Stage as Training Ground

Tomorrow’s players watch and learn from theater pros

One way to measure the dedication of individuals to their art is by the responsibility they take for nurturing similar talents in others. Gauged by that measuring stick, local stage professionals are standing tall.

Even though it takes a high level of devotion and determination just to make it on one’s own in the theater business, local actors, writers and producers seem to freely share their time and advice with others, including young students who could become the players of tomorrow.

Elm Theatre in the Warehouse District is one such organization. Artistic Director Garret Prejean made education a priority when he founded the theater two years ago, and it has quickly become an important “laboratory” for developing new talent.

Launched with a focus on ensemble acting and presenting such productions as this past summer’s “The Gingham Dog” by Lanford Wilson, Elm Theatre also emphasizes education through its eight-week acting classes and workshop series. In sessions taught by professionals such as J. Patrick McNamara, who brings a long string of stage and screen credentials, students learn skills ranging from how to audition and get their foot in the door, to basic acting methods used for establishing a character, and voice and movement techniques that help communicate intention and feeling.

Long known for turning some of the city’s youngest talents into well-known stage players, Anthony Bean Community Theater and Acting School has become an educational anchor in its Carrollton neighborhood.

Veteran actor Anthony Bean has for years thrown himself into providing not only a “classroom” for aspiring actors, but also a stage where they can try out their developing talents and gain experience with a live audience. His after-school programs present kids with performing and writing challenges that help them develop confidence in their own voice and material.

Bean also offers adult classes for aspiring actors at various levels, aimed at developing spontaneity, theatricality and awareness of self.
In neighboring Jefferson parish, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society is another stalwart of dramatic education. The organization regularly presents kid-friendly productions for school groups and offers an Arts Adventure Series that provides free coordinating lesson plans and study guides for series performances. “How I Became a Pirate,” based on an acclaimed children’s book, was a notable feature of its latest series.

In its summer musical theater education program, JPAS also provides a high-quality experience in terms of both the productions and the training it offers. Past productions have included hits such as “High School Musical,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Another JPAS initiative in behalf of the next generation is Cultural Crossroads, a residency-based program that incorporates arts-integrated instructional strategies. The program serves alternative schools and schools that are struggling academically, with a goal of using the arts to enhance student proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics.

Adding to the repertoire of local educational programs, Southern Repertory Theatre annually offers choices that include summer camps, workshops and student matinees where youngsters not only can experience a live drama up close, but are treated to an after-show talkback with the actors and director.

Southern Rep also makes the educational process a two-way street by offering  “touring shows” that go to the students, presenting a theatrical production or acting class in the school setting.

Not to be overlooked when it comes to training grounds, of course, are the schools themselves. Stages around the city feature their own young performers in productions ranging from serious drama to musical comedy. New Orleans Center for Creative Arts has long been a leader in developing promising talents not only for the stage but in musical, literary and fine arts.

Many other schools offer dramatic arts education as well. Students at Mount Carmel Academy, for instance, are slated to present Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors” in October. In preparation for the production, the students in August worked with a professional Shakespearean actor.

Youngsters who get a taste of the stage during their elementary and high school years and discover an affinity will find it a treat to move to another level under the direction of active theater pros.

Theatre 13’s Kelly Fouchi and Gary Rucker, who recently took over management of Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, have been nurturing such young talents for years. In October, they present “Freckleface Strawberry,” a regional premier and the new Rivertown’s first children’s production. •

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