenkins before they ran the number, tugging at the bottom of her shirt.

“I don’t know this yet,” she said.

“You got to learn it before you play it,” Jenkins said to her.

She ran off to a corner and ripped open her binder of sheet music, quietly running through her solo as a hectic flurry of dance moves as conversations unfolded in the center of the room.

They had high hopes it would not be like last time.

Struggling and Overcoming Together

Everyone was packed in one classroom like a sea of awestruck faces leaning off of their chairs.

The students in the audience came from diverse backgrounds – some had Down syndrome, were on the autism spectrum or were sensitive to loud sounds.
But they all loved musical theater.

At the last minute, one of the male tenors from the performance troupe did not show up. Jenkins, having not rehearsed the number, decided to take his place.

The first notes of “Fools Fall in Love” from “All Shook Up” floated through the room, and some of the audience members stood up to dance.

Just as the troupe members’ nerves were beginning to melt away, the karaoke track screeched to a halt.

It was the speaker.

They had to stop the performance.

The kids in the audiences audibly complained as Jenkins examined the speaker. Poole began to sing the number without music.

“Struggling together makes it a little bit easier,” he said.

Without a source for sound, the troupe had to come up with theater games to play with the kids instead. They still felt like they were bringing theater into an unreached community, but were disappointed that they could no longer perform.

Feeling defeated, the troupe headed back to their cars and left the school.

Jenkins cursed that broken speaker.

A Future of Hope and Uncertainty

“Okay, last time we run this one,” said Maria Cade, the assistant director.

“I know that’s a lie,” Kunesh said. “We’ll do it more than one more time.”

Jenkins settled back in his chair and watched the troupe rehearse the final number of the evening.

He was upset thinking about the small speaker. He was nervous about the next day’s performance.

But he felt inexplicable joy watching his troupe fight through the challenges of bringing musical theater to the community.

“It really speaks to the power of music,” he said.

The troupe finished the number. With weary smiles and sweat pouring down their temples, they collected their bags to go home.

Jenkins knows they are achieving their mission of bringing musical theater into unreached communities.

But the future of the troupe is still marked with uncertainty – with every performance, their funds diminish.

All he can do is hope their speaker holds out a little bit longer.

Edited by Diane Adame