;While the town of Kissimmee does not automatically conjure images of theater, this is the new Central Florida, where stage talent can mushroom even in a place better known for cow patties and theme parks.


;The Osceola Center for the Arts long has been an outpost for visual and performing arts in Kissimmee, growing along with the real estate developments. This is where Donald Rupe whetted his appetite for acting as a teen, and where he realized his vocational calling as a director. Now 22, Rupe, freshly graduated from Florida State University, is headed to New York University's Steinhardt School of Education for a rare graduate program in educational theater.


;But not before his Nothin' Productions leaves its mark on the Gay Days proceedings with performances of A New Brain, a musical dramedy by the gay award-winning composer, lyricist and writer William Finn (Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). Rupe and company are presenting the musical in partnership with Theatre Downtown, though the project didn't start that way.

;;The decision to produce A New Brain had nothing to do Gay Days, says Rupe. He had always liked the musical, and directing a show during the summer months, between semesters, has been his modus operandi. Since 2003 his energies, and those of his Nothin' Productions co-founder Alaina Tuftee, have been focused on working with teens, in conjunction with the Osceola Center for the Arts.

;; Rupe has proved successful at demanding self-discipline and teamwork from his casts and unifying them in a variety of shows, including Seussical the Musical and Songs for a New World. Rupe admits to "stealing some stuff" – teaching techniques – from Richard Width, the former education director of the Orlando Shakespeare Festival who now teaches at Trinity Preparatory School. The techniques work wonders, using a multidisciplinary approach to theater as a means for young adults to bolster self-esteem.


;Rupe is an alumnus of Gateway High School in Kissimmee, where he returned as a drama teacher. "When I'm a director, I can't help but teach," he says, adding that he "tries to make sure everyone grows." That said, he's known as "the hard teacher," because he expects a lot out of people. It's hard to believe after talking with Rupe, a soft-spoken, laid-back presence.


; A New Brain cast member Joseph Saunders, who also serves as the show's marketing manager in addition to his responsibilities as an activist for the gay-rights advocacy group Equality Florida, says Rupe makes people cry. "Not because he's mean, but because he makes you keep digging deep inside, until you get it right."


;The Osceola Center for the Arts started its own in-house program for teen theater this year, thanks to a $35,000 grant by Osceola County Commissioners and a matching grant from the Dr. Phillips Foundation. The change left Rupe open to try something different. So he gathered experienced actors, many of whom are former collaborators and many of whom are in college or recently graduated in theater arts, for this ambitious production. Rupe says it's his first "18-and-up cast."


;After deciding that it would happen, Rupe says it made sense to time it with Gay Days. The show was to be performed at the Studio Theatre, but when that fell through an alliance was struck with Theatre Downtown, which is providing seriously needed support by sharing its venue and other resources. Serendipity, it seems, has been Rupe's fortune.


;A New Brain is an autobiographical account of writer Finn's near-death experience in a hospital while undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. In the musical, the realities of the moment mix with reminiscences of the past for a tune-filled, hallucinogenic trip inside the patient's head. The musical is rich in humanity and vocal harmonies, and far from the ribald gay theater that Michael Wanzie and his drag queen cohorts are known for in Orlando. Wanzie's original comedies and parodies, typically attached to the Parliament House, have a following that defies a gay-only label, drawing lovers of irreverence and dick jokes of all stripes. But it's definitely gay.


;Nothin' Productions is headed in a different direction with this musical piece about a gay character that's "not circled around nudity and sex," says Rupe. He adds that Finn's work offers theater for a general audience, gay or straight, and is suitable for families.


;A New Brain falls on the heels of the Nothin' Productions entry at the just-completed Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, where last year they performed The Apple. Titled Platelets, the show was a "happening," an unscripted spectacle rooted in performance art. The theme evolved from Rupe's own personal experiences during a recent hospital stay.

;;At first Rupe was undecided about following through with Platelets because it was such a different type of theater experience. But ultimately he decided to go for it. Midway through Fringe, Rupe reported that the audiences appeared to be engaged in the show and that he was going to write a school paper based on the varying reactions of those who saw it. It may not be the most sought-after ticket at the Fringe, he said, but he was pleased with his representation of the lesser-seen "happening" genre.

;;Even as Rupe and his colleagues were performing at Fringe, he was in rehearsals for A New Brain. He's a young man infected with energy and doesn't much appreciate references to his age, but it's hard not to be impressed with what he's accomplished. At age 22, he's an experienced director, raised in Kissimmee and headed to the Big Apple after clocking in for a new generation of gay theater at Gay Days.

Speaking of The Arts


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