After toying with the idea for years, Grandstreet Theatre is launching a satellite theater school in January at two elementary schools in the Helena Valley — Jim Darcy and Rossiter elementary schools.
The principals at both schools were eager to offer the program and supportive, said Grandstreet Education Director Marianne Adams.
Afterschool K-5 sessions run from 3:20 to 5:30 p.m. beginning Monday, Jan. 14, at Jim Darcy and Thursday, Jan. 24, at Rossiter and run for eight weeks. Tuition is $115, with a one-time $20 registration fee. Register at www.GrandstreetTheatre.com.
Younger classes, K-2, under the guidance of Colleen “Binky” Watson, play a lot. “It’s just the basics of play,” said Adams. “It’s very important that they just play and not have to do characterizations.” Some of the skills they learn are eye contact, projection, poise, concentration and focus.
“Our basic classes are not really performance oriented,” Adams said. By age 9 or 10 they may want to audition and by that time the students have learned some audition techniques, improvisation, characterization and movement.
“Just like the Grandstreet Theatre School in town, our goal is not to make people into actors — but to make them more able to go out into the world and take risks. They do better in school. They become our leaders because they’re not afraid to fail.
From school government to the presidency, those who are elected or get the part are those who show up.
“Kids have to have time for imaginative play,” said Adams. Through play, kids exercise their creativity and learn social and conflict management skills.
Theater school also offers a lot of kids a sense of community.
This second home away from home is crucial to a number of kids. Adams just heard from one of them, who she hadn’t seen in six years. He wrote about how important Grandstreet had been for him and his sisters: “I want to thank you for being there for us.”
Thanks to the generosity of local organizations and foundations, Grandstreet has offered scholarships for kids who couldn’t otherwise attend theater school.
Adams, who has taught theater school at Grandstreet since 1986, and Watson, who has taught there for about 17 years, can attest to how much the classes have helped a lot of kids find themselves.
Most have not gone on to be actors, but they’ve used the skills they learned in all sorts of careers.
Watson said she’s had students who were so shy they could barely say their name out loud to the group when they started. “One of these kids made a radio ad last year,” she said. It was amazing to see the child’s transformation in confidence and voice projection.
“I’ve seen a lot of life changes from kindergarten up through high school,” Watson said.
Both Watson and Adams have bachelor of fine arts degrees in theater, as do the other two teachers involved — Jeff Downing and Dee Smith.
The older students, working with Downing and Smith will not only learn acting skills but also such skills as clowning, stage combat and movement.
“I’m so grateful I get to play for part of my living,” said Watson, “and that people want to come play with me.”
“Yes, we teach theater arts and we have taught a fair amount of actors, but I also like to think they have an opportunity to be there and become better people. It’s a true social activity, where people engage with each other, which is getting harder to find.”
Grandstreet Theatre School graduates couldn’t agree more.
For Mia Crivello, who has chosen a career in theater and dance in New York City, Grandstreet laid the foundation for her professionally. It’s also the place where she built her oldest, dearest friendships.
“I learned life lessons — how to speak up in public, how to be reliable, how to work with others, be prompt and be prepared for whatever the world throws at you and you go with that.
“It really, truly was my home away from home. Grandstreet was my second family.”
She watched peers who were less extroverted than her come out of their shells.
“I’m so excited they’re opening a school at those other locations. It’s another opportunity for kids.”
For 18-year-old Kate Shea, Grandstreet was life-changing.
“I was very shy,” she said. “I didn’t have friends when I moved to Helena, but Grandstreet pushes you to come out of your shell.
When she auditioned for “Annie” seven years ago, she could barely be heard. This year, she had a major role as Grace Farrell, singing out loud and clear.
She also was chosen Distinguished Young Woman of Montana 2013.
Her training helped her on stage, doing the choreography and thinking on her feet during the interview process, she said. “I don’t know how I would have done it without Grandstreet.”
For Mary Middagh, who has just entered the accelerated nursing program at Great Falls, she’s found that acting ability helps her stay calm. Her nursing advisor, who also had acting experience, advised her: “Theater and nursing go together. There are times you have to pretend you have control of the situation” and controlling your facial expression can be crucial.
“A lot of people at Grandstreet believed in me when I didn’t have self confidence,” she said. “It helped me grow into a person who believes in herself.”
“It’s fun,” concluded Adams. “We think it’s fun. We laugh a lot and we love children and we think they’re the coolest thing ever.”
To learn more or to register, visit www.GrandstreetTheatre.com or call 442-4270.