We’re lucky to be part of an amazing group of students participating in Rising Star Project: The Pajama Game. Everyone from acting students to administration students have been collaborating to ensure that the project runs smoothly and that the outcome is unforgettable for all of us. We are so excited to show you what we’ve been working on. We can’t wait to see you come and support this product on which we’ve all been working so hard. — Marketing Students Eliana Coe and Yvonne Mmata
Creating Common Ground: Reflections on the First Day of Rising Star Project’s Empowering Young Artists Initiative (EYAI)
In 1996, August Wilson famously stated: “We can meet on the common ground of the American theater.” He also insisted that “we must develop the ground together.”
These are the words that I can’t help but recall as I sit on the floor of our rehearsal studio surrounded by 19 young performers— the inaugural cohort of the Empowering Young Artists Initiative (EYAI)—as they meet together for the first time.
It is hard to believe that Rising Star Project, the education program that EYAI supports, is in its sixth year of providing mentorship and training to local teens. As I’ve watched the program grow and flourish, the words of Wilson’s famous speech seem to echo with more and more insistence. By supporting young people along their unique paths to careers and higher education, we hope that we are also contributing to the positive impact that these young people will have on the world in the future.
But Wilson’s words remind me that, by bringing together such a diverse and driven group of students, Rising Star Project is also in a unique position to participate in the project that he was insisting on.
The EYAI Squad represents communities as far away as Marysville and Yakima, and as near as Rainier Valley. Through remarkable support from our community, this group will come together for 10 weeks to train with theater professionals, prepare for participation in the mainstage presentation of Rising Star Project: The Pajama Game and to learn more about the form of musical theater. Importantly, this group will also convene to create a dialogue on the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion—and the part that the arts can play in our society.
After Day 1, I will admit that it is equally inspiring to see this group of teenagers acknowledge each other as self-proclaimed musical theater nerds. I guess that is the other area of common ground, the one that August Wilson didn’t cite—but the one that the EYAI Squad will welcome you to with open arms.
By ORLANDO MORALES, Director of Education and Outreach
Last weekend, teens representing over 40 Washington high schools gathered at The 5th to celebrate the start of Rising Star Project rehearsals. In March they will present their own production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and members of the professional cast and crew also joined in the festivities.
Such an auspicious occasion, always calls for a “kick off” dance routine:
Professional company members, Kyle Carter (left) and Nik Hagen (right) had no shortage of wisdom to begin dispensing.
The Rising Star Project was first presented in 2011, and since 2013 it has grown and developed in partnership with The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation. While preparing for this year’s Rising Star Project—our fifth year mentoring Washington teenagers—we chat with Sheri and Les about their hopes and goals for the program to continue creating new opportunities for students, the community and the theater.
“Musical theater is America’s art form. It’s our quilt,” says Sheri with a smile. “It has enabled us to share stories and discuss social issues through every critical period in our nation’s history. This is why it’s so important that we continue nourishing the growth of musical theater.”
The Rising Star Project is part of a diverse and ambitious portfolio of initiatives led by The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation. Driven by a mission to invest in bold ideas that inspire collective action in order to achieve powerful results, the Foundation makes grants to numerous organizations in Washington State and Los Angeles County.
Les: “We work in four areas—supportive care, public education, career training and theater arts. We want to try to do as much as we can in these areas to benefit the community and to advance positive and sustainable change.”
The story of how theater enrichment—and more specifically, Rising Star Project—has become an integral part of the Foundation’s vision begins with Sheri’s childhood:
Sheri: “Theater was a big part of my youth. It was important to my family. As a child and as a teenager, I had my share of issues and got bored in school. But one of the things that saved me was being around theater, being involved in theater, and performing in theater. Having this creative outlet helped me learn how to express myself, and in such a positive way.”
Les: “I came to theater through Sheri. It wasn’t necessarily a part of my childhood—but through Sheri, I became a lover of theater and musical theater. Sheri also brought into focus for me how theater can have a social impact.”
