Last Friday marked the end of our two-week long Musical Theater Intensive for children ages 11 to 14. After being wowed by the quality of the final performance last summer, I decided to find out exactly what goes into the making of a musical theater student. I spent last Wednesday observing the day long rehearsals in order to understand how class introductions turns into a professional production in two weeks. Here is what I saw:
The first class was run by Theater Arts Program Coordinator Michael Awusie. I arrived about an hour into the class, and the students were working on a scene about cavemen. This skit asked the students to be forceful and primal while playing a satirical role containing references to leadership and politics in the real world. I can’t imagine this is a role any of the kids have played before, and it certainly wasn’t an easy one. As I discovered throughout the day, the ability level varies from student to student, but the goal of a successful overall scene regardless of individual talent is paramount. To reach this goal, Michael prodded the students with plenty of encouragement, but refused to accept anything less than their best.
As the primary acting instructor, much of Michael’s instruction revolved around how best to present a given role. In order to embody a character, it is essential to understand the meaning behind who they are supposed to be. This skit in particular came across to me as a complex combination of the rawest, most organic human condition (the actors as cavemen), the challenges of politics and leadership, and an understanding that behind it all, this was a comedic scene. Certainly not an easy concept to grasp. The students are challenged both intellectually and artistically here and in every other piece as the day progressed. Michael did an excellent job comparing the situations on stage to real life scenarios the young performers could relate to. Through the struggles that come with developing a difficult scene, Michael and the students showed exceptional patience. The actors’ themselves did a great job pushing each other, and communicating amongst themselves adjustments that needed to be made.
The next class was hip-hop dance, run by dance faculty member Natrea Blake. The group worked on a choreographed dance piece to a popular hip-hop song, and was run at an extremely fast pace. Corrections were made on the fly with only brief pauses, but for the most part everybody kept up and showed a remarkable memory of the dance steps. Natrea did not tolerate a loss of focus, telling one of the younger students, “you’re a young professional, not just a young person” when her attention began to wander. Natrea was extremely supportive, and the kids did not get angry at each other after mistakes, instead shouting encouragement and offering advice throughout the session. It was clear the students really enjoyed this portion of the class.
After lunch, the camp regrouped with pianist Michika Fukumori for a piece that required both singing and acting. Musical Theater Director Darrell Moultrie and Mr. Awusie were present for this portion of the camp. This was the first time I’d seen the group do a piece combining singing, dancing, and acting; this combination produced a different type of energy that the class really fed off of. The students were later joined by guest vocal instructor Maureen Brown. Maureen instructed the class on what they needed to be aware of while singing in a theatrical setting. Specifically, Maureen stressed the importance of maintaining proper technique and vocalization while staying in character, along with how best to sing when your role requires an uncomfortable posture. Maureen told the kids, “I’m not looking for perfection, I’m looking for participation”, an apt line, particularly for the shyer singers in the group. There was a major emphasis on “performing” while singing. A musical theater student needs to be able to sing with enthusiasm and attitude while staying in character. Even something as simple as smiling while singing adds a lot to a scene in happier pieces. Maureen fit right in with the rest of the teachers; a professional who wasn’t afraid to push, treated the students like performers, and knew how to get the most out of the group.
The last two rehearsals of the day were a medley of Broadway songs and a tap dance number. By this time the students were hot and tired, but pushed through and finished strong. One kid haphazardly said he didn’t like a line, and was criticized for his approach. He was told expressing opinions is definitely encouraged, but he needs to approach the change in a constructive way. And on this note, a long day ended.
My immediate impression at the end of the day was an awe of the raw talent in the camp. But in reality this ten-day intensive is about so much more. The talent aspect is obvious; anybody who can simultaneously dance, sing, and act has learned skills most of us will never pick up. It is the process that makes the students, teachers, and school exceptional. The classes are set up with an emphasis on professionalism, learning, and encouragement. At one point during the class Darrell said, “What you do in the last hour, when you’re tired, distinguishes the leaders from the followers.” Forgiving the cliché, this exemplifies how what is learned here applies far beyond the realm of musical theater. The focus, leadership, creativity, and intellectual challenges required to survive this camp are skills that apply to almost anything in life. These students are learning to be far more than actors, singers, and dancers. They are learning to be people.