FutureStars profiles: AAPS teens prove talent is plentiful in district

Profiles by Terry Jacoby/weloveannarbor.com

Pioneer senior Ella Maki grew up in a house filled with music

Music echoes through Ella Maki’s family. Always has. Probably always will.

“My family is very involved with music and both of my grandparents taught music so it’s a very big part of my life,” says Maki, a senior at Pioneer HS. “I have been doing music since elementary school and it has always been my passion.”

Maki’s “passion” will hit center stage this month as she performs in the Pioneer Theatre Guild’s FutureStars 2020. The 18th annual citywide talent search for Ann Arbor’s next star is Jan. 17-18 with the finals on Jan. 25 at Pioneer High School’s Schreiber Auditorium. The event features students from Ann Arbor’s public high schools as they sing, rap, and play music.

Maki, who performed in band and choir in middle school, continued her musical path with choir in high school. Then, she took a slightly different step.

Ella Maki in a photo by Sean Carter Photography

“When I got to Pioneer, I decided to join Pioneer Theater Guild because I had always wanted to try theater and I saw PTG’s production of Grease and Rock of Ages which really sparked my interest in the program,” she says. “I’ve now been in a total of 14 shows in my time at Pioneer. My favorite shows I’ve been in so far are Hunchback of Notre Dame during my freshman year and Matilda where I played Lavender during my senior year.”

Maki also has been in Future Stars all four years. She was in Rising Stars, an underclassman ensemble that performs group numbers in each of the themes, for the first two years. Her favorite number with Rising Stars was 21 Guns by Green Day during her freshman year.

Last year, as a junior, Maki sang We Got the Beat by the GoGos in a girls group; Goodbyes by Jorja Smith with Natalie Michelson; and Material Girl by Madonna with Freya Benson.

“I had a lot of fun last year,” she says. “It was my first year actually competing in Future Stars so it was somewhat overwhelming, but I enjoyed it enough to do it again this year. I wanted to do Future Stars this year because I love performing.”

This year, Maki is singing Love Song by Sara Bareilles as a solo and 7 Rings by Ariana Grande with Zoe Resendez, Simone Mahler, and Shyanne Wilson.

“I like performing because I love to sing and I like to be a part of a community,” she says. “I definitely get nervous sometimes, especially when I’m alone on stage which I haven’t had a lot of experience with. When I’m with a group, my nerves tend to disappear. When I get nervous, I focus on my breathing and think about all of my friends backstage rooting for me.”

Maki loves the collaborative part of FutureStars and how everyone cheers and supports everyone.

“This year is a little different from previous years because we get to work with two coaches instead of one,” she said. “For the first few weeks, we just work with our music coach learning the music and memorizing it.

“During the last week before tech week, we begin to work with performance coaches who help us with the performance aspects of our number like what to do while singing and what to wear. During tech week, we move our numbers to the main stage and begin to put all of the aspects together with lights and sound and our live band.”

Ella, the daughter of Bruce Maki and Rachel Naasko and stepdad Nate Canvasser, is an excellent student. She had a 3.99 GPA and also is in the Acapella choir at Pioneer and is the President of the school’s Choir Council.

She will attend the University of Michigan School of Nursing in the class of 2024.

“I can’t wait,” she says.

And she also can’t wait for Friday night – because music is in her DNA.

Huron senior Avani Carter is a “volcano” of preparation, talent and voice

Avani Carter stands behind the curtain. She can see the bright lights off in the distance. She can feel the blood begin to run through her veins. She can hear the crowd – and she’s about to hear her name.

“Thirty seconds before I go on stage, I realize that I worked my butt off and now it’s showtime,” says Carter, a senior at Huron High School who will be performing in the extremely popular Pioneer Theatre Guild’s FutureStars 2020. “My favorite thing about performing is all the time I spend preparing and imagining how the performance will go.”