The beginning of a new partnership
Sheri: “Because I have firsthand experience with the importance of exposure to theater as a young person, we seek to support inspiring theatre productions with immersive educational components. We believe that students need to have the arts in their lives if they are to become well-rounded adults.
What caught our attention about Rising Star Project is that it isn’t just an arts program. We realized it touched on all four pillars of our Foundation’s work—theater, public education, job training and, as far as I’m concerned, supportive care as well. It embraces young people and can help them deal with issues in their lives. It’s very supportive in that sense. And exactly the kind of program we needed to become involved with.”
Collaboration, new ideas, and lots of fun
Les: “We love Rising Star Project because it teaches life skills. We like that it brings kids from different parts of our community together in a unique setting where they learn how to work together as a team and gain self-confidence while doing it. The other part of Rising Star Project that we are very proud of is when we bring new audiences from local schools lacking access to arts programming into the theater. The students see themselves reflected in the people their age on stage and behind the scenes.”
Sheri: “But Les and I also value the act of collaborating with others. Trying to create collaboration between an arts organization and a foundation may have its challenges, but the important thing is that people are willing to work together and try new ideas. And that also makes it a lot of fun.”
Sheri also draws a connection between the Rising Star Project partnership and the collaborative nature that is intrinsic to musical theater.
Sheri: “If we’re making a musical, it’s not just about having great voices and great performers. There are so many other important roles that are required for this to succeed. Most students don’t understand that. Most adults don’t understand that. When they go to a musical, most people only notice the orchestra and the actors standing on the stage. And of course, that is only a small piece of the puzzle. There are many squares on the quilt.”
“And now we’re back to talking about quilts,” she laughs.
Stories for the future
Sheri: “Another dream for Rising Star Project and this partnership is in the possibility of encouraging other communities to do this as well. In the coming years, could we multiply tenfold the number of students who can participate? We want to work with The 5th to create an example—the model for others to follow.”
Les: “It’s important work. We have thousands of years of history. And history is a form of storytelling—whether it’s done in a verbal way, or visual way, or done through performing a musical. We’re telling stories and that’s how history and values get passed down from generation to generation.
“My other hope is that while this important work is happening, the broader community will realize what it’s about and will also want to get involved and support it. We hope that the Rising Star Project story is one that is widely told and widely known and that many people will want to be a part of the story as well.”
The Rising Star Project production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying goes up in March, but this season’s student team is already gearing up for the challenge! The second annual Rising Star Project Leadership Workshop took place the theater last Saturday. It was an opportunity for this season’s students to meet, begin building skills for the future, and talk leadership with Les Biller—local philanthropist and member of The 5th Avenue Theatre Board of Directors.
Here are a few highlights:
The 2015/16 Rising Star Project team will be composed of over 90 students from all over Washington State- future leaders in their respective communities.
Objectives for the day included talking about different leadership styles and reflecting on one's own default style.
“A leader is someone who inspires others to do things that they would not naturally do, if left to their own devices.” – Les Biller
We are grateful to Les Biller for taking the time out to share his experiences and reflections with this year's Rising Star Project team!
Last season, the Rising Star Project welcomed nearly one hundred students into The 5th Avenue Theatre to mount a full-scale production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. The theater also partnered with educators to bring nearly 2,000 students from over 20 local schools to see the production created by their peers. None of this would be possible without the dedication and support of our partner teachers. They make amazing things happen for students every day. This is a snapshot of one of them.
At six thirty-five in the morning on any given school day, you’ll find Heath Thompson in front of a heavy-eyed group of teenagers at Kent Meridian High School. It’s time for vocal warm-ups. Gradually, amid a couple of yawns and a few tired sighs, creaky voices give way to rising scales, arpeggios, and eventual melodies.
