Giving Thought: Educating the next generation of theater artists and patrons
Recently, we’ve devoted this column to individuals working to effect positive change in the Aspen-to-Parachute region. This week, we’re speaking with Paige Price and Graham Northrup of Theatre Aspen. Paige, who spent 10 years on Broadway as a performer, is now going into her 10th year as executive artistic director at Theatre Aspen. Graham, the organization’s director of education and outreach, is entering his seventh year.
Aspen Community Foundation: Theatre Aspen is probably best known for its stage productions but education is actually a core program, mentioned in your mission statement. Why is that?
Graham Northrup: The most obvious reason for theater education is that it trains the next generation of artists — the people who will appear on stage and in film and television. Second, it gives people an appreciation of the art form — what goes into making good theater and the good that can come out of theater. These people become patrons, enthusiasts and ambassadors of the art.
Third, theater education cultivates in students a means for observing and understanding the world and gives them tools to affect their world for the better. By learning theater skills — acting and singing, design and production — students are better prepared to engage the world head-on, exchanging ideas and collaborating toward solutions.
Paige Price: We’re really cultivating them to be in a stronger position to compete in life. We know the percentage of our students who go into the performing arts as a career is likely small, but we’ve seen multiple examples of students who have gone on to work in public service or lead nonprofits. There’s an equal amount of success to be had in other fields with the training and awareness and empathy you get in theater.
ACF: Can you give us a breakdown of your educational offerings?
Northrup: Theatre Aspen offers education and training through year-round courses, workshops and production programs that give students a solid foundation in the processes of theater. The career-minded students are well prepared to enter collegiate training programs.
We offer after-school classes at the elementary, middle and high school levels as well as classes for adults. Our summer programs are robust, with 15 separate programs running over 11 weeks. We serve more than 300 students in the summer and another 120 to 150 during the school year. We produce five shows each year, three for teens and two for preteens and support them with industry professionals.
Our apprentice program helps bridge the gap between college and career. Around 15 apprentices work as actors, designers, educators and technicians in a real-world environment under the mentorship of working professionals. These participants find themselves much better prepared to seek industry employment.
ACF: How do you know if the educational programs are accomplishing their goals? What does success look like?
Northrup: Many of our pre-collegiate students over the years have been accepted to advanced training programs at top-tier universities. Likewise, several of our apprentices have landed roles and jobs on Broadway, in regional theater and other fine institutions. Our best evidence of the success with younger students are the kind words from parents who tell us of social, academic or performance breakthroughs.
Just recently a kid who was in our production of “Big Fish” — Lyon Hamill, a senior at Aspen High — went to ThesCon, the state theater convention, and won the competitive audition process. What was especially touching was that his mom called us personally, in tears, and told us how grateful she was for our influence in his life.
Price: Another measure of success is that we have taken several people from our apprentice program and added them to our staff. We have been able to offer meaningful jobs to both locals who came up through Theatre Aspen and to graduates of our apprentice program.
ACF: What comes next? Are there changes or new ventures planned?
Northrup: Our education department is expanding, adding a full-time education associate as well as an associate artistic director who will manage the apprentice program. We will be able to provide a higher quality experience to our existing constituency as well as refine and expand our programming to reach broader audiences.
Also, our scholarship program has essentially doubled in the past couple of years. We say that we’ve never turned anyone away for financial reasons. We’re trying to expand our programs downvalley, to people who don’t traditionally think of theater as an after-school option. I’m currently learning to speak Spanish. Our recent production, “Big Fish,” had students from seven schools involved from Aspen to Glenwood.
Price: One of the goals of the education department is to build a pathway, from 5 years old to 25 years old, that builds skills and shows people a path to their future. We provide support, fun, community and skills.
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.
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Aspen School District is not the only district in the country facing teacher shortages as schools across the nation are struggling to find available staff to fill gaps in teacher positions, writes Teen Spotlight columnist Beau Toepfer. Still, the district has faced challenges with teacher retention and replacement this year.