For Miranda Rae Mayo and Michael J. Willett, they’ll always be Juniors
She blazes her way into your living room on NBC’s “Chicago Fire.” Last year he finished a three-season run starring in the MTV series “Faking It.” In Hollywood, these two accomplished actors are successful professionals with long lists of credits on their IMDB pages and bright futures ahead of them.
But put twentysomethings Miranda Rae Mayo and Michael J. Willett back onto the small stage at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater in Fresno, and it’s like they’re in elementary school once again, wearing their first names on their T-shirts.
“Everything I do moving forward is forever affected by this experience of coming home,” Miranda tells me. “It’s all about remembering where you came from. There’s this voice that kind of goes off in my head that says, ‘It’s just Fresno.’ But that’s where I’m from.”
Miranda (who played Don Johnson’s daughter in the ABC series “Blood & Oil”) and Michael (who starred in the feature film “GBF” and played a recurring role on Showtime’s “The United States of Tara”) are proud alumni of the Junior Company Players, the youth ensemble that for decades has provided pre-show entertainment before Good Company Players productions. They are among a long list of performers who received top-notch theater training and have gone on to great things in the business.
Now both are back in town for the holidays, and they’re ready to give back.
The non-profit Junior Company Foundation presents “Homecoming,” an evening of songs and memories from Mayo, Willett and some special guests. The fundraiser is 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 26, at Roger Rocka’s. Tickets are $25. (And I’m giving away a pair of tickets to a lucky reader — see details at the end of this post.)
I have fond memories of covering Miranda and Michael at the beginning of their illustrious careers. (Two of my strongest impressions: Michael opposite Emily Pessano in 2007’s thoroughly cheery “Thoroughly Modern Millie”; and Miranda wowing me that same year in the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Zombie Prom.”)
The two friends have kept in touch through the years, and when the idea started kicking around with Junior Company Foundation president Julie Lucido for a benefit concert on the day after Christmas, they made it happen.
I wanted to interview both in person, for old time’s sake, but only Miranda was in town early. So she and I set up a pair of chairs in the Junior Company rehearsal annex, put my iPad on a chair opposite, and brought Michael into the discussion through Facetime from his Southern California digs. (We kept things informal; he made a pizza and roamed his abode while the three of us chatted up a storm.) Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Donald: What are your most dominant memories of being in the Juniors?
Michael: I was only 10 when I started in the Juniors. My mom would give me $5, and with that I would walk with the older kids over to Me and Ed’s for lunch. I could get my own personal pizza. That was my first feeling of having a job, of being a “working professional.” I also remember I was kicked out of the first number, “Let’s Get Physical,” because my dancing skills were not up to par at that time.
Michael: I feel like I really learned how to be a professional from Junior Company.
Donald: So the Junior Company directors were pretty strict with you from the very beginning and had high expectations, even with the younger kids.
Miranda: Oh yeah. Which is a blessing.
Michael: You were always representing them as a company. It was great for me in terms of training.
Donald: Miranda, what’s your memory?
Miranda: The first thing that comes to mind, the most poignant for me, was getting my first solo.
Michael: That’s a good one.
Miranda: Oh my god. I remember we all had to audition.
Michael: What song was it?
Miranda: “Proud Mary.” I remember I had just moved to Fresno. My parents had just gotten divorced. So it was hard. I wasn’t really fitting in at school. I came from Visalia, which was very ethnically diverse, and then I went to Copper Hills Elementary School in Clovis. There were a lot of white kids, there was a lot of money, and I wasn’t used to that, coming from Visalia, where my school didn’t even have money for sports. And then I got here, and it was really cold and hard to fit in.
I remember I wore this knit cape that I had that was secondhand that I was just crazy about. I thought it was so cute. I walked in and I remember some girls looking at my outfit, and they were whispering and laughing. Then my mom heard about this thing called the Junior Company, and I remember coming to audition for the first time in the theater. The feeling I got, just seeing the stage, the kids that were there: It was like coming home.
Donald: Michael, what was your experience like fitting in at school?
