Lunatics, Lovers and Poets

ATC's Summer on Stage program casts teens in challenging roles

With a mesmerizing exuberance, Therese Way sashays across the rehearsal stage for Chicago. She shimmies. She slides. She does cartwheels in heels, never missing a note of her solo. Her comedic timing is perfect.

You'd think she was a professional.

That's the goal of Summer on Stage, Arizona Theatre Company's training program for high school students. Way is one of 44 young actors who will perform this weekend in the program's productions of Chicago and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

As the director of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Cale Epps said he sets the bar high for the students.

"They are not treated as teenagers, but as artists," Epps said. "We give them the opportunity to flourish, and it's kind of up to them whether they step up to that or not."

This is his fourth summer working with Summer on Stage students, and each year he's found them to be dedicated and enthusiastic.

"Everyone knows what they're here to do, and they do it with joy," he said.

Epps said the students' focus helps them get through the month-long program's fast-paced schedule of classes and rehearsals.

"It is an intense sort of whirlwhind ... but I think it's the opposite of chaotic," he said.

In rehearsal for A Midsummer Night's Dream, the students are tuned in to every detail of their performance. Their movements are deliberate; each gesture, gaze and eyebrow wiggle has intention behind it.

Epps coaches them through it, explaining characters' motives and how to make those motives come through to the audience. He laughs and cheers when the actors get it just right.

The most rewarding part of the summer is when the students take ownership of their performance, Epps said. At that point, they don't need his direction anymore.

"It's always the moment when someone does it without me barking at them," he said.

Epps compared watching the final performance to looking at the surface of the ocean without realizing what's underneath.

"It takes a tremendous amount of work," he said. "What looks effortless has 100 hours behind it."

Summer on Stage aims to stretch the actors beyond what they think they can do, program director Jeana Whitaker said.

In the first weeks of the program, students spend their mornings in classes to develop their acting skills. But there are other offerings that spread beyond onstage work: classes in directing, lighting, sound design, stage makeup and master teacher techniques are all part of the program.

The program is a safe environment to take on challenges, Whitaker said. Instead of being competitive with each other, the students are encouraged to focus on growth.

"They really end up surprising themselves ... going, 'Wow! I'm so happy I got to do that,'" she said.

Emily Godfrey is in her fifth season at Summer on Stage. When she started the program as a rising freshman, she was an introvert. That year, she was named dance captain, and the experience helped her gain confidence, she said.

"This program always puts you in roles that help you grow," said Godfrey, who graduated from Tucson High School in May. "(It) has helped me become who I am."

She said the program fosters a higher level of dedication than many of the students see in their high school theater classes.

"We're here because we love it and enjoy it, not to get a credit on our report card," she said.

Godfrey said she has been known to go to bed at 8 p.m. to be well-rested for rehearsal the next day.

"I've always wished this was a year-round school," she said. "How often do you say that about school?"

Although it's her final year, Godfrey hopes she can return to Summer on Stage to help future students. The educational component of the program goes beyond high school; many of the stage managers and interns are UA students earning a stipend and professional theater experience.

Reilly Bello, who is about to complete his first year in the program, said it expanded his horizons beyond the small group of people he worked with in high school theater.

"It's kind of enlightened me as to what kind of actors there are, and what kind of directors and stage managers," said Bello, who graduated from Sonoran Science Academy this year.

He said the students form friendships rapidly in the first few days of the program.

"I was really surprised at how quickly you kind of meld into the group," Bello said.

Third-year participant Allison Hrabar echoed that sentiment, adding that the entire program is a collaborative process. The directors often ask the actors for their feedback and advice and then employ it.

"It feels like it's ours," she said.

Whitaker said Summer on Stage works to instill creativity in its participants outside of their everyday work.

"It's fantastic to give kids creative opportunities that aren't necessarily linked to a role or a show," she said.

Each year, the students work together on a creative project outside of classes and rehearsals. This year, it was a flash mob in the UA student union. One of the students pretended to be a celebrity, then others swarmed around him and they broke into a dance to Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi."

The students also organized a show to display their talents outside of their theatrical roles, from violin performance to stand-up comedy.

On top of two letters of recommendation and a short essay, the admissions process requires a creative submission that shows the student's desire to participate in the program.

Whitaker said she received YouTube videos, music mashups, posters, collages, photos and more.

"It just ran the gamut," she said.

The students' projects will be on display in the lobby during each show.

Whitaker said the confidence the students gain from the program spills over into other areas of their lives.

"I was a teacher for 16 years before I came to ATC, and the most rewarding part to me always is when, and I get a little passionate," she said with tears in her eyes, "they have a realization moment that they can do it."

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