Encore! cast and crew members donate their time and talent, and log a cumulative 50,000 volunteer hours yearly in planning, rehearsing and performing shows who’s proceeds benefit local charities.
When Hairspray fans watch the tumultuous effort to integrate the “The Corny Collins Show” unfold during a lavish production slated for later this summer, you can bet that musical conductor Clay Price will be marveling at yet another milestone in a similarly improbable — and unstoppable — journey.
Yearning for something to enliven the after-work lives of Walt Disney World cast members — that’s what all Disney employees are called — Price had a dramatic idea.
Why not start a theater group in which everyone — entertainers, accountants, cashiers and custodians — could participate? After all, the Happiest Place on Earth has always been brimming with talent, much of it untapped.
“I really didn’t think it would last,” says Price, now Encore!’s artistic director. “We did it for fun when we started. But it really just took off and has become quite the monster — as I like to jokingly call it.”
Fifteen years and more than 40 performances later, Encore! takes to the Walt Disney Theater with Hairspray, on July 22 and 23 at 8 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively. Tickets start at $20. The raucous dance-style musical, which ran for more than 2,500 performances on Broadway, was inspired by the 1998 cult-classic film written and directed by John Waters. NBC aired a highly rated live version last year.
Encore! presented Godspell in February, and will conclude its season with a yet-to-be-announced show in October. This is the first year the all-volunteer company has offered three full-scale musical extravaganzas. Previously there was one “big” show and a number of less time-intensive revues or cabarets, says Price.
“Since it’s the 15th anniversary of Hairspray’s debut on Broadway, as well as the 15th anniversary of our company, I thought it was the perfect time for us to do this production,” Price says.
Perfect synchronicity, given the fact that 15 years ago Encore! might easily have been dismissed as a harebrained scheme. After all, in 2001 Disney already boasted a cast-member theater group called STAGE.
Around that time, Price, who had joined Disney four years earlier as a percussionist in the Disney Grammy All-American College Orchestra at Epcot, saw a televised Andrew Lloyd Webber birthday celebration taped at the Royal Albert Hall. That broadcast was the inspiration for Encore!
“Coming from the parks, our cast performs the same roles day in and day out, multiple times a day, in some cases,” Price says. “Or, if they’re not in performing roles, they’re dealing with all sorts of factors related to the daily workings of a theme park.”
Life can be pretty mundane, Price admits, even in the Magic Kingdom. “Everyone should be able to have an outlet to work out those creative muscles — even if it’s not what they do professionally on a day-to-day basis,” he adds.
That philosophy appealed to what became an enthusiastic pickup crew of about 70 singers, musicians and dancers, who presented a cabaret-style collection of Broadway standards during Encore!’s 2002 debut, Curtain’s Up!, at the ABC Theatre (now the Hyperion Theater) at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The Webber salute that inspired Price was, of course, a large-scale production with a huge set, orchestra and cast. “In contrast, since Encore! was just starting out with no budget, I knew we needed to try to keep things as simple as possible,” Price says. “That’s why we did our first show in that style.”
Over the next dozen years, Encore! expanded its offerings — slowly adding sets, costumes and lighting effects while serving up a musical gumbo of patriotic anthems, gospel hymns, rock ballads, movie soundtracks and pop favorites with larger casts and more musicians.
Its largest production to date, 2010’s Dream Our Dreams, a Disney tribute at the Epcot World Showplace, involved more than 600 people, including cast and crew. Not at all hyperbolically, Price called the experience “mind-blowing.”
“It proved that what we had started years ago, in the most humble way possible, was something that people needed and wanted,” he says.
Still, because its performances were held exclusively on Disney property, Encore! remained a well-kept secret in the local arts community. That changed in 2015, when the company debuted Aida in Concert — its first full-fledged, non-revue production — at the arts center.
“That was a turning point in our evolution, and now we’re trying to make our mark in Central Florida,” says Encore! producer Tommy Mendoza. He joined the group six years ago after moving to Orlando from California, where he worked in merchandise, attractions and entertainment at the Disneyland Resort.
“Encore! was extremely successful as an internal team,” he continues. “But we wanted to do more, to become even more deeply engaged and to give back in the way we know best — though our art and our talent.”
Over its run, Encore! has donated roughly $300,000, all from proceeds from its ticket sales, to local charities, including United Arts, the Red Chair Project, the Second Harvest Food Bank, A Better Life Pet Rescue, the Make a Wish Foundation and others.
“Philanthropy and helping others has been in my blood for such a long time,” Price says. “And there are so many people who love to give back. This is just one more way for them to be able to do that.”
The Walt Disney Theater is, of course, not a Disney venue. But in 2011, Encore! donated proceeds from a summer concert to the fundraising campaign for the arts center, which was then in the wish-upon-a-star stage.
Now, Encore! performs in the facility that it helped to build. In doing so, it is building for itself a following outside the environs of the theme park, where its first shows were held and seen primarily by other cast members, friends and families.
Still, Encore! remains best known for its passionate, enthusiastic onstage performances. Price has gigged with such stars as Shirley Jones, Sandy Duncan and Carol Channing — and says none of those luminaries outshine his all-volunteer casts. That’s not surprising, considering the Disney ethos of guest-centric perfection that permeates every aspect of the operation.
“I don’t see much of a difference,” he says. “Even though most of the cast members aren’t ‘professionals’ in the entertainment world, their dedication is no different than someone who’s been performing professionally their entire life.”
For Hairspray, which will be Encore!’s most ambitious production outside Disney’s borders, Price promises an exciting spectacle that truly channels the Encore! spirit.
“Sometimes, the person who’s in the background can step out and be the star,” he says. “I think all of us have a little Tracy Turnblad in us.”
by Darryl E. Owens for artsLife magazine