by David Heasley

Special Thanks to the Academy

If you’ve ever been in a room full of energetic children, you know what this feels like.

The unmistakable electricity running through the Columbus Children’s Theater on this day isn’t just the young ones. The staff is excited. The parents.

But why should the rest of Columbus be excited about what’s coming to Columbus Children’s Theater?

The lights aren’t up right now, but down the hall from a rehearsal, with CCT Student Program Coordinator Jessica Lehner and Director of Marketing Rachel Flenner, I can hear the sound of applause emanating from behind a closed door, and the smell of popcorn wafting upstairs where we’ve gathered. Class is in session and there are future stars on stage.

If you don’t know much about Columbus Children’s Theater (CCT), or the Advanced Performance Academy (APA), here’s what you need to know: “We’ve heard from casting directors, and people who have gone to New York and been to Chicago and they say ‘What do you put in the water out there, in Columbus, Ohio? ’Cause you’ve got some great people coming out here and auditioning, and getting into these shows.’”

Academy students are decidedly serious about wanting to go into theater or musical theater. Lehner explains to parents that the program expects a commitment of four days a week.

“This is serious,” she said. “It’s not difficult to market [the program], but it is pointedly marketed,” to experienced, dedicated students who plan to pursue theater professionally or collegiately.

Nobody else in Columbus can give you this kind of a program, says Flenner.

“You can take dance classes from a studio, you can take a vocal lesson, but we’re going to give you the whole package. We’ve pulled all the good people from across town together.”

It’s a one-stop shop for students, preparing them specifically for the collegiate level, and even to go straight to the professional level of acting, musical theater, and even TV and movie careers. CCT has partnered with BalletMet, located just a block and a half away, and dance instructors come directly to the students. The theater also partners with Short North Stage, offering to assist APA students with any backstage internship they might be interested in—from costuming to stitching to scenic design to lighting design. Because of their participation in APA, students are also considered for all age-appropriate roles at Short North Stage.

How do these talented kids balance it all,  in pursuit of their theatrical dreams? How do they juggle Academy classes four days a week, along with the demands of schoolwork, friendships, and family life?

It requires a collaboration and cooperation with the parents. The commitment is not unlike a high school sports program, an hour and a half after school every day. If they do a show, that’s more, but these kids are used to that. The students are not new to being in a show that rehearses until 9:30 pm, and they get their homework done.

CCT is working on ways to facilitate meals for students when they are doing classes and rehearsal. The staff identified that gap, and the need to find a solution, for when these young actors have a dance class that ends at 6 p.m. and rehearsal that starts at 6:30.

“The beauty is everybody cares for each other so genuinely,” Flenner said. “We’ll be their champions, as much as we can be, in getting them what they need. We’re there for them; we’ll find a solution.”

In addition to weekly classes, at least one Master Class will be offered each session; three sessions will take the students from the start of the school year to May. Master Classes are one-time opportunities to work with professionals in the field. To launch the program, the Music Director from the touring company of Book of Mormon, as well as one of the actors from the show, met with CCT students.

“Only we can provide that for them,” Flenner pointed out. “It feels sometimes, having grown up in theater, that you had to know someone, you had to know someone, you had to know someone … we’re bridging the gap. We can’t always get you backstage, but we can get the person in front of you, that you can learn from, and you can meet.”

In this Master Class setting, a half-dozen experienced students might sing, receive critique and feedback, and then sing again. Each student has 15 minutes with the industry professionals, in front of a larger group of students, and everyone can learn from that.

During the program’s kick-off, students saw some encouraging feedback, as well being able to identify where their repertoire could be sharpened in order to find more parts in more places.

“See a need—fill a need,” Flenner said. “Kids are like ‘I really want to be this triple threat. I want to be this person, but I can’t do a show and be in my dance classes, and take a private vocal lesson, and do all of this.’”

The ‘one-stop shop’ aspect of the Advanced Performance Academy is key, especially being centrally located downtown. The theater’s reputation is a big catalyst for why families wanted this program at CCT. They know the quality program they will get.

CCT has been around for 55 years, and this fall APA is letting the rest of the world see what Columbus is capable of. The city has seen incredible growth in the theater community, and this intensive program is evidence of that. The resources the city has to offer are astounding, and there is outstanding talent coming out of this Midwestern enclave.

“It’s nuts,” says Lehner. “No one believes it!”

There may be some retakes, multiple rewrites to the program, and changes in stage direction along the way. But the APA program will take the students through it, and will take care of them along the way. We will hear, as Lehner and Flenner have from former students: ‘I wouldn’t be where I am today without Columbus Children’s Theater.’

Maybe one day they’ll be thanking two Academies. •

Columbus Children’s Theater has three partnerships this fall: BalletMet, Short North Stage, and Gateway Theater. For more information, visit columbuschildrenstheatre.org.

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