The hard work, passion and commitment to her craft gives her incredible confidence. And when she finally steps on stage and the spotlight greets her, well, that is the ultimate moment of truth. It’s you, your voice and the audience. It’s as real as real gets. It’s, as she calls it, showtime.

“When I perform, a different kind of kinetic energy bursts out of me, like a volcano,” she says. “Of course, before a performance, nervousness always occurs. I do begin to pace. I always peek on stage to view the audience and I see every single seat is filled. I see judges whisper, giggle and smile while they watch other performers. It’s an incredible feeling and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

The 18th annual citywide talent search for Ann Arbor’s next star is Jan. 17-18 with the finals on Jan. 25 at Pioneer High School’s Schreiber Auditorium. The event features students from Ann Arbor’s public high schools as they sing, rap, and play music. Carter will be performing “Fallin” by Alicia Keys and also singing a duet with Cali Hill of the song “Carry on Wayward Son” by the band Kansas.

Carter, the daughter of Che’ and Angelique Carter, says it’s time to spread her wings and show everyone exactly what she is made of – and the best way to do that is with her beautiful voice. “Well my parents have always told me to use your talents or else they’ll disappear so that’s exactly what I’m doing,” she says. “In this case, my talent is singing. I can show the city exactly what I am made of. My voice speaks for a different part of me that I can’t explain in speaking, but can explain throughout song so I use that to my advantage and as a support system for myself.”

And she feels quite at home on stage.

I love performing constantly because I always have a chance to improve and create a new memory,” she says. “When I perform, the goal is to always do better than I have the previous performance.”

This will be Carter’s third time on the FutureStars stage. As a sophomore, she hit the stage three times: a solo “What You Don’t Do” by Lianne La Havas; a trio of “Baby One More Time;” and “You Don’t Own Me,” by Lesley Gore with a group. Last year as a junior, she had two duets (“Best Part,” by Daniel Caesar and “H.E.R and Kiss,” by Prince. She also had a solo (“Killing me softly with his song,” by the Fugees) where she reached the finals as a wild card.

Carter says last year’s experience was “enlightening.”

“It’s very different than just singing a song and being done with it,” she explains. “It’s an entire experience that involves preparation, focus, communication, and perseverance. I say perseverance because within those two months that we spend preparing we end up enduring illness, finals for some of us and just everyday life. I am really lucky to have been a part of this and it’s definitely something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

And singing has always been a big part of her life. She was a regular performer during afternoon meetings on the carpet at Mitchell Elementary.

“I didn’t begin theater until my freshman year of high school at Community High,” says Carter, who has appeared in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Disaster!” and “School of Rock.” “The last three plays I’ve had named roles in. In September 2019 I auditioned at American Idol in Detroit and have an America’s Got Talent audition coming up this month.”

Carter says, “hopefully, I’ll be on stage someway, somehow” when it comes to a future. But she also has a pretty impressive backup plan just in case. “The big goal is to live and work in New York by 27. Otherwise, I will be attending WCC on the pre-law track and then transferring to U-M’s law program.”

But singing will always be a big part of her life. Once you experience the thrill of showtime it’s impossible to walk away.

Pioneer senior Maggie Packard’s leap of faith lands her at center stage

No one likes rejection, and the fear of being denied your dream or passion or even something you want to try, sometimes keeps people from even trying. Maggie Packard was one of those people.

“My family has gone to see Future Stars since I was about 8 years old,” says the Pioneer HS senior. “After seeing the show several years in a row, I knew that it was something incredible that I wanted to be a part of. I had auditioned to be a host my junior year and did not receive a part, and originally was not going to audition this year because I was afraid of rejection.

“However, after encouragement from my mom and several of my friends, I decided to audition because it was my last chance to be a host in Future Stars.”

Packard’s bravery – and talent and skill – were rewarded when she was named one of six hosts for Pioneer Theatre Guild’s FutureStars 2020. The 18th annual citywide talent search for Ann Arbor’s next star is Jan. 17-18 with the finals on Jan. 25 at Pioneer High School’s Schreiber Auditorium. The event features students from Ann Arbor’s public high schools as they sing, rap, and play music.

