Jenks graduate returns to direct Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Michael Fling graduated from Jenks in 2011 and now works as a director in New York City.

Jenks High School’s music department will be among the first groups in the country to stage the musical adaptation of Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Scheduled to run from Thurs., March 1 to Sun., March 4, this production will be the Oklahoma premiere.

Director Michael Fling, 24, graduated from Jenks in 2011. Throughout his high school career, he was active in both the music and theater department.

“I took Introduction to Theater with Kevin Hurst, who is still running the theater department today, and he completely changed my life,” Fling said. “I did a lot of different things in high school, but theater and choir were always my main focus.”

Fling said that he always wanted to pursue a career in directing, but that his sights were originally set on the film industry.

“It was Kevin who made me realize that what I actually wanted to do was theater,” he said. “It’s just that I didn’t understand that that’s what I wanted to do.”

Following high school, Fling attended Webster University in St. Louis. He was accepted into the school’s directing program, which typically admits only three students each year. Since his graduation in 2015, he has been directing in New York City.

“I’m very fortunate that, this soon out of school, I’m consistently working in theater,” Fling said. “That’s not something that happens for a lot of people, so I’m really lucky.”

Fling said he viewed the prospect of coming back to direct a show for Jenks as an opportunity to repay the school.

“I give credit to all of those teachers who showed me the way and challenged me, and made me read more, and made me do things that I didn’t know I wanted to do,” he said. “So coming back to do the show for Jenks was, in some ways, the least I could do.”

There’s a pressure among many high-school students to know what exactly their career plans will be. Through his directing, Fling has tried to dispel that notion from as many of his actors as possible.

“I tell the kids, ‘Look, I don’t need you to want to go into theater for me to like you,’” he said. “‘I want you to keep the arts as a part of your life. Do it because you love it, or use it as a way to help you in what you do want to do.’”

With the current state of education funding, the arts are often the first to go. Although something as subjective as theater isn’t quantifiable, it can be tremendously influential in terms of getting students to be creative.

“Theater is the No. 1 team sport,” Fling said. “You can’t really do it by yourself.”

Before he moved to New York City, Fling talked about the place as if it was a necessary evil. However, he ended up quickly adapting to his adopted home.

“On any given day, I’ll overhear a conversation in seven different languages,” he said. “You’re just around a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds and experiences, and I find that really refreshing, even if I don’t engage with it every day.”

Fling previously came back to direct for Jenks in March of 2017 when he took the helm of the school’s “Wizard of Oz” production. It was received so well that Fling was asked to come back and direct “Hunchback.”

“The rights just became available, and I just did a show with Stephen Schwartz — ‘Hunchback’s’ lyricist — up in Connecticut, so the timing just seemed very serendipitous,” he said. “We would be doing an Oklahoma premiere of this beautiful show, and I have this relationship with Stephen, so I was like ‘Let’s just do the show – It’s exciting, it’ll be new, it’s different.’”

The show boasts about 85 high schoolers as actors and at least another 50 as designers and technicians.

Regarding advice for aspiring performers, Fling cited the phrase, “If there’s something else you think you can do, do that.”

“I love politics, reading — I thought about being a journalist,” he said. “But ultimately, ever since I thought about that, I’ve been like ‘Oh, that’d be fun for about a week, but then I’d be thinking about when the next show is.’ There’s just something about it in my bones — I just want to keep doing shows.”

Based on his experience, the director has found that being able to only act, sing, or dance is no longer enough. In order to break in to the theater industry today, performers must, at the very least, be capable of doing all three.

“Auditions, too, are just constant rejection, and even on my side of the table as a director, it’s constant rejection,” he said. “For actors, though, it’s even harder because you’re being looked at in the face and told ‘No,’ whereas I get an email where they tell me that they’ve decided to go with someone else.”

Fling also urged anyone interested in pursuing an acting career to find the joy in every aspect of the process, including auditions.

“That’s the thing that people don’t understand — they love doing the shows, but you have to get used to auditioning,” he said. “It’s so easy to hit a wall that you have to love the walk because you’re going to hit walls over and over again.”

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