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Hooking kids on theater

Perseverance is working to attract young people to the theater with special programs and a youth advisory board

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2000

Micaela Fowler began her stage career at age 9 as a sled dog in "The Lady Lou Revue," a Perseverance Theatre production.

"I ran around and I barked. Mad talent," she says today.

But now Fowler, a 15-year-old freshman at Juneau-Douglas High School, is on the Douglas theater's stage as a party-goer in "Desire Under the Elms." OK, it's only one line, but it's not barking.

Perseverance Theatre wants to see more youths like Fowler in the theater on stage, backstage and in the seats and is taking steps to get them. The professional not-for-profit theater has formed an advisory board of high school students, is seeking a grant for more college internships, and will add another play to its summer youth camp.

"All of the studies say if you introduce kids to theater early, they become patrons later on in life," said Perseverance Producing Director Jeffrey Herrmann. "It's important we get to them (at) that age."

It also was important to listen to students, he said. Fowler, Zoe Friesen, Margaux DeRoux and Owen Stokes compose the Perseverance Student Theatre Advisory Board, formed in August.

"We really want to break misconceptions of the theater and we really want to increase youth awareness that the theater is there," said DeRoux, 17, who understudied for the Juliet role in the Perseverance production of "Romeo and Juliet" last season.

"I think a lot of kids in particular have misconceptions of the theater in that it's some sort of boring adult activity," she said. "We want kids to know plays are entertaining and often filled with material they can relate to."

"They hear 'Romeo and Juliet' and think 'boring,' " Friesen said, "instead of a fabulous, interesting dramatic work."

A youth board is a smart strategy that's not common among theaters, said Ben Cameron, executive director of the New York City-based Theatre Communications Group, an umbrella organization for not-for-profit theaters.

 

Early stage experience: Young cast members of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" rehearse on stage last summer at Perseverance Theatre. Performers in the Shakespearean comedy were young people, ages 9 to 16, participating in the Summer Theatre Arts Rendezvous, or STAR.

MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

A board introduces youths to the challenges of running a theater as well as the theater's product, he said. And it lays a long-term foundation for organizational leadership and charitable giving.

The Perseverance student board has talked about making auditions better known to youths, making the theater more affordable and accessible to students without cars, and adding more classes and volunteer opportunities, Herrmann said.

Behind the scenes

Friesen, 14, worked for two years in the Perseverance front office. "I never thought about how much work went into productions, not just behind the scenes, but behind the behind the scenes," she said.

Friesen also has worked backstage, painting sets, hanging lights, and taking down sets. Soon she and Fowler will sing and dance as Toreadorables in "Gypsy."

"It's been really good to have grown-ups like that as friends. Because they really treat you as equals," Friesen said.

DeRoux said she wasn't having an easy time meeting people at high school when she first got involved with Perseverance. At age 14 she worked on the lights on "The Rocky Horror Show."

"I was spotlighting all these singing drag queens, and it was the coolest thing to me," she said. "I thought, 'Wow, this is a whole other world filled with open, creative people,' and it encouraged me to pursue my creativity."

 

Young talent: Akemi Kunibe, 15, does Coryjean Whittemore's hair in the dressing room of Perseverance Theatre before a performance of "Desire Under the Elms."

MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

She has since worked as crew on other Perseverance plays, understudied as Juliet and performed it for three nights.

"Perseverance is just really open," DeRoux said. "If you go to them and tell them you're really interested in something ... they will do their best to offer you some sort of way to learn about it."

Building audiences

Perseverance is applying for a grant to develop an audience among several groups now underrepresented on the stage or in the seats, such as Natives, Filipinos and youths.

But rather than mass marketing to underrepresented groups, the theater wants to invest in a few people in a big way and hope they'll bring their community with them, said Artistic Director Peter DuBois.

The two-year grant, sought from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Theatre Communications Group, would add more internships and artistic fellowships.

"If we want to see more young people in our audience, then we put young people on the stage," DuBois said. "If we want to create a new generation of patrons, we create a board for them."

The grant will only add to Perseverance's current internships. Fairbanks college student Chip Brookes is acting in "Desire Under the Elms," and another college student, Tanya Carlson of Juneau, is one of the stage managers.

Brookes, 18, is playing the major role of Eben Cabot in Eugene O'Neill's play in his first paid job as an actor. He also works in the theater's office. The internship from Perseverance will translate into credits at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for the sophomore theater major who wants an acting career.

 

Behind the scenes: Tanya Carlson, a University of Alaska Southeast student, pauses from her stage manager duties in the control booth before a performance of Perseverance Theatres Desire Under the Elms.

MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

His office experience at Perseverance has shown him the nuts and bolts of how a real theater runs day to day, and in rehearsals he's worked with professional directors Kate Whoriskey of Boston and Fernando Nogueira of Lisbon, Portugal.