“I will be performing as one of the six hosts this year, meaning that instead of performing and taking part in the competition, I will be introducing the competing acts and entertaining the audience with opening skits before each show,” says Packard.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography

She says the experience has been somewhat “surreal.”

“I’ve wanted to be a Future Stars host since my freshman year of high school, and now that it has finally happened, I feel an amazing sense of accomplishment and like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed writing jokes, getting to know the other hosts, and having the opportunity to grow as a writer and performer.”

Packard was in Future Stars her freshman and sophomore year of high school as a part of the group Rising Stars. She performed at the show but did not compete in the competition aspect of the show.

She sang in a total of eight group numbers: Halo by Beyonce; Twenty-One Guns by Green Day; Wild Things by Alessia Cara; Dance with Me by Air Supply; Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars; You Get What You Give by New Radicals; You Can’t Stop The Beat from Hairspray, and I Love Me By Meghan Trainor). She even had a solo in the song I Love Me.

My favorite thing about being on stage is that I have the opportunity to become a completely different person, but at the same time I’m just able to show everyone my truest self,” she says. “I think that performing is an incredibly unique way to convey your emotions and show the world who you truly are.

Packard admits that performing is a love-nervous relationship.

“Performing honestly terrifies me, but I love it at the same time,” she says. “I enjoy the rush of adrenaline that comes during and after a performance. I don’t usually love being the center of attention, but when I’m performing, I just try to breathe deep, enjoy myself, and pretend I’m alone in my room.”

While part of FutureStars is a competition, there also is a very supportive and encouraging aspect to the event. The six hosts rehearse about three times a week with “wonderful coach,” Julie Strassel.

“At these rehearsals, we brainstorm skits and introductions, write them out, and then act them out and improve them from there,” says Packard. “The atmosphere between the hosts is such a positive and supportive group. Our rehearsals are productive, but at the same time I feel like I’m getting to know my fellow hosts better and would consider all of them my friends.”

Packard started performing in choir in seventh grade but did not get involved with theatre until ninth grade. She became involved with Pioneer Theatre Guild as a freshman because “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to get involved with, and many of my friends had done shows with PTG and loved it.”

Her first show with PTG was Future Stars 2017. She went on to participate in The Wizard of Oz, High School Musical, Future Stars 2018 and Fame The Musical.

“I also discovered my passion for working behind the scenes through Pioneer Theatre Guild,” says Packard, who has been on the costumes crew for the shows In the Heights, Willy Wonka, and Matilda. “While I do enjoy being on stage, I also love to make the costumes for the actors onstage.”

Maggie, the daughter of Don Packard and Maria Murphy, is an excellent student. She has a 3.9 grade-point average and is a member of the Pioneer Theatre Guild’s Comedy Troupe and Pioneer’s a cappella group Harmony.

She plans on going to college next year, most likely to Kalamazoo College or University of Pittsburgh. “I’m not quite sure what I will study there, but it will most likely involve reading and writing,” she says.

Kat Berens finds her role backstage challenging, exciting and definitely rewarding

Kat Berens admits that sometimes it appears that she is daydreaming or drifting off into space. But it’s quite the opposite really. The Pioneer High School senior is taking on the very important role of stage manager for the upcoming FutureStars 2020 event and says there is an incredible amount of hard work and energy that goes into not only putting together such a show but pulling it off.

And – sometimes – between all the hard work, organization and commitment, she just can’t help herself from stopping and marveling. Because while it’s her job and task to see the big picture, she still enjoys taking in the smaller views from time to time.

“FutureStars is really great because everyone gets the opportunity to shine on stage, and I love watching everyone’s performance develop,” she says. “Ann Arbor has so much talent, so being able to showcase talent from across the district to sold-out audiences feels amazing. We are really lucky at Pioneer to be able to put on multiple main-stage productions filled with crazy talented cast and crew.”