Michael: It was interesting going back to school after spending so much time at Junior Company. I found it difficult to relate to my peers at school. It was like I had this whole life and career outside of it. I feel like when you’re in the entertainment industry, you’re expected to be an adult very quickly. It was difficult for me to integrate those skills I learned by being around adults with being around other kids and other teenagers. That was like a whole different set of skills. That made me feel a little alienated, but it also made me feel like I had this secret special thing outside of the school bubble.
Donald: One thing I’ve always thought about community theater: It’s an intergenerational experience.
Donald: It’s so amazing to watch kids relate to adults in a more mature way. You two, as actors, had that over your classmates back in school.
Miranda: That camaraderie. It’s this idea that collaboration can happen anywhere.
Michael: I still had friends at school that I liked and hung out with. But it was like it was two different worlds.
Donald: Miranda, what was it like to make that leap from the Junior Company to mainstage shows at Roger Rocka’s?
Miranda: It was exhilarating and empowering. It was that thing you were just talking about: an opportunity to interact and engage with adults, as peers. We were rehearsing together, and we were collaborating together, and I was held to a higher standard. It was a nice escape and nice structure for me, because my home life was really quite a mess.
Michael: If we’re being honest, mine too. (laughs)
Miranda: My parents were still divorced, and that was hard. My father was, bless him, a deep-in-his-addiction alcoholic. Things were unraveling, and getting more and more difficult to maintain this placid facade. Going to Junior Company and going to theater, and being able to dance, and have adults there — it was important. I knew Junior Company was going to be there at 6 p.m. for rehearsal every weekday we were scheduled. That made a world of a difference to me as an adolescent in my whole life and the chaos that was going on.
Michael: I agree. It was a familial experience. It was nice to have a family outside of the home.
Donald: Was there a point for both of you when you thought that this was something you really wanted to do as a professional?
Michael: It was always something I was doing. I was always singing, imitating the TV and radio, or putting on a show in the backyard. People said: We need to get this kid a bigger stage.
Donald: What about you, Miranda?
Miranda: I remember seeing “Save the Last Dance” when I was 9. Julia Stiles is working so hard to get into Juilliard. And I remember that school represented the mecca for artistry and mastery. When I did “Zombie Prom,” you wrote a review that said you could see me following in the steps of Audra McDonald or going to Juilliard. It meant so much to me.
Donald: That means a lot to me that you remember that.
Miranda: I had never thought that highly of myself, and I thank you for that.
Donald: You’re very welcome. It’s been a joy to be able to write about Good Company over the years. I don’t like to do the “I told you so” thing, but I do want to say that when I saw both of you on stage, I knew you were going to do great things. One of the things I tell people is that I never miss the Juniors perform because one of the great things is to see that progression …
Miranda: The journey!
Donald: … of performers growing up. How many times have I done that, where I watched some scrappy little kid grow up to be amazing?
Miranda: It’s still happening! Look at us, coming back to put on a production of our own original music, and the team of people who have come together to make it happen. We’re still Juniors.
Donald: So you’re going to be singing original songs. Michael, I know that’s a big part of what you do — you’ve released one album, another is on its way, and you have a single out right now called “The Long Way Home,” which you can download on your website. Miranda, I didn’t realize that songwriting is also a passion for you.
Miranda: Absolutely. I think Michael definitely has more expertise and more hours logged when it comes to songwriting. The stockpile of songs he has in his catalog is incredible.
Michael: Aw, go on. You’re so sweet.
Donald: The two of you actually met in “Grease” at GCP. Remind me, what role did you play, Michael?
Michael: I played Teen Angel. I was the understudy for Danny. And Miranda was the understudy for Sandy.
Miranda: I was Woman No. 4 every night in the show.
Michael: And dance captain, Miranda!
Miranda: Oh my god, I was! I forgot about that!
Donald: Michael, we have your face right now sitting on a chair under the poster for “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Michael: Aw, that was the highlight of my GCP career.
Donald: Was that your favorite show?
Michael: I definitely have a fondness for coming out of the ceiling of Roger Rocka’s (as Teen Angel in “Grease”) and also “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Donald: Miranda, what was your favorite memory?
Miranda: How funny that these two posters are together. I loved “Hot Mikado.”
Michael: Did they do that on purpose, put “The Hot Mikado” next to “Thoroughly Modern Millie”?
Donald: No, it was completely random.
Miranda: Don’t know why, but gotta trust the vibes.
