The Blake School — a private, nonsectarian school — serves about 1,400 pre-K through 12th-grade students across its campuses in...
A jaunty piano accompaniment played as a group of student performers emphatically sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game.
Kids’ voices flooded the room and infectious laughter spilled out of their classmates, who wiggled in their seats with anticipation.
Choreographer Johanna Gorman-Baer guided the kids around a black box rehearsal stage with explosive, high-knee skipping until the song ended and the group scattered, catching their breath.
“You were singing at the same time as we were dancing. And both were happening loud, right?” Gorman-Baer exclaimed. “You were singing! Were we worrying about how pretty we are?”
“No!” the kids shouted.
“Were we worrying about how pretty we sounded?”
As a part of morning warm-ups, the third- through sixth-graders were working on taking deep, long breaths to project their voices throughout a theater, even while dancing. Or in this case, skipping.
The workshop — in which students learn and perform a collection of popular songs and scenes from the Tony award-winning musical Wicked — was one of several five-day workshops offered last summer by Youth Performance Company (YPC) for K–12 kids.
Upstairs, inside YPC’s office and rehearsal space in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, instructor Kayla Feld led a Frozen workshop in a different kind of warm-up for a group of kindergarteners through second-graders.
“Simon says: ‘Turn to the audience.’ Simon says: ‘Go to center.’ Simon says: ‘Go to stage left,’” Feld directed.
Some kids giggled and bumped into one another, while others stood still and furrowed their brows, trying to remember which direction to move in the brightly illustrated rehearsal space.
“Simon says: ‘Dance.’ Simon says: ‘Dance to stage left.’ Go upstage. … I didn’t say Simon says!” Feld laughed as her students dropped to the floor in amusement and mock frustration.
By playing this classic camp game, the K–2 kids learned how to closely follow directions as well as terminology for blocking — where to go on stage during a scene — when rehearsing lines for their take on the acclaimed Disney musical.
Why are they rehearsing?
Show-driven workshops at YPC end with final workshop presentations — for friends and family — to give kids real performance experiences.
Sound like fun?
This summer, YPC is back at it with a rich schedule of full-day, weeklong workshops including, to name a few, Moana Junior, Trolls and Annie for grades K–2; Hogwarts Express, Wicked and Descendants for grades 3–6; and Hamilton, Newsies and Legally Blonde for grades 7–12.
Other workshops focus on special subjects such as improv, dance, set-building, playwriting, singing, auditioning and more.
Let’s take it from the top
Artistic director Jacie Knight founded YPC in 1989, with a mission to serve the community and empower young artists.
During the school year, YPC holds auditions for plays and musicals that show at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Minneapolis. In summer, in addition to offering day-camp-style workshops, YPC hosts a one-week overnight camp at Bay Lake Camp in Deerwood for grades 7–12.
Professional actors, directors and choreographers, including YPC alumni, are among the instructors for the theater company’s summer workshops.
Maya Washington — who directed the aforementioned Wicked workshop — is a multidisciplinary artist with experience as a writer/director, filmmaker, actress, choreographer, poet and arts educator.
Washington discovered her love for performing in a dance class when she was 8 years old, and later got her theatrical start at YPC as a teenager.
“Teaching and directing are a way for me to give back to YPC for all they’ve done to support my creative development,” Washington said. “I draw on my own experiences as a young artist and think about the teachers who were really impactful in my journey.”
One of the biggest obstacles facing young students interested in theater is the fear of performing in front of others — especially peers.
Though most of the kids who enroll in YPC workshops have some experience or interest in participating in theater, performing can still be a scary endeavor for young artists.
“Our classes are incredibly inclusive and the instructors are really skilled about making sure that the activities and materials are approachable for a student who maybe doesn’t have much theater experience,” said Julie Heaton, YPC’s director of education.
Workshop leaders also add in some elements to make it challenging for students who have already spent some time on stage.
“A lot of the week is spent focused on building confidence and having fun in the process of taking on new challenges,” Washington said.
That might mean singing a solo or singing in a small group, learning new dance steps or taking on a speaking role.
Washington said the week-long intensive workshops are an “extremely ambitious” undertaking. “[We’re] putting on a show with kids who’ve never met, with varying experience in performance, in only five days!” she said.
Washington stressed the importance of supporting others in her opening remarks to the Wicked workshop.
“If you see someone who’s struggling — those of you who are in a really great space — see if you can notice that and be a support system for them, OK?” Washington told her student performers.
Washington then asked her students to think of (and share) one goal for the day. Some wanted to try to remember all their lines, while others aimed to hit their choreography with more power and excitement.
“If something happens, whether your voice shakes a little bit or a crack happens or you forget a line, consider being proud of yourself for surviving it,” Washington said. “Can we all agree we will not beat ourselves up today?”
There’s no place like home
YPC strives to create a strong sense of community within the company, too.
“One of the things we value at YPC is that we’re not just teaching theater,” Heaton said. “They’re learning community building, leadership, empathy.”
Workshops help teach theater basics, including terminology, performance and etiquette, but also self-confidence, teamwork, responsibility and professionalism, Washington said.
“If I do my job well, they have fun while they’re learning,” she added.
Heaton and Washington believe YPC can become a place for kids to feel comfortable while challenging themselves to learn something new.
“A lot of our students have really found a home at YPC where maybe they haven’tfound that same kind of community at their school or elsewhere,” Heaton said.
“We sort of have the philosophy that saying ‘yes’ makes you ‘good enough,’” Washington said.
Before the Wicked performers took their places for their final rehearsal, Washington had them take deep breaths and channel their excitement into confidence.
“Repeat after me: ‘No matter what happens, I am awesome. In fact, I’m actually the king or queen of awesome. At 4 o’clock today, or 4:30 or 7 p.m., I am going to be SO profoundly PROUD of myself that I will give myself permission to BURST!”
Olivia Volkman-Johnson is a local freelance writer, a recent graduate of Winona State University and a former theater fanatic from Richfield High School.
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