By Art Petrosemolo
RED BANK – The curtain has dropped on the regular season but the lights haven’t gone dim on the Rechnitz stage at the Two River Theater. Summer educational and artistic programs fill the calendar at its Bridge Street location.
Kate Cordaro coordinates educational activities throughout the year at the Two River Theater Company (TRTC) to introduce children from grammar through high school to the wonders of live theater. “And for some,” says Cordaro, “it means involvement in summer camps or special programs where they are hands-on with many of our artistic and production professionals.”
Robert Rechnitz, founder and executive producer of the theater, brought Cordaro into the fold in 2004 a year before the new state-of-the-art regional theater opened. Cordaro comes from an acting, teaching-artist background and, with the support of Artistic Director John Dias and the theater company, has built an enviable number of short and long-term educational offerings for area youth.
This summer, TRTC welcomes more than 100 youngsters to theater camps beginning July 15 for one, two and three-week sessions. It is the ninth year for the program, which has grown from two dozen children the first year. “We’ve come a long way,” says Cordaro.
Camps always have been a big part of children’s summers and recently specialty camps have become even more popular. Theater camps provide the same team building and learning skills that many children acquire at sports camps. And parents also are looking for the right place for a child who they might say “is so dramatic,” or “we need to harness his energy.”
“We also have old pros,” Cordaro says, “who have been acting in school plays since their earliest years and may aspire to the theater, movies, TV in an acting career.” The TRTC programs, like those at other regional theaters, hope by involving youth in theater-education programs it will help build future theatergoers.
What the Red Bank program does unusually well is, through professional teaching-artists, allow children to be creative. They brainstorm, write and build their own performance programs. Groups of high school interns, many of who have gone through the program, help the younger students overcome performance anxiety.
For first and second graders, the one-week programs introduce them to the theater through theater games and devising short, original materials. “It is Step 1 for these youngsters to get to know what theater is all about,” explains Cordaro.
For third and fourth graders, teamwork programs to build self-confidence are mixed with theater games and songs and they too devise original, performance materials.
Fifth and sixth graders are introduced to theater arts and design in the morning hours where they create props, set designs, puppets, masks and costume pieces. In the afternoon, they take part in acting classes.
For seventh and eighth grades, it is a higher level of acting classes, set design and everything that goes into creating a production.
Students can participate in one, two or three weeks and each Friday, an invitation only performance for parents and friends allows the students to show off newly acquired skills.
For junior and senior high school students, the camp is a three-week performance track. Students sharpen their acting, singing and performance skills while also getting involved in the production aspects of putting on a play. “With the help of our teaching-artists,” says Cordaro, “they create their own production that is performed for friends and the public twice at the end of the summer session.”
Last year, Cordaro smiles, “the students were inspired by Dickens’ Christmas Carol and put on a wonderful summer rendition they had created.”
Although the TRTC summer camps may be the most visible of the educational programs, it is only one facet of a multilevel approach “to get children involved in theater,” Cordaro says.
Other programs include:
PlayBack – PlayBack is designed for high school students who work for 12 weeks to create their own show based on themes of one of the theater’s presentations from the season. “This year the staff chose the themes of ‘family’ and ‘history’ that were from our production of 2.5 Minute Ride which ran in April and May,” says Cordaro. Up to 15 students from six area high schools, working with theater-artists, prepare an original production that is presented to the paying public twice on the Marion Huber stage.
Metro Scholars – MS is a competitive program where up to 15 high school students are chosen after an application process that includes auditions, interviews and written essay. The yearlong program immerses students in the theater life. “The students see all our productions,” says Cordaro, “and serve two assistantships working side-by-side with our artistic and production professionals. It fully engages them into theater life.”
Many of the Metro Scholars go on in theater-related activities in higher education and beyond. Cordaro keeps in contact with many of the Metro group and some come back each year to the event where new scholars are named and recognized. “Many Metro Scholars say the experience was life changing,” she says.
TheaterWorks – A new program for the TRTC suggested by Red Bank’s Gilda Rogers (Beyond Group), works with in-school programs for children at risk. During the 2012-2013 pilot year, TRTC engaged students from Asbury Park High School (The SPOT) and Red Bank Regional High School (The SOURCE). “We expect two dozen participants this coming year,” Cordaro says. The students focus on a different theater career each month from the artistic to the production side. “For example, these kids may know sound and music,” she says, “but they have no idea there are careers as sound engineers in the theater and music industry.”
TheaterWorks brings TRTC staff to the school for sessions and the kids to the theater for part of the program. “We have high hopes TheaterWorks will continue to be eye-opening for high school students,” smiles Cordaro, “and get them to think outside the box on tracks they might be able to do with their life.”
Cordaro explains that TRTC also runs other programs for children tied to the theater season and is constantly looking for new ways to reach the younger generation. Past programs have included student theater matinees, Young Voices, to bring teaching artists to public schools for workshops, No Seats Empty where students can participate in pre- and post-show workshops among others.
“We have an obligation to our profession as well as the younger generation,” Cordaro stresses, “to keep theater in all its forms active and healthy so the next generation will enjoy it as much as generations past. Bob Rechnitz has made it one of the goals of this operation and one we take very seriously.”