The first day of rehearsal was "miserable," Brookes said, as his preconceptions about his character were torn apart and stripped away by the directors.

"It's basically about having no shame and no resistance and no ideas of what you want ... and putting the images they're trying to create above your own ego," Brookes said of the process.

At Perseverance, Brookes has seen a precision and deliberateness, in the acting and technical stagecraft, he hadn't experienced before.

"Everything that we do in the show has a purpose. There is no arbitrary movement. There is no arbitrary sound," he said. "We choreographed this show like a dance, in a sense ... and it tells the story."

As it happens, Brookes hurt his knee in a rehearsal after the play had opened. He plans to perform with a cane until he learns whether he needs surgery that would remove him from the show.

Summer camp

Nearly all theaters do something with schools and youths, said Cameron of the national theater organization. Sometimes theaters sponsor playwrights in the schools, commission plays for young audiences, or offer theater classes.

Perseverance has held summer camps for youths for 17 years, and its in-season workshops are open to young people. The theater invites thousands of Juneau students to a 50-minute visit each year. And its staff did a brief residency at the high school's drama classes last school year.

Perseverance plans to double its youth camp, Summer Theatre Arts Rendezvous, with a Shakespeare play and a new production by Roblin Davis, who created "Fry Tales" for a young audience this past summer.

Fowler and Friesen have attended STAR for years, and played in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to sold-out houses last summer. Co-directors Nancy Buttenheim of Lenox, Mass., and Davis had a cast of 25 actors age 9 to 16.

"It's an amazing experience to get to go on stage and pretend to be somebody you're not," Fowler said.

"In some ways it helps you get to know yourself better," she said, by relating to or contrasting yourself with some part of the character.

"We really dove into Shakespeare," Friesen said. Students scanned the language for its meter, learned about the Elizabethan era to help understand the play, performed a monologue and then blocked and acted scenes.

"I got up a lot of energy put into my character in that play," said Friesen, who played Lysander. "The big lovers' fight scene we worked it over and over. It got to be high-energy and fast and amazingly powerful."

Fowler, who played the fairy queen Titania, was part of a fairy kingdom that wore masks.

Students who wore partial masks learned how to use the bottom half of their faces to make expressions, and to use their eyes without their eyebrows, which were hidden by the mask, Fowler said. They learned how to express their character through their gait or the way they sat down, or how they spoke.

"It just helped me to learn to use my voice more and express my feelings and emotions with my voice instead of entirely with my face," Fowler said.

Don't talk down

Attracting more young people to the theater won't change the kinds of plays Perseverance does, artistic director DuBois said. Perseverance tries to let audiences know ahead of time what to expect, so parents can gauge whether to bring their children.

Recent productions have dealt with a woman dying of cancer ("Wit") and a gay man dying of AIDS ("Angels in America"). Some plays have mature language and nudity. But Perseverance also put on "Fry Tales" last season, an original production by Davis for children ages 6 to 14. Another "Fry Tales" is scheduled for this season.

"Rather than try to make adult material child-proof, we're going for it with adult material," DuBois said. "And we're also enthusiastically going for plays for young audiences. Otherwise you're going for the middle and it's bad work."

It's important not to dumb down serious plays for youths, or to talk down to them, agreed Shane Mitchell, artistic director of the Alaska Theatre of Youth. Nor do plays that attract young people have to have rosy-cheeked actors in "Goldilocks."

"Antigone" by Sophocles is about a teen-age girl who disobeys her uncle, he said. "It's a classic, but it's still relevant. It has a lot to say to young audiences."

The Anchorage-based not-for-profit organization puts on summer conservatories for youths throughout Alaska, including Juneau. It also presents plays with professional actors and youths around the state. Themes vary from fairy tales to the Holocaust.

"The worst thing you can do in theater for young people is underestimate the intelligence of your audience, even the youngest audience," Mitchell said. "My experience is that at every age level they are smarter than I think they are."

DuBois is convinced the theater is a fresh and vital form that can communicate across generations.

DuBois said young people are responding to the honesty and open-endedness the directors put into "Desire Under the Elms," which has "hip" music and cinematic elements.

The directors were "awesome and had cool views," said Akemi Kunibe, 15, who is a party-goer in the play. "They took it out of the (New England) dialect, for one thing," she said.

Kunibe likes the music, the interesting movements of the actors, the distinctive sets and the play's pace. "There's no time you're just wishing it would end."

Kunibe is another "Lady Lou" sled dog who has graduated to human roles, in the Perseverance film "Raven's Blood," the chorus in the oratorio "King Island Christmas" and now "Desire Under the Elms."

Kunibe, like many other Juneau youths, has studied dancing and singing, and has attended fine arts camps. Perseverance serves as a progression for them, said Akemi's mother, Elizabeth Kunibe, who has been props master for some Perseverance productions.

"It gives the kids somewhere to go as a direction. It keeps them progressing and learning," she said.



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