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Civic Theatre's summer youth program provides hands-on experience

The Civic School of Theatre Arts presents "Sideways Stories from Wayside School" and "Into the Woods Jr." July 29-August 7, 2016 at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre.
Teens practicing at the Civic School of Theatre Arts

Teens practicing at the Civic School of Theatre Arts /Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

Underwriting support from:
Youth working on the production set

Youth working on the production set /Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

Clarissa Mousel who plays the Witch in Into the Woods

Clarissa Mousel who plays the Witch in Into the Woods /Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

When summer promptly rolls around, kids – usually – dream of days occupied with lounging by the pool, campfires, and, the most vital for an unforgettable summer, no classrooms. That isn’t quite the case for Clarissa Mousel and rest of the students of The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre School of Theatre Arts.

This is Clarissa’s first summer with the Summer Repertory Theatre Intensive (STRI) program after spending most of her performing career with the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. The productions for this summer’s program are "Into the Woods Jr." and "Sideways Stories from Wayside School."

The goal of SRTI is to provide its participants (ages 13-19) with a broad range of theatrical experiences through the challenges of actual, hands-on responsibility — not only in performance — but also the technical and backstage facets of production. Students choose an area of emphasis to study and are then granted opportunities to advance themselves and their skills throughout the intensive. The performance track stresses acting, singing, and dancing, while the production track focuses on set, costumes, props, lights and sound and stage management.

“I thought I was all that and a bag of chips,” stated Clarissa Mousel, the Witch in this summer’s production of "Into the Woods Jr." Clarissa is talking about herself prior to starting classes with Civic Theatre. She has been performing since she was only seven years old, in a combination of school productions and the under-appreciated art of puppet shows for her family, and feeling as if she had it all figured out. She then admitted being humbled after witnessing the amount of talent held by her peers at the SRTI program.  After spending nine years with Civic in summer camps and Theatre classes, this was Clarissa’s first summer partaking in SRTI. During rehearsal one would not be able to tell.

When asked about the benefits received from SRTI as a performer she said, “This program has definitely taught me things that I would not have learned at my high school — it taught me not to just do scenes in character just for the scene; it taught me to go underneath the surface and dig deeper.” Clarissa and her fellow SRTI students spent afternoons in classes learning about their area of emphasis, either production or performance, from the teachers of the School of Theatre Arts and evenings in rehearsal for their production.

When asked how she has grown from her experiences at SRTI, Clarissa said, “It has made me take a step back from situations to more fully understand people and to be more empathetic towards [them].” Spending countless hours in classes and rehearsals, these interactions with children from varied backgrounds grants them the ability to further understand diversity and the world it inhabits.

One of the perks of attending SRTI is the fact that students are given the opportunity to learn from guest instructors from celebrated organizations, such as Broadway Touring Company and Purple Rose Theatre. The Broadway Touring Company came into town with its production of "The Book of Mormon" and was gracious enough to share some of its performers and production technicians to teach master classes at Civic’s SRTI program. “Broadway is placed on a pedestal and thought of as amazing. Seeing that [the actors] are real people was really cool,” said Clarissa.

When asked about her most memorable experience at the SRTI program this summer, her eyes gleamed and a smile came to her face while she thought. There was an exercise conducted by the Purple Rose guest instructors, Guy Sanville, the artistic director, and Michelle Mountain, the director of educational programming, that required students to get out of their comfort zone by staring into a partner’s eyes for two minutes without speaking. “It was really kind of awkward at first, but we looked at each other in the eyes for like two minutes and we couldn’t break eye contact. At first it was a little weird, but it was good. It made me look at people in a different way just by looking at them in the eyes.”

When observing a rehearsal of "Into the Woods Jr." and "Sideways Stories from Westside Story," it was clear that Clarissa and her cohorts have been through extensive training and also have an unequivocal amount of talent for their age. The group carried themselves as the veterans do, studied each other, and listened closely to critiques from directors. All doubt of their capabilities is dispelled when the curtains pull. I am eager to see the final product of this process – and what Clarissa and her companions will accomplish down the road.

This weekend is opening-weekend for both shows, "Into the Woods Jr." being Friday and "Sideways Stories from Wayside School," and tickets are on sale now. The show runs from July 29 – August 7 and tickets are priced between $10 - $16. Don’t miss an opportunity to capture the talent that this great community has cultivated.

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