By TAYLOR MOONEY
A group of theatre students at the University of Mary Washington are taking their skills out into the Fredericksburg community; specifically, to the younger members.
Starting in January and ending in March, the University of Mary Washington has joined forces with Stage Door Productions to teach Stage Door Youth Workshops, a ten week long program for youth, ages 5-16, interested in acting. These workshops cover a variety of topics, including improvisation, scene study, movement, stage combat, character work, Shakespeare, and many others.
The idea to get UMW theatre students more involved with Stage Door was first introduced by Dr. Miriam Liss, a professor in the Psychology department of UMW. Liss’s two children, Emily, 10, and Daniel, 12, are both aspiring actors. Their family has been a part of Stage Door for about four years now, and recently, Liss was chosen to be the director of the youth division.
At the same time, Liss was also chairing for the Committee of Community Engagement at UMW. Liss was motivated to get more involved because of the University’s push toward community engaged learning.
“President Troy Paino had a faculty meeting with the University in the fall, where he stressed community engagement, and having our college more involved in the community,” said Liss.
Liss approached the chair of UMW’s Department of Theatre and Dance, Gregg Stull, with her idea and he immediately loved it. While the UMW theatre department is very involved in the Fredericksburg community, “[they] don’t do very many activities with school aged children, and this was an opportunity to connect with that part of the community,” said Stull.
Stull recruited students within the theatre department to lead the classes and he received an overall positive response from students. Students expressed interest in the program, and they also took the initiative to schedule and run the workshops without much guidance. “[The workshops] are completely student driven,” said Stull. “We love that.”
One of the student leaders involved is junior theatre major Victoria Fortune. Fortune was approached by Stull about the program and she jumped at the opportunity. Fortune has been involved in teaching other acting classes, and she hopes teaching the Stage Door Workshops will expand her knowledge and help her to become a better teacher and actor.
So far, Fortune has been an instructor for a couple of workshops, one of which was improvisation. During this workshop, she worked with the children to teach them the basic rules of improvisation and how to execute them. This was accomplished by having the children participate in a variety of games where they got to practice these skills, while also having a great time.
Along with improvisation, Fortune was an instructor for the workshop on body movement. In this workshop, the children were taught about the three basic body movement energies: potency, radiancy, and buoyancy. According to Fortune, “these movements can really help with on stage performances.”
Fortune’s experience partnering with Stage Door has been a really positive one.
“My favorite part about leading the workshops is seeing people’s reactions when they start to recognize the value and the fun in what they are learning,” said Fortune. “It feels good to give that feeling to someone else.”
The program has also had positive feedback from both the parents and the children involved.
“In the world of community theatre, there is not a ton of opportunities for kids, especially kids who don’t have drama classes in their school, to learn theatre skills and techniques, so the workshops provide an opportunity to work on specific skills,” said Liss.
One of the most popular workshops with the children, so far, focused on stage combat. This workshop has been a huge hit in Dr. Liss’s household. Her two children, Emily and Daniel, are constantly playing and practicing what they learned. After they perform a fight scene, Liss said they will turn to her and ask, “Did that look real?”
Jess Elkins, a junior theatre major, is also involved in leading one of the workshops, focused on scene study, for ages 10-16. Her younger sister Jillian, who is 10, is enrolled in the workshops. According to Elkins, her younger sister “really enjoyed learning about stage combat.”
Elkins originally got involved in the workshops because she wants to, “encourage young kids to pursue arts further,” while also, “giving what we learn [as theatre students at UMW] back to people younger than us.”
Due to the program’s success, the hope is to continue the workshops into the future.
“I hope UMW continues this program because I think it looks good on UMW theatre, on UMW as a whole, and on Stage Door. I think that this will encourage more artistic involvement within the Fredericksburg community,” said Fortune. “If we have kids growing up with these opportunities, then that will flourish and build more of a community within Fredericksburg.”