published Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Understanding of characters motivates Chattanooga musical theater star

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    Colby Howell, 17, has been a member of the Center for Creative Arts' elite musical theater company, Choo Choo Kids, for two years.
    Photo by Alyson Wright.
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CLAIM TO FAME

Colby Howell, 17, has been a member of Center for Creative Arts' elite musical theater company, Choo Choo Kids, for two years. He was selected to take part in Pace University's Summer Scholars program for musical theater in 2011. The same year, he was selected as one of 25 finalists, the only one from Tennessee, to be an All-Star Cast member at the Southeast Theater Conference in Atlanta.

ABOUT HIM

• School: 12th-grader at Center for Creative Arts.

• Siblings: Brother, Kyle, 19.

• Hobbies: Singing, dancing, acting, writing and composing music and playing paintball.

TALENT SHOW

Do you know a child age 17 or younger with a precocious talent in academics, athletics or the arts? The Times Free Press is searching for children to feature in "Talent Show," which appears in the Life section on Tuesdays. To nominate a child as a possible subject of a future feature article, e-mail staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or call him at 423-757-6205.

The moment Colby Howell heard the boos coming from the audience during the curtain call for "Tarzan," he knew he'd done his job well.

As the cruel, power-hungry English hunter John Clayton in Center for Creative Arts' production of the musical based on the Disney animated film, Colby never expected to win popularity contests.

But the 17-year-old senior hoped their negative reaction was directed at the character, not the actor.

"That just let me know that, 'Hey, these people must not like me, so I must have done something well because no one should like [Clayton],'" he said, laughing.

As with every role he has ever had, Colby approached the villain as an emotional puzzle. Figuring out how he was put together and understanding why he behaved as he did was crucial to a convincing performance, he said.

"I've never been the bad guy, and that was such a fun role," he said. "I took each line I had in the show and tried to find the subtext behind it.

"It was a long, tedious process, but I had to figure out what he was trying to get across to the other person."

In his younger years, Colby was a mischievous, goodhearted child with a love of entertaining people, said his father, Jeff Howell. Growing up in Harrison, Colby might recite the entirety of an episode of "Blue's Clues" from memory or sing gospel songs into a hairbrush microphone.

When he expressed interest in attending CCA, it came as no surprise, Howell said.

"It's a talent and a gift that we feel that God has given him," he said. "We've always tried to instill in him that he should take his gift and do the best he can with it."

Although he now is one of CCA's most accomplished musical-theater students, Colby enrolled in sixth grade as a vocalist. He longed to act, though, and after three years, he worked up the courage to audition to enter high school as a theater major. He later auditioned for the school's theatrical company, Forensics.

In January 2011, he and two other Forensics students, David Couter and Chris Carter, won first place in a competition held through the Tennessee Theater Association. That qualified them to perform in the Southeast Theater Conference One-Act Play Festival in Atlanta, at which Colby was one of only 25 students -- and the only one from Tennessee -- to be named to the conference's All-Star Cast.

Noticing his interest in singing and acting, Colby's mother, Sandy Howell, recommended he apply to enter CCA's musical-theater program. Last year, he made the shift and simultaneously applied to be a member of Choo Choo Kids, an elite musical-theater company at CCA that performs at venues around Tennessee.

Last summer, Colby was accepted into the Tennessee Governor's School for the Arts, a monthlong program held at Middle Tennessee State University. There, he auditioned for and received the lead role in the program's production of "Urinetown," a satirical musical comedy.

While he was attending the program, Colby's parents delivered the news that he had been accepted into Pace University's Summer Scholars program for musical theater, a competitive two-week course held on the university campus in New York City.

Despite his accomplishments as an artist, Colby said performing is not something that he feels he can approach casually. Every performance requires study to understand his character to pull the audience in.

That's something he never expects to change.

"What I love about musical theater is enveloping myself in someone else to discover who they are," Colby said. "I feel like a lot of people think musical theater is easy because you have music to go along with the song to express mood and emotion, [but] the actions to portray the emotion are more important than the emotion itself."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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