Catch a glimpse of this turbo-charged, Houston-based, sister-brother theatre talent, McKenna and Miles Marmolejo, so you can one day boast, “I knew them when.”
By Sara G. Stephens, HFM Managing Editor
Students from Theatre Under The Stars’ Humphreys School of Musical Theatre in Houston have earned yet another national theater distinction. The group is one of four educational musical theater groups to be selected to perform a soon-to-be-released musical for 4,500+ attendees during the New Works Showcase at the 2015 Junior Theater Festival happening January 16, 17 and 18 in Atlanta, GA. The students will present selections from Disney’s The Lion King JR.
Two of the Humphreys students heading to the Junior Theater Festival are McKenna and Miles Marmolejo, a sister and brother who represent everything that drives the success of this school of musical theatre. I interviewed the duo in November 2014 and found their drive positively inspiring.
Regardless of their passions, kids and teens everywhere can benefit from a quick study of this team’s steady framework of dedication, discipline and support. Plus, they just seem like good people, with lots of great energy.
Meet McKenna and Miles Marmolejo
McKenna, 17, graduated from high school early last year. She was enrolled in Texas Connections Academy, the same online educational program that Miles currently attends, in an effort to better balance school activities with theater auditions. “Graduating early has also made it easier to manage the college application process,” McKenna adds. “I’m finding out that a lot of my friends who are still in high school haven’t even started their college applications.
Miles has been attending this online program for two years, and is currently in the 7th grade.
Both students have been immersed in Humphreys School of Musical Theatre for a number of years: McKenna, 9; and Miles, 5. Their passion for theatre is understandable, perhaps even hardwired, considering the theatrical lineage from which the kids hail. Both parents are involved in theatre arts, with their mom being a singer, dancer and actor; and their dad a professor of the Jazz program at University of Houston.
“It’s in our DNA,” McKenna asserts matter-of-factly, “and our parents have been very supportive. I’m very appreciative.”
McKenna has been dancing since the age of 3. “Miles followed me,” she says, and Miles agrees. “I was about 6 or 7 when I saw my sister in a production, and I thought, ‘That’s some pretty cool stuff. I definitely want to do that,’” he explains.
The brother-sister duo will both be ballet-dancing birds in “The Lion King Jr.” production Humphrey’s will perform at the 2015 Junior Theater Festival. And in “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” they will employ modern dance technique to their roles as the grass. Both the Marmolejo’s are excited about the challenge.
“The whole idea of acting is reacting,” McKenna. “It’s not like, ‘Look at that tree!’ It’s living in the moment of what you’re doing and the circumstances you’re experiencing. The same thing goes for dancing and singing. You have to act through that as well, and with the dance moves. Even if you are grass, it’s not like you’re thinking, ‘I am a blade of grass.’ But you are going with those circumstances and making them human.”
The group will also perform “Circle of Life,” which they had not yet practiced at the time of this interview. But Miles is certain, “That will be cool too,” he says.
Dancing for “The Lion King” is different than what the students do in dance class at the academy. But they like that. “It’s fun to explore different dance styles,” McKenna says.
It’s not just the mental and physical demands that make the Marmolejo’s chosen interest so rigorous. It’s the sheer time commitment.
“We’ve been at the house an hour today,” Miles comments. And that’s pretty much the norm for them. Typically, they both attend Humphrey’s for 4 hours daily for dance; acting and singing occupy another 4 hours. While they’re taking class, Mom is teaching another class. “Between the 3 of us, there are 6 days a week or sometimes 7 for rehearsal,” she confides.
All the commitment will ultimately pay off. The Marmolejo’s kids both want to be professional actors, so they are already immersed in their careers, which means their “hobbies” are actually nothing short of professional development. Add the right amount of drive, and the two kids can’t miss.
And they have their future target roles in sight: Miles’ dream role is Jack Kelly from “Newsies,” while McKenna would love to play Nala from “the Lion King,” or the lead girl in “Spring Awakening.”
“The role of Campbell in ‘Bring It On!’ was a dream role, too,” McKenna says. “And I would love to be Roxy Hart in ‘Chicago.’”
And, of course, they each have their back-up plans, should acting not work out—which it most certainly will. “Well, I’m tall, so I could play basketball,” Miles says. “That’s my fallback.”
McKenna says she would stay in the creative realm, with some type of artistic design. “I’m not as unorganized as I used to be…maybe a wedding planner. I really like pretty colors.
“That sounds so blonde of me,” she laughs.
Advice to Aspiring Actors
Miles’ advice to other kids who aspire to be actors is straightforward, and can apply to any interest: “If you like what you’re doing, keep doing it,” he says simply.
McKenna agrees and adds another layer. “Being confident is really important,” she says. “Not to the point where nobody likes you, but where stage presence is believable.
“Definitely take classes, because that can improve your skills so much. It’s amazing what classes at the Academy can do for your technique.
Apart from DNA, the key to the Marmolejo family success must be their strong support of each other. McKenna says that several of her friends who attend the Academy are as supportive as her parents. “That’s one of the saddest things in the entire world,” she says, “because you love something so much, and you’re not being supported from your family.”
This strong framework also impacts how the Marmolejo kids envision getting through college and moving on to their professional careers. “We’re always going to have that support,” McKenna says. “That’s important to be successful in the dog-eat-dog world of musical theatre,” she adds with a wink to her voice.
Brother and sister also help each other. For the most part, the two support each other strongly, unless they’ve had a rotten day and little sleep. Even in class, they support each other with technique and dance, and give each other tips.
“Everyone around us thinks we’re the cutest pair because we get along so well,” McKenna says. “Around the house, we can get on each other’s nerves, but those times are few and far between.”