“It never feels natural to be singing so early in the morning,” laments Thompson. “But it teaches my students discipline—in a way nothing else could.” But he will admit that the coffee machine is as essential to the music department’s success as their piano.
This fall marks Thompson’s tenth year of predawn choir classes and music education in the Kent School District. It also marks the fifth year since he and his students first came in contact with the Rising Star Project. In the program’s first year, one of Thompson’s choir students was cast in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
“I remember him coming out onstage in his mutton chops as this old curmudgeon… And there was a great sense of pride. For him to be able to say he had stepped out on that stage, it meant so much. Being able to actually see him have that experience was… amazing.”
Thompson is eager to profess his love for his students and their unique school community. But, like so many educators, he struggles with the day-to-day realities of teaching in a community that many would label as underserved.
“Kent Meridian is the most diverse school in Washington State. And it is a high school that doesn’t have much of a musical theater program.” Thompson cites many factors that hinder the arts, despite unwavering interest from students and teachers. “Socioeconomic status, location, and even cultural barriers can shift concerns away from the arts. Just getting by, day-to-day, is challenging enough. But for that very reason, if you want to see a school that absolutely needs additional support for its arts programs—you don’t have to go much farther than KM.”
After a few minutes of conversation with Thompson, you recognize that he has never been one to let systemic challenges derail plans that he has for his students. At the same time, he faces many obstacles that every teacher will sympathize with—but that most people won’t immediately associate with a choir classroom.
“One interesting challenge is working with students that have either just moved to America—or are from such a different culture—and have no concept of rehearsal or performance. I’m working with brilliant students but some are still breaking through American cultural and language barriers. It can be difficult trying to rehearse at the high school level while teaching basic English reading skills at the same time.”
Through the years, however, Thompson has honed his toolbox of strategies.
“I expose my students to musical theater as much as I can. I give students material that they are able to understand emotionally—even if they aren’t necessarily understanding all of the words. I need to incorporate musical theater and the physical storytelling. Being dramatic transcends the language barrier. And it helps to teach a student about what a song means—they don’t necessarily have to understand English to understand the art.”
Last year, Thompson once again saw one of his students join the cast of the Rising Star Project—this time for a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. It was also the first year that the school was invited to attend a matinee performance and cheer on their classmate.
“Many of my students had NEVER been in Seattle before. Seeing my students walking up to the theater, past the marquee, and going to experience musical theater for the first time was inspiring. What was remarkable to me was that they understood the show so well. They GOTCarousel. We talked about the deeper themes in the show—about abuse and forgiveness and the line between those two things—a very complex subject for students to encounter. And in their first show! We had some great conversations which were less about how great the performers were, and more about how great the story was. And that for me was eye-opening. You don’t want students to dwell on “look how great this or that performer is”—as much as you want them say “look how great Rodgers and Hammerstein is.”
There was one particular student performer that Thompson was glad to see acknowledged by his students—their choir classmate, Curtis, who had been cast in the ensemble.
“There was buzz at the school beforehand. But especially when they got into the 5th Avenue Theatre, got into Seattle—they understood how big of an opportunity it was for Curtis and how meaningful an experience it was for him. They were able to see a student from their school up there, and they knew that a piece of that show belonged to them. I will never forget that.”
For Thompson, the pride he has for his students and his joy in watching them perform is deeply seeded in his own journey.
“When I first moved to this area, I was in middle school andI had no self-esteem whatsoever. I was picked on, I was really insecure—I remember how low I felt and how little I saw of myself. I knew that there was a theater program at the school I was at, and I remember auditioning for the show that was being put on that year. And I got the lead role—in Mack and Mabel. And the director there, Mrs. Grajewski was the first teacher to say, ‘I believe in you, you can do this.’ And that changed my life. [That experience on stage was so positive, it gave me a confidence to do things like sports—I started doing honors curriculum classes—English and math—I made friends and I started to became the person I was on the inside, but was too afraid to show.] And that’s why I became a teacher. And that’s also why I teach the performing arts and musical theater. Every student deserves the opportunity to be on stage and perform—and do it out of joy—and to be applauded and supported and embraced by a community. And I want to try and create that experience for as many students as possible.”
