Katie Riedel keeps her eyes focused, her right foot tapping, her left hand pointing. Along with 10 others kids in this newly formed chorus line, she two-steps, claps, twirls, huddles, and constantly smiles as the group rehearses “King of New York,” a song-and-dance number from Newsies, The Musical.
Katie, a sixth grader at Harding Elementary, is spending a week at Broadway Boot Camp, one of four camps offered each summer by The Orpheum theatre. Rehearsals take place in a rather unusual setting: The theatre’s ornate main lobby.
“We’re at capacity in our building now,” says Alice Roberts, vice president of programming and education. “We meet in hallways and on staircases for classes.” Not that that bothers Katie. “I’m a dance and theatre geek,” the 11-year-old says with a grin.
But next year, that rehearsal space will look quite different with the opening of the new Halloran Centre for the Performing Arts & Education, a 39,000-square-foot facility that opens later this month.
“We’re on schedule,” says Pat Halloran, president/CEO of The Orpheum. The education wing, named in his honor, will engage thousands of additional students and families in the performing arts. It is Halloran’s final hurrah as he anticipates his retirement at the end of 2015.
An emphasis on theatre arts
The new education building shines a spotlight on the importance the Orpheum places on arts education. “Some of us realize how many hurdles and challenges young people face,” says Halloran. “It was much different 30 or 40 years ago. Today’s students, on the whole, face a declining emphasis on arts. The Orpheum seeks to fill that gap.”
While the Orpheum’s educational programs currently serve 66,000 students, Halloran anticipates that number will jump. “We’ll go to 80,000 or 90,000 in the next three years,” he predicts.
What makes this important is how the arts can affect kids’ lives. Take Maclean Mayers, a Germantown High graduate who received the Best Actor from the regional High School Musical Awards (HSMA) and went on to win two Jimmy Awards in the National HSMA program. He didn’t discover acting until high school, but “Theatre changed my life,” he told Memphis Parent during a recent interview.
Adding to downtown’s profile
The new center — a sleek two-and-a half-story building that cost $14.5 million — was designed by The Crump Firm, Inc. and adds to downtown’s architectural diversity. Its extensive use of green glass, marble, and columns that span two levels, creates an open, airy feel. Rich sapele, a hardwood from Africa, provides warmth throughout the building, where it’s used for cabinets, tables, and doors. Sapele is also used in making musical instruments and here serves as an acoustical element in the building.
Alice Roberts’ background in acting, directing, and company management, plus her 15 years at the Orpheum as the education head, equipped her to oversee the project. “I took my wish list to the architects. They gave me exactly what I wanted,” she says. Roberts stipulated classrooms of various sizes, a rehearsal space similar in size to the Orpheum’s stage, a sprung floor room with a barre suitable for dance practice, and a tech room for video production.
The new, 350-seat theatre, with red seats that contrast against black walls, is striking. Row A is flush with the stage, merely a few feet from the performers. Actors can rehearse here and then take their performance to the main theatre. Another feature is the video room, earmarked for in-house shorts and promotions, as well as student audition projects. In today’s competitive world, videos are what open doors for auditions.
“We want the video to be top quality, and this production site will do that,” Roberts says. “Ultimately, we want it to be a peer-on-peer project,” where adults supervise only. It’s clear as you hear their vision, this state-of-the-art building creates space to imagine, learn, and grow. “Education gives young people the chance to build their confidence and makes them better contributors to society, better leaders, and eventually, better parents,” says Halloran.
Though 2011 “wasn’t a very good year to raise money,” according to Halloran, the Orpheum’s prestige and dedication to arts education, coupled with the deep and generous pockets of many friends and institutions, made their building campaign a successful one.
“We have only $600,000 left to raise,” Roberts adds, “and we’re not over budget.”
Committed to quality
The Orpheum’s educational program started in 1999 with 50 high school students. Today it reaches children from preschool to high school. Last summer, they hosted 250 campers. In addition to Newsies, students rehearsed and performed selections from Pippin, Matilda, and Cinderella. One camp even introduced teens to the business side of the theatre world. Other classes covered stage construction and auditioning. Roberts sees two immediate goals for the new education wing. One is to grow their summer camp program from four to eight weeks, the other is to offer more courses for students and teachers on the technical side of theater, so people can learn more about lighting and sound design.
A fun part of Broadway Boot Camp for Katie was the team effort of writing a script called Betrayal on Broadway, a take-off on Bullets over Broadway. Katie played Elizabeth. “I am in a relationship with Zach the mobster,” Katie says. “After I become famous, I dump him.”
Another Boot Camper, David Long, 13, a rising eighth grader at Elmore Park Middle School, says watching a Disney movie at age 5 convinced him he wanted a life on stage. He played Ichabod Crane in his school’s production of Sleepy Hollow. What did he gain from camp? “I’ve learned how to breathe and sing, how to turn so the audience can see me, and how to put it together when you’re singing and dancing.”
That’s a lot of learning for a summer. And it’s only just begun.
The Orpheum’s Education Programs include:
Centre Daytime Student Series • This series provides field trips for area students to see internationally touring companies perform.
Broadway Workshops • Broadway 101 is offered to teens and taught by cast members of each Broadway show that comes to the Orpheum.
Kennedy Center Teacher Professional Development • The Orpheum partners with the Kennedy Center and Shelby County Schools to bring in national teaching artists to coach area school teachers in classroom arts integration.