Michael: Trust the vibes!
Miranda: That has been our mantra for the creation of this show. I genuinely believe that when you set an intention and have a vision of what you want, you allow it to pull you, allow it to lead you and guide you. There are times when you think you have a plan about how things should go down. But you just have a feeling you should go this way. And the only explanation is: Don’t know why, gotta trust the vibes.
Michael: As a musician and a performer, that’s a constant practice, of being in the moment. I have no control over this, so I have to surrender to it. It’s something we do in our craft and in our lives.
Donald: In terms of the industry, is something like Junior Company special? Do you have to explain to people what it was and why it was so important to you?
Michael: Yes. I always say it’s like “The Mickey Mouse Club.” I tell people it was sort of like a training ground for what I do.
Donald: And then you name some names, like Audra McDoald.
Miranda: Even with “The Mickey Mouse Club,” look: Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Fergie — all of these people because when they were younger they had this foundation, this pace to go where they were free to express themselves.
Michael: And, Donald, I really feel like in this generation of Youtube stars, it’s important to point out that having a craft isn’t something that happens overnight. People have told me there is a difference between somebody who has been crafting this and working on it since they were young, and someone who just stumbled on it overnight.
Donald: I just did a piece on the national tour of “Cirque Dreams,” and the creative director was saying that all of the artists she books are from these Russian and Ukrainian circuses when the kids have been doing their acts since they were 3. We were talking about how when I go to the circus I have this fear that someone is going to fall. She said, “They never fall, and I don’t have any problem with it because they’ve been doing it since they were practically born.”
Miranda: Is there a trapeze in town? Because we’ve got to get you over this. (laughs)
Donald: I know, I know. I went to the show, and nobody fell, so I was fine. OK, give me a quick pitch for Tuesday’s show at Roger Rocka’s.
Michael: You can expect a nostalgic evening of music and of homecoming. We’re coming home. We’re coming back to where we started this thing called performing. You can come into our space and feel like they’re part of our family.
Miranda: The thing you can expect is a sense of aliveness and inspiration. That’s how this whole thing has been birthed. Our mission statement is to give people a sense of freedom, a sense of belonging, and a sense of inspiration. Ideally, that’s what you’ll feel like when you come home, which is what we felt when we joined the juniors.
Donald: Michael, what do you say to someone who’s thinking about joining the Juniors?
Michael: Do it. With anything, I think, but especially in the entertainment industry, you’re going to have people who don’t like you. You’re going to have people tell you that you aren’t good enough. Ultimately what it comes down to is that you have to want to do it. If you don’t want to go through all that, maybe you shouldn’t do it. But if you want to, you should just do it.
Miranda: Just do it!
Michael: Remember that you’re always getting better. I think sometimes what stops people is this feeling of “I’m not good enough,” or “someone else is better than me.” But just as I said in the beginning, I was the chubby kid who couldn’t dance and got kicked out of the first number of my Junior Company show.
Donald: And you, Miranda, any advice?
Miranda. I would say: Always look people in the eyes, and don’t be afraid of what you feel when you’re present with someone.
And I also say, whatever it is you want, know without a shadow of doubt that it is a desire that burns your heart, that you will get there. Everything on the way is leading you. Everything is pulling you. In “Moana,” there’s this part where she is crying to the ocean, “Help me! I could use a little help.” And a storm comes and wrecks her boat. And she’s so mad. She says, “What? I asked for help!” And then there on the island, where she gets wrecked, was exactly what she was looking for. You’re gonna get there. Knowing that is half the battle.
I’m giving away a pair of tickets to “Homecoming” featuring Michael J. Willett and Miranda Rae Mayo. To enter, leave a comment on this post with a message for Michael or Miranda (or both). Examples: You could mention your favorite professional project you’ve seen them in, or what you think of Michael’s new single, or ask Miranda what it was like working with Don Johnson, or maybe even share a memory from seeing them at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater or Children’s Musical Theaterworks. (Or, if you’re shy, you can just say why you want to see the performance.) I’ll pick a winner at random. Deadline is 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 24. I’ll notify the winner later that evening. (Yes, I know it’s a holiday, but try to check your email.)
“Homecoming,” 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 26, Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave., Fresno. $25.
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