The Rising Star Project: Leadership Workshop

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!

Harmony in the Hallways: Connecting High School Students to Musical Theater

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.

A Kent Meridian High School concert.

A Kent Meridian High School concert.

“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.”


Learning Through the Arts: Spotlight On Kirsten deLohr Helland & Shaye Hodgins

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 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.