Berens says her favorite thing about being a stage manager is “being a part of the whole show” as it comes together, from auditions to the first rehearsal to opening night. It’s also about collaboration and helping each other be the best they can be rather than winning a trophy or prize.

FutureStars is my favorite show we do at Pioneer because I get to work with so many great and talented people,” she says. “We have really talented professional pianists and vocal coaches to help the performers learn their songs, and we get the opportunity to work with U-M performance coaches to polish each number. The environment of FutureStars is positive and supportive. People here are more focused on supporting and cheering for their peers than on whether they win or lose.

Pioneer Theatre Guild’s FutureStars 2020, the 18th annual citywide talent search for Ann Arbor’s next star, is Jan. 17-18 with the finals on Jan. 25 at Pioneer High School’s Schreiber Auditorium. The event features students from Ann Arbor’s public high schools as they sing, rap, and play music.

Berens has been involved in PTG since the spring of her freshman year, first as a cast member, then on costume’s crew, before ultimately discovering her true passion as stage manager.

“My freshman and sophomore year I enjoyed FutureStars from the audience,” she says. “FutureStars has a unique energy totally different from the musicals and I always wanted to find a way to be involved. I really enjoyed stage managing it last year and as head stage manager this year.”

There is the old saying that “my job is doing whatever needs to be done” and that is a perfect description for a stage manager.  Berens’ role includes running daily rehearsals as well as calling light and sound cues throughout the shows. She and her backstage team oversee the cast as well as anything technical.

“We cue everything from microphones being placed on stage to the confetti cannons shot over the winners at finals,” she says. “As head stage manager, I call light cues from the back of the theater, and communicate any backstage cues to assistant stage managers, sound crew and lights crew.”

All of the FutureStars can take comfort in knowing that they have a hard-working, dedicated and experienced crew running the show, led by their head stage manager. This allows them to focus on their own performance without having to worry about everything else. Stage managing FutureStars is very different from working on musicals, according to Berens, who is working on her fifth PTG show as a stage manager and second with FutureStars. It certainly provides its own set of challenges.

“Instead of calling prop or set cues, we make sure everything is prepared number by number – changing lights, microphones, and performers for each act – so it can get pretty stressful,” she says. “If something goes wrong, we are there working on the fly to fix it.

“But there is something really electrifying about this show, and watching the show come together from the very beginning and experiencing the excitement of the live performance is undoubtedly rewarding.”

Berens admits she “always gets nervous” before every show even though she isn’t stepping out on stage like a lot of her friends. “Everyone in the crew, cast and production team have put a lot of work into each show, so it’s really important to me that everything goes off without a hitch. Making sure everyone is ready to start the show is nerve-wracking, especially as a stage manager because a lot of people rely on you for help or if something goes wrong. I just take a deep breath and know that I am supported by the rest of the crew and that if anything were to go wrong we’d work together quickly to get it solved.”

Berens has participated as a cast member in both musicals and plays since she was in middle school. As a sophomore at Pioneer, she took the trip backstage and liked the view despite the hard work. “I quickly knew that I wanted to be backstage, seeing everything that goes into such a large scale show,” says Berens, whose first show as stage manager was Willy Wonka, the fall of her junior year. “I knew stage management would become my place at PTG. I love taking on the responsibility of running rehearsals and calling cues. It’s a unique experience and it is super fun to get to work so closely with my fellow stage managers, Ryan Stubbs and Owen O’Connell, as well as the directors and producers.”

Kat, the daughter of Anne and Rich Berens, manages the classroom equally as well. She has a 3.9 GPA and also is the PTG Student Board Secretary. She plans on attending Washington University in St. Louis this fall in their College of Arts and Sciences.

“I have no idea what I want to study yet, but I’m excited to explore a variety of different subjects and I’m sure I’ll continue stage managing, at least for fun,” she says.

Yes, you can work hard and still have fun. Kat Berens has discovered exactly that backstage.

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