“Run your own business …”
It became sort of a mantra repeated several times by Dani Baldwin, the Education Director at Oregon Children’s Theatre in Portland, Oregon. It’s probably one of the best lessons you can teach an aspiring performer.
Actually, the more I think about it, it’s probably one of the best lessons you can teach an aspiring anybody …
When I was a young performer, I was fortunate to have had a mentor. Dr. Lucy Carroll, “Doc,” was my High School Drama teacher, but she was also much more. Doc saw talent in me, and she made it her mission to make certain that I understood my talent was taken seriously. Becoming a better performer was hard work, you had to put in the hours, know the rules. She was instrumental in preparing me for college, from drilling me on my monologues, my music, even dragging me to every church basement and Elks Lodge to sing for scholarship money. She exposed me to Broadway, Opera and Ballet and made sure that I stayed on the straight and narrow. Which I did, for the most part.
In short, Doc made sure I was running my business.
It’s this same idea that guides the extraordinary Young Professionals Company, one of many opportunities offered by the O.C.T.’s Education Department.
As the Education Director for Oregon Children’s Theatre, Baldwin has developed an impressive curriculum of classes for young performers. The current summer program is made up of thirty week long classes, designed for ages 4 to 18. There are five levels, from beginner all the way up to the Young Professionals. The summer program is a deep dive, and encompasses every aspect of theatre.
THIS IS NOT DAYCARE …
Beginner level classes are created around universally loved authors such as Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss, as well as classes that allow young children to focus on pure imagination to teach valuable lessons in collaboration, focus, storytelling and character development.
Intermediate and advanced classes offer tweens and teens a full range of professional training in techniques of musical theatre, Improvisation, stage combat, makeup and acting for television and film. Classes also encompass intense staged workshops and showcases of anything from Shakespeare to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“We make sure that all of our classes include the fundamentals”, says Artistic Director Stan Foote, “All of our teachers include the fundamentals of performance in their classes, proper terminology and direction based on experience level. All students will learn.”
The proof of success is easy to see. OCT currently has 800 students enrolled in various summer classes. Perhaps even more impressive is the level of retention the program generates. During my time there, I met at least four staff members who started as students in the classes and have stayed with the organization to help to create and guide its vision. It’s a unique dynamic that gives students the added benefit of a staff that has been where they are and can more readily understand their specific needs and include their voices.
Which brings us to the Young Professionals …
“We had so many students staying a long time, taking a bunch of classes,” Dani Baldwin explained to me, “So Stan and I decided that we should get to know this group of students better, to provide more individual mentoring.”
What began as a loosely formatted program designed to focus more attention on these obviously dedicated students became much more structured over time. “We began to offer more opportunities for hands-on learning, more events, while still maintaining the flexibility necessary to hone the skills of each individual.
Today, the Young Professionals has become a full-fledged company within Oregon Children’s Theatre. “Now it’s student driven,” Baldwin tells BITN, “As a company their voice is important.”
Make no mistake: this is not a summer class. The Y.P. Company is an intense, college prep level program for teens who are serious about a career in the theatre. During my visit Baldwin was in the middle of a new round of company auditions. I asked her how she knew who was ready to move to the company? What was the audition process like?
“This is the most difficult part,” she said. “I wind up turning away about 70% of those who apply. It’s a heartbreak, they all deserve the best, but this is part of the business. “I look for certain things of course,” she said. ” Do they have enough of the basics to keep up in a college prep training program?”
But it was what she told me next that really caught my attention. “We look for how they are as a professional,” she continued.
“Do they follow up? “Do they run their own business?”
There it was again. She went on. “Acting is hard. Theatre is hard. If you’re not helping your fellow performers, being supportive, you won’t be as strong, you won’t learn. I’m looking for those ambitious, professional actors who are positive and contribute to a real working company.”
The day I was there, I sat in on a class in stage combat. Fight choreographer John Armour was instructing roughly 12 young performers in the correct way to perform a slap onstage. This was no messing around. As I watched I found myself thinking about my own theatre education. I never had an opportunity like this, not even in my own college training. Whether they knew it yet or not, they were receiving not just great education, but a leg up when they moved on to college.
“Each year, we have those workshops, those events that have become program favorites,” Baldwin remarked, “Things like improv, such an important thing every actor needs to experience and learn.”
“We offer apprenticeships, backstage and technical opportunities during our mainstage season. Technical theatre apprenticeships are a regular offering. This year we will offer programs in stage makeup and technical design, lighting. We insist that these Young Professionals get behind the scenes.”
I wanted to know how the Y.P. Company had changed since it began. “We are offering a lot more experience in a lot more areas,” she answered, “It’s a more complete program at this point. It’s a company now. I can only develop so much of the program to keep it on track. But if I listen to them, their individual needs and interests, it can spin off into a whole different direction.”
This approach creates a syllabus that plays to strengths and assists weaknesses. “If I notice that, hey, diction is really lacking in this group this year, then I push the vocal skills, push that more specific growth as part of the program.”
Each year the company produces a series of three professional productions as well as several showcases. While Beldwin maintains oversight, the students have some control over the choice of material. The 2017/2018 season is an interesting balance that plays to the Company’s strengths and pulls together the intensive training.
Jasper In Deadland – A rock musical take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Eurydice – A modern retelling of the same myth told from the point of view of the heroine Eurydice.
Impulse – A night with Oregon Children’s Theatre’s improv troupe.
Shortly before I left, one staff member remarked to me, “We get calls and e-mails all the time from graduates of the Young Professionals who have gone on to college to pursue a career in the arts. They all say the same thing; they tell us how far ahead they are compared to their classmates in terms of their training, discipline and outlook due to their time in YP.”
I asked Baldwin what advice she would give to a young person who was considering a career in the theatre. She laughed. She was full of advice, she remarked. “Theatre is a challenging and hard career. Be that person who people want to work with. This means be on time. Be excited about what you’re doing. Be daring. Be on top of your calendar, know the work.”
She paused before continuing. “And try, amid all of it, to take care of yourself. Get your school work done. Make time for your family. Be around a variety of people, not just the theatre world. Stay sane and know the world around you that you are portraying onstage.”
“Realize that so much of it is just out of your hands. You know,” she said finally, “When I’m running an audition, talent is just a small part of it all. Realize that if you are that person people want to work with, you’ll get the work.”
In short, Run Your Own Business …
To learn more about the Oregon Children’s Theatre and The Young Professionals click here
Education Director Dani Baldwin can be reached at email@example.com
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