Quantum Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theater's programs help kids connect

| Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

“Out of your seats and onto the stage” might well be the rallying cry for a diverse selection of theater-education programs available to area youngsters.

Unlike traditional classes in acting, singing and dance, these programs have goals that extend far beyond creating the next Broadway star or American Idol.

“We are looking to connect with students and to give them an educational experience in the arts that they don't have the opportunity to do in school,” says Sam Turich, the teaching artist for Quantum Theatre. “We want to make sure … that kids will see the arts are an integral part of their lives.”

“Cultivating the audience of the future is about introducing them to theater and giving them a safe, creative foundation to explore social issues and their own identities,” says Kristen Link, director of education and outreach at City Theatre Company.

Contemporary children aren't interested in traditional programs that expect kids to sit down and listen up while teachers or artists fill their brains with information. So, local producers of professional live theater have created programs that encourage kids to get involved, expand their horizons and create their own theater experiences.

Some are one-day adventures, such as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's annual Theatre Arts Workshop that offers hands-on experiences in set design, directing, staged combat, costumes, hair and makeup. Students spend a full day gaining insight into how lighting can alter mood or how to make it look like you landed a punch without harming the other actor.

Others continue over weeks or months.

Each semester, Quantum Theatre engages in a four-to-eight-week residency with kids at four inner-city high schools. Using an upcoming Quantum Theatre production as the focus, Turich works with the students to create a 10-minute work based on the play's themes and characters as seen from their own perspectives. The residency ends in a joint event where students and Quantum cast members perform for each other, then discuss their respective works.

“We give them so much good background that they are able to engage with the production,” Turich says. “Actors say (the students) get the play more than most audiences.”

Pittsburgh Public Theater's semester-long Creative Dramatics Program pairs fourth- and fifth-grade students from an inner-city school and a suburban school, who work together to create a play.

The finished production, says education director Rob Zellers, is based loosely on one of the company's upcoming plays. This semester's pupils used the musical “1776” for what became a “Night in the Museum” experience where kids trapped overnight inside Independence Hall meet the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

“Only in name only does it resemble the (original musical),” Zellers says. But creating great, lasting drama was never the point.

“I really feel that when kids are working on theater, it is one of these things that make you feel good about yourself, helps you with schoolwork and breaks down barriers,” Zellers says.

The benefits of theses programs include improved focus and concentration, which were definitely present when sixth-grade students at Falk School in Oakland took part in a two-hour workshop facilitated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The workshop, led by three puppeteers from the North American tour of “War Horse,” was the culmination of a long-term, multidisciplinary project that began earlier this fall.

Cheryl Capezzuti, a local puppeteer and a member of the visual-arts faculty at the Falk School, proposed the project soon after she learned “War Horse” would be presented here as part of the PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh series.

As part of their classwork, students read the original novel, learned period-appropriate World War I songs and history and, under Capezzuti's guidance, designed and constructed three pony-sized cardboard horse puppets. During their visit to the school, the “War Horse” puppeteers critiqued the kids' creations ,then taught them to bring life and personality to their cardboard steeds.

Sticks became horses' legs and hooves and balloons transformed into horse heads as students clicked across the floor in pairs — alternately counting off the 1,2,3,4 sequence of leg movements to create one horse's gait — or concentrated on the taste and texture of the imaginary grass their horse was munching.

“I thought they were going to show us a demo. But it was nice to see a critique of horses by the pros,” says Santiago Barratt-Boyes, 12.

Creating a connection between students and artists is an essential part of programs like this, Capezzuti says.

“To have professional puppeteers come in and see their work is valuable to them. ... I think (this workshop) will live on as they collaborate with each other on other projects,” Capezzuti says.

Other programs create long-term mentorships between professionals and students.

Every one of the 250 students in grades 6 thru 12 who submit an original one-act play to the annual City Theatre Company Young Playwrights Contest has his or her work read by at least two of the 50 theater professionals on the literary committee and receives a full page of constructive criticism and suggestions for revising their work.

“I believe what Young Playwrights is about helping youth find their voice and playwrighting does that,” Link says. “Seeing what young people were capable of and what they could accomplish was formative in allowing them to think big.”

Six finalists get a full immersion in the production process. After being paired with a dramaturge who helps them revise and rewrite, the student playwrights participate in workshop readings, auditions, design meetings, rehearsals and post-performance talk-backs.

“This contest was so great. It wasn't just ‘You win,' it was ‘Here's an experience,' ” says Lara Meyer, 16, a senior at Carlynton High School and a two-time finalist. “The most important thing I learned was to keep an open mind. When you write a story or a poem, you have complete control. … With a play, you have all these other people to consider and look at how it's going to work.”

The process taught skills that extend beyond the theater world, Link says: “We taught them to collaborate and to think creatively. (Those are) skills that are important in the working world.”

But, sometimes, contact with professionals does inspire students to create a new work on their own.

That's what happened when fifth-grade students in a gifted class at West View Elementary School attended a foley workshop created by Bricolage Production Company last year.

Instructor Martin Richter was looking for out of the ordinary field trip experiences for his students when he learned about Bricolage Productions' Midnight Radio series — a series of live stage shows focused around vintage radio dramas. He immediately signed his students up for a foley workshop that demonstrated how to produce live sound effects.

The students had studied the history and science of radio and were already building radios. But Richter, a long-time fan of vintage radio shows, hoped to add another element to their education.

“I wanted them to experience the techniques of radio drama because they are unique,” Richter says.

At the Bricolage workshop, they learned how to crunch shoes on gravel to simulate a character's footsteps or create the sound of a galloping horse without pulling a sound bite from a CD.

“They got to see a range of effects and how to paint pictures with sound and extend their expressive capabilities,” Richter says.

Back at school, the students followed up by creating their own radio script and sound effects for a radio play about the last days of Pompeii. They not only drew on what they had learned from Bricolage, but went on to invent their own sounds, such as shaking tables to create the sound of the moving earth.

The experience encouraged Richter to ask Bricolage to create a full-day workshop for this year's students.

It also encouraged Bricolage to explore additional opportunities for student workshops. The first were offered this fall as a post-show companion for an episode of Midnight Radio aimed at kids in middle school and older, plus their parents.

“It was a big hit,” says Jeffrey Carpenter, artistic director at Bricolage. “You get kids creating stuff and the kids go crazy over it.

He and the Bricolage staff are working to create a media kit that will allow them to visit schools and introduce kids to the possibilities of using their imaginations to create sound effects.

Carpenter and others acknowledge that building future audiences and donors is part of the mission.

“We believe that children are our future and if we can't connect (with) and inspire them, then we have lost them forever,” Carpenter says. “Our job is to inspire them and open their minds to what's possible. Eventually, they become doctors and lawyers and have money to support the arts.”

But that's not the entire story, he adds: “The reward is obviously evident when you are watching the kids.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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