Theatre Aspen Education kicks off a summer of superlatives
Biggest season ever begins with Shakespeare in the Park debut
What: Theatre Aspen Education presents “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
When: July 8-10 at 11 a.m. each day
Where: John Denver Sanctuary (470 Rio Grande Place, Aspen)
In Theatre Aspen’s education wing, it is the summer of superlatives: students will stage the most productions ever in a “marathon” lineup that includes the first-ever outdoor production for the department.
The heat of the season kicks off Thursday morning with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in John Denver Sanctuary — two firsts there, since the premiere open-air performance for the program will also be a foray into uncharted Shakespearean territory.
“Obviously, the John Denver Sanctuary is beautiful, it’s a destination spot,” said Elissa Russell, director of education programming and administration for Theatre Aspen. “We’re so happy that parks and recreation allowed us to do this. … ‘Midsummer’ specifically is very much about the forest and the outdoors, and being able to tie some of those elements in by placing it outdoors, it just seemed like such a logical pairing, so we’re very excited for that.”
Unlike other shows in the Theatre Aspen lineup, the production is free. That helps contribute to accessibility in the performing arts, according to Russell and Erica Colarusso, a choreographer and teaching artist in the education department.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a fitting entry point to Shakespeare, Russell said, because some students (and audiences, too) are already familiar with it from school curricula.
There are, of course, some variables to an outdoor performance — especially at the John Denver Sanctuary, where there isn’t just weather but also passerby, pets and wildlife to contend with. Director Graham Northrop has kept that in mind, Russell said, with guidance on projection, focusing amid distractions and keeping that “show must go on mentality.”
“That’s a really valuable tool for young actors to learn, to just kind of roll with the punches,” Russell said. “And maybe a dog wanders up on stage — what are you going to do? I think it’s actually a really valuable skill set to kind of keep going under those circumstances.”
The debut iteration of Shakespeare in the Park also adds an additional performance opportunity for students in grades 7-12 — another first to have two upper-grade performances in one summer.
The other performance for older students, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” will be staged Aug. 5-8 at the District Theater. Colarusso will direct that show and said she will be working a lot with design and storytelling to create a “physical, almost dance-like production” staged as “a giant actor playground.”
Colarusso, who was an education apprentice last year, has already cast her vote of confidence for her performers.
“I’m very excited,” she said. “They’re a really fantastic, talented, smart, kind group of individuals, so I’m very, very excited about that, and just getting to know them as artists and as people.”
A middle-grade production of “Willy Wonka, Jr.” (July 29-31, also at the District Theater) stars students in third through sixth grade. There were also two spring productions, to create a “marathon” season of five shows in five months, Russell said. That’s on top of an already stacked slate of summer camps for students as young as kindergarten age and as old as seniors in high school.
“In theory, the idea of producing three shows this summer on top of all of our camps that we have running for our younger students, it’s a heavy lift, but we have a really solid team in place,” Russell said.
The large-cast musicals of previous seasons were so popular that they drew nearly three dozen upper-grade performers in some cases, according to Russell.
“While a big cast musical can be valuable and a very educational experience for the students, we were finding that we didn’t get to spend as much individual, one-on-one time with our actors as we would like to,” Russell said.
This year’s bolstered lineup offers more individual support for students, with 16 performers in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and 20 or so in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” (“Willy Wonka, Jr.” will have about a dozen performers playing multiple characters, according to Colarusso.)
Strong participation is indicative of the enthusiasm for the program, Russell said.
“It actually works out great that we’re able to introduce (Shakespeare) this year, because this year feels … like a very exciting time, like we’re kind of able to return to some semblance of normal,” Russell said, “and so it actually works out really well to have the students here and excited about a new program during this very special year.”
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