As Gene Tagaban beats a Tlingit drum, a line of girls dance in a stutter step into the classroom, hands on their hips, followed by a line of boys crouching low.
Now dancing in separate rows, the boys go on one knee and the girls sway behind them.
"The women are - what are the women?" Tagaban asks his class of 10 youths in the Summer Theatre Arts Rendezvous put on by Perseverance Theatre at the University of Alaska Southeast campus.
"Earth, the land, wind, trees, the water," Tagaban said, answering his own question, "so they have the slower movements like that. Men - we represent animals, the creatures in the environment, the people in the environment. We represent warriors, too. We come in with strength."
That's the kind of direction students in Tagaban's "We're All Stories" class need. The students will tell Native stories and perhaps some of their own family experiences in performances in early August.
Tagaban, originally from Hoonah, is a stage and film actor, a storyteller, dancer, singer, musician and teacher.
"Hopefully, they'll get an understanding about stories, the meaning of stories, and a little bit of understanding about different ways to tell stories and create stories and act out stories, and a little bit more about how the Tlingit people see things and how Native people do things," he said Thursday during a break.
Students attend classes for four hours a day, five days a week for four weeks. They will put on four performances at the Perseverance main stage in the fifth week, Aug. 1-9.
Other students in this year's STAR program, which began Monday, are preparing a shortened version of the 1970s musical "Godspell." Still others are collaborating on a play of their own in a class called "Transformations."
On Thursday, "Transformations" students honed their acting skills. Instructor Shona Strauser called upon them in threes to immediately learn a six-line skit and act it in different styles.
"This is a very simple, very easy exercise. Go over the top with it," she said, giving what may not be a necessary direction to 11-year-olds.
When Miguel Rohrbacher, 11, played a character who dies after eating beans, he coughed and gagged in a prolonged death embrace like a cat ejecting the mother of all fur balls. No problem, but he was still hacking when the doctor was ready to pronounce him dead.
"It's so OK to die in your choice of dying," Strauser said. "You can die long or whatever. What's not OK is to upstage the scene."
Next time, after emitting a discreet cough, Miguel expired.
Strauser, with an energy equal to 15 children, didn't let mistakes slide. She motioned to kids who blocked the would-be audience's view of other actors, quieted the others and pointed out how to do a stage whisper without covering the mouth.
For their stage performance, the children are improvising a series of episodes on the theme of change. Once the students decide what to do in a scene, they're expected to remember it, including finely choreographed words and head and body movements.
In one sequence, Lindsay Hulbert, 12, who plays a village's "holy chieftess," suggested the villagers look back to her for guidance when a character says something offensive.
"That's a good call, that's a totally good call," said Strauser, an actor, director and resident teaching artist at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
And when Jarred Philemonoff, 13, is banished for trying to spear a character, he suggests he should wear a dunce cap, an idea Strauser said "totally rocks."
"We basically have a topic and a few basic lines and after that we improvise," Sadie Adams, 12, said during a break.
The actors said it was easier to remember their lines because they had invented them. And the collaboration was what made it fun.
"It has a bit of every one of us in it," said Zac Pease, 13.
Strauser said she likes to create a sense of community in her classes.
"A sense that they can do things by themselves, yes, and be very successful, and also as a group - that it's just that much more rewarding to work as a team and come up with something," she said. "It's always super-powerful to hear your words on stage."
Anita Maynard-Losh, associate artistic director at Perseverance, said the theater reduced the program's class size by half this year to attract the more dedicated students. The 34 students admitted had to audition to get in the program, which costs $350. Some scholarships were available.
The nine students rehearsing "Godspell" on Thursday also were expected to take the lead. Instructor Kevin Gilbertson, an actor and teacher from Minneapolis, said his philosophy is to leave the decisions to the kids - especially when doing a play, after all, about learning lessons.
"I have started the process, and I have to make sure there's a finished product. But in the middle, it's all about them learning how to do it," he said.
Patty Kalbrener, 17, and Seneca Harper, 16, have been in high school plays. But the small size of the Perseverance class and Gilbertson's directing style let them be more than actors.
"He allows us to take our own co-director sort of role," Kalbrener said. "He encourages us to take part in deciding what the next scene should look like."
"It's an ensemble," Harper added, "so everyone gets to pitch in. At least something will happen in the play their way, if not another."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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