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Muny helps young performers get their act together

Acting for Musical Theatre class at The Muny

Students from Belleville and O'Fallon learn the acting ropes
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Students from Belleville and O'Fallon learn the acting ropes

Take a group of teenagers to whom singing