July 14, 2014
Bright Lights & Broadway
As Prince Avenue Christian School junior Rachel Adams walked along the streets of Manhattan on a recent visit to New York, she could imagine her future—seeing own name in the lights of a Broadway marquee.
For Josh Whalen, George Alviter, Luke Wallace, and Nathan Anderson, a bus tour around the island reminded them of their recent past—as they remembered the roles they played in the school’s production of West Side Story in 2012. The tour guide had pointed out the exact location where many of the scenes from the 1961 film version of the hit Broadway musical had been filmed.
Helping the students connect the fictional roles they play with an understanding of the historical or cultural reality of the settings of the musicals and dramas they produce is one of the reasons Prince Avenue’s Fine Arts Director, LaMurl Morris, takes students on special trips to New York City and to Walt Disney World, alternating locations each year so the students can experience a variety of cultural and arts opportunities. Eighteen students just returned from a tour of New York City, where they learned about the city, its people, and its ever-changing culture.
“Many times when our students become immersed in a role they may play, they may not really understand the context of the script because the setting or the life experiences they are portraying may be totally out of their realm of experience. These trips give us a chance to broaden their world, and help them to connect with people and places even beyond their comfort zone,” says Mrs. Morris.
Seeing first-hand the original “home” of West Side Story is a perfect example of letting students view a life experience within a different context. As the bus drove through the west side of Manhattan, the students saw an upscale, modern shopping district where there had once been run-down brick tenements in an area once ruled by street gangs. The guide explained that as soon as the movie was completed, the tenements were torn down and new buildings erected as the area transitioned from a drug and gang-infested residential neighborhood to an upscale commercial area.
“The connection was made,” says Mrs. Morris. “Our production of West Side Story now has a larger context for these students.”
The students who traveled to New York this year all have a strong interest in performing arts, and while in town they were able to attend two of the most popular Broadway shows—Wicked and Phantom of the Opera. They also participated in a workshop with two key members of the cast of Wicked, Jerad Bortz who played the character Fiyero the night the Prince Avenue group saw the performance, and music director Dominic Amendum.
In just over an hour on Sunday morning, the Prince Avenue students learned the words, musical parts, and choreography to the song “One Short Day” from Wicked. Both Bortz and Amendum were impressed with the students’ ability to learn so much so fast, and they kept adding new pieces to the choreography because the students were performing so well.
“We were really blessed to have the opportunity to learn from two cast members who had been with Wicked for a long time,” says freshman Nathan Anderson. “It was great that they would take time out of their day to come and teach us.”
There really is no business quite like show business. The workshop ended with a question and answer session, and this provided a stark connection to reality for the students, especially Rachel Adams who has already been accepted to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA). She plans to attend the New York City school, and pursue a Broadway career.
Bortz and Amendum were both encouraging and realistic about the life of a Broadway cast or creative team member. They absolutely love their lifestyles and performance opportunities, but emphasized the need for an incredible work ethic and extensive preparation in singing, acting and dancing, reminding the students that the more diverse talent they could demonstrate at auditions the better chance they had of securing a role in a show. Both artists are already established in the very small community of Broadway performers, and their financial and job status seems somewhat secure since they are embedded in a long-running production, but they don’t expect that they will ever be rich. And their creative energy continually flows, and they find themselves constantly branching out into other endeavors to give themselves various outlets for their creativity and to make more money.
But life as a Broadway performer can also be very difficult and stressful, they warned the students. It can take many years to reach the big stage, following many, many unsuccessful auditions, or after playing smaller stages in small cities all over the world. But for even those who “make it on Broadway,” the lifestyle can be challenging. A 240-square-foot efficiency apartment (about the size of a one-car garage in Georgia) in mid-town Manhattan, can cost a performer $1,600 a month. Those who choose to marry and raise a family generally have to move off the island—usually to a place in another state that may be a one to one-and-a-half hour commute by train away from the theatre. It is almost impossible for Broadway performers to be able to live in single-family homes in Manhattan, considering the very high cost of living on the island (a Russian businessman recently purchased a 21-room co-op apartment on the west side of Central Park for his 23-year-old daughter—for $88 million!)
Sophomore Will Adams says he most appreciated the question and answer session with Bortz and Amendum. “I really feel like the best part was that they didn’t just tell us about the business, but they told us how to get into it. They told us about the struggles, and how to go about touring with other companies before even trying to get on Broadway.”
But opportunities to participate in similar workshops, or to perform with a choral group in the world famous Carnegie Hall as students have done on previous New York trips, are additional reasons Mrs. Morris encourages the performing arts students to travel on these trips. “As teachers, we could talk all day to these students about what it might be like to have a Broadway career,” she says, “but nothing will impact them more than to hear about it from someone who is living that life right now. But,” she says, “it was awesome to see these students learn this piece of music from Wicked, and to watch them rehearse and perform the song. It was a great way to see how our very talented group of students could work together and learn something so well so fast.”
As performers, it is important that students learn to connect with an audience, and Mrs. Morris notes that New York City is a great place to experience a diversity of cultures and people who may one day view their performance. While in Manhattan, the Prince Avenue visitors attended an afternoon worship service at Times Square Church, which is located in a renovated theatre just off Broadway. The church was started by the late David Wilkerson, author of the best-selling memoir The Cross and the Switchblade, who sensed a call from God to minister to the gang members, drug addicts, alcoholics, and others who were living in the area some thirty years ago.
Like the rest of Manhattan, the area has been in transition for many years, and the church now serves a very diverse congregation made up of over 100 nationalities, and the Prince Avenue students experienced—some for probably the first time in their young lives—what it was like to be a minority within a large group of people. In a service not unlike what the students might experience at their own local church in Georgia—except maybe with a little more movement and soul in the music, Croatian Dr. Peter Kuzmic, known as the “Billy Graham of the Balkans,” connected with the Prince Avenue group as well as the rest of the congregation, simply because the message of the Gospel transcends race, creed and culture.
Freshman Isabelle Renn says, “It was exciting to experience a different kind of worship service with such diversity and freedom within the body of Christ.”
“This experience just might be called the ultimate field trip,” says Mr. Strickland. “New York City just has a vibe of its own,” he says. “And the students have a chance to hear, and see, and even taste so much of the culture in the three short days we are in the city. And even the 20-hour bus ride each way gives them a chance to build camaraderie within the group that will serve them well when they gather to perform again.”
That camaraderie actually begins with Mr. Strickland, as he uses the long bus rides to continue to talk to the students about the ins and outs of show business. A gifted storyteller, he shares his own experiences in the fields of music and drama, giving the students a perspective of one who has found success as a performer, director, and educator. After both Wicked and Phantom of the Opera, Mr. Strickland led the students in a discussion of the theatrical aspects of the Broadway performances. He doesn’t simply ask, “What did you think about the show?” Instead, he initiates conversation which leads the students to analyze all aspects of the production—from costuming to staging to technical qualities to the actors performances. The “post-mortems,” as he calls them, provide yet another way for the students to connect more dynamically with the reality of the theatre business.
“It was very cool being in New York together as a fine arts group,” says junior Josh Whalen. “I love family trips,” says freshman Macy Frazier. “But I feel like we are a family in our theatre group. And, I don’t think I would have wanted to experience New York for the first time any other way.”