The only prerequisite for participating in Perseverance Theatre's Summer Theatre Arts Rendezvous (STAR) program is a willingness to put your heart into the experience, says Director of Education Shona Strauser. Shy kids, gregarious kids, inexperienced and experienced, all can - and do - find their place and flourish.
"It's actually the director's job to pull stuff out," she said. "Really its about casting - fitting the kids into a part where they're going to succeed," Strauser said.
The kids in the STAR program range in age from 10 to 18. At first they are steered through training sessions as a group in such areas as vocal work, movement and other theater basics. They are then divided into their production groups, each headed up by a different director.
At every step of the way the kids are taught by experts in their fields - actors, storytellers, directors, musical directors, costume designers and set designers.
"Everybody who is working on (the shows) in the adult realm is a professional," Strauser said.
Keeping it fun
Strauser was brought up from Seattle, where she'd been working with the Seattle Repertory Theater, to head up the STAR program. She inherited the position from longtime Juneau resident and then-associate artistic director of the theater, Anita Maynard Losh. Strauser said she was a bit skeptical at first that the quality of the program could be as top-notch as Maynard-Losh had described. But when she watched the videos she'd been sent, she began to change her mind.
"It shocked me," she said of the quality of the theater.
Strauser has focused on the educational aspects of theater throughout her career, and has worked with "at risk" youth in the Lower 48 states to help students broaden their communicative options and work through difficult issues.
Strauser said although she is still active in these aspects of theater education, the STAR theater is more about summer fun. Though the experience is intense, with five-hour daily trainings and rehearsals scheduled every weekday for five weeks, she said they work to make sure kids are enjoying themselves.
"We try to keep it light and fun, though it's a long time and pretty serious," she said.
A lifelong habit
For some kids, their first experience with the theater proves addictive.
Austin Tagaban became involved in the program when he was 8, and now at 17, is helping with the props for one of this year's productions. Tagaban said that as a young violinist, he was used to performing but theater presented a unique set of challenges.
"It opened up a whole different side of my artistic self," he said.
One of the ways he appreciates it is in the way it liberates him from the confines of his personality.
"It's a very different art form than others because you get up on stage and you aren't yourself, you're someone else, which means you can do anything," he said.
The theater provides a unique environment, he said, it which the normal rules of life are suspended.
"I can get up in front of a couple hundred strangers and be completely crazy but in front of a class of my peers, I'll be sweating," he said. "It's a different environment."
This year's plays
The three productions to be staged this year are "Annie Junior," a musical, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Kóoshdaa kaa: Stories of the Land Otter Man."
"Annie," directed by Juneau's Dawn Kolden, will have a musical director and an accompanist on board to work with the kids. "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" will be led by Terry Lynn LeCompte, a director from New York City who was familiar with the STAR program and approached Strauser about the project.
"Kóoshdaa kaa" is an original theater piece commissioned by the Sealaska Heritage institute. Sealaska has commissioned and funded a play for the past five years. This year's story was chosen by Sealaska President Rosita Worl and is being written by Perseverance's Associate Managing Director Merry Ellefson.
Ed Littlefield, a Seattle musician from Sitka who portrayed K'alyaan in Dave Hunsaker's "Battles of Fire and Water," will direct "Kóoshdaa kaa." Strauser said he knows how to get through to kids.
"He knows this area, he knows the story, he knows the language, and he's incredible with children," she said. "They just flock to him."
Similarly, David Katzeek, a Native elder who will work with the kids on that production, gets them to pay attention.
"He comes in and I swear a hush falls over a room of 17 kids," she said.
Strauser said she especially appreciates that this story is a little scary, drawing on the stories of otters, who act as both protectors and killers in many stories. The creature's name itself is so powerful, she said, its unlikely to remain in the title.
"If you say the name Kóoshdaa kaa you're calling them toward you ... so we don't know what the tittle of that play is going to be," Strauser said.
In addition to commissioning a play, Sealaska offers 12 scholarships to Alaska Native students every year. The kids who are awarded these scholarships need not participate in the Tlinglit-commisioned play specifically, but are free to take part in whichever production they choose, Strauser said.
"The fact that Sealaska actually provides an opportunity for all three shows is great," Strauser said.
About half of the STAR program is funded by the City and Borough of Juneau. Parents who have concerns about paying the full tuition can speak with Strauser about their options, she said.
Gauging the effects of youth theater
Though she is often asked for quantitative factors that prove theater is having a positive effect on kids' lives - such as its effect on drop-out rates - those figures are difficult to come by. But in her mind, there is no doubt of the program's enriching influence. She has seen kids arrive barely speaking transform themselves into confident actors who are comfortable fully engaging with their peers.
"It happens every year, it's really amazing just to see," she said.
One simple element she finds helpful is the ability to read louder, as she finds that comprehension often comes as a result of more forceful delivery. Asking questions is another skill she encourages, and not being afraid of being judged.
Tagaban echoed Strauser's emphasis on projecting a strong voice, and on establishing a place for himself in the theater.
"I have a very loud voice now," he said.