This holiday season, The 5th will present a sumptuous production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. Two of the principal actresses in the show are also former students and participants in 5th Avenue Education programs, one of whom has become one of the hottest young stars in Seattle and the other who is ready to break out onto the scene. I took a moment to catch up with each of them about the ways our programs have impacted them as people and as artists.
KIRSTEN deLOHR HELLAND
Kirsten will play Maria Rainer in The Sound of Music.
Kirsten deLohr Helland has had the exciting opportunity to feel the power of our theater education programs as both a student and an artist. While a student at Peninsula High School in Gig Harbor, she was twice nominated for a 5th Avenue Award (a Tony Awards-style awards ceremony honoring high school musical theater across the state)—once in 2004 and again in 2006. In 2011, she joined the cast of Adventure Musical Theater’s curriculum-based production ofRosie the Riveter as Rosie, and toured Washington State presenting the musical to over 55,000 elementary and junior high school students in nearly 150 schools.
When I ask her to describe the most valuable thing she learned as a participant of 5th Avenue education programs, Helland answers plainly, “To be true to myself.” She smiles and continues.
“To be respectful, to be gracious, to work hard for what I want and to always remember that the work is never done. That I am part of an incredible community and that I don’t need to see the things that make me different as a negative.”
We talk about the value of arts education and why schools should increase opportunities for students to learn through art. "Whether you go on to become an artist of a business professional, the skills students learn from any art class will have a lasting impact on their lives and careers," Helland says. "Skills like discipline, creativity, imagination, empathy, public speaking, leadership, confidence, communication, cultural awareness, inventiveness, community, team building, problem solving, understanding, and the list goes on and on. Students need to be thinkers, possess people skills, be problem-solvers, demonstrate creativity, and work as a member of a team. The arts provide all of these skills and more."
Shaye will play Liesl Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.
In contrast to Helland, a known and respected, hard-working young star, Shaye Hodgins is a high school student with all the strength and gravitas of a professional. Audiences should look forward to seeing her on Seattle stages for many years to come. While a sophomore at Snoqualmie’s Mount Si High School, Hodgins starred as Julie Jordan in the Rising Star Project production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.
The Rising Star Project enables students from throughout the state to re-mount a professional production on The 5th Avenue stage, utilizing the theater’s sets and costumes and providing students with direct mentorship from 5th Avenue staff. As a student in this unique, tuition-free program, she developed professional skills through the process of performing in this show on The 5th Avenue stage.
I ask Hodgins how her participation in 5th Avenue Theatre’s education programs has helped her grow as an artist and as a person. “I’ve participated in The Rising Star Project the last three years, and at the risk of sounding too cheesy, the program has completely changed my life,” she enthuses.
“The Rising Star Project cultivates an environment that is both challenging and supportive. I learned to stop obsessing over my performance—how well I sang or how I delivered each line—instead, I learned to focus on telling a story. That’s why we do theater. Not for ourselves. The goal is to share a story in an authentic way.”
When asked what she hopes other students gain from participating in programs such as Rising Star Project, she states, “I hope that future students gain the same sense of confidence and community that I experienced.”
The 5th Avenue Theatre Education programs reached 74,000 Washington students this year alone. While the number of students reached is impressive, the impact is far greater. Studies show that students who are engaged in arts education learn critical life skills such as empathy, motivation and discipline. They learn to work as a community and develop sensitivity to a variety of cultural experiences.
The research also confirms that an education rich in arts learning increases achievement in all academic areas and fosters a love for life-long learning. As Helland and Hodgins will tell you, theater has the power to change lives and we are honored to have had an impact on these fine performers. The 5th Avenue Theatre recognizes the value of learning through the arts and we are constantly seeking new ways to engage youth through the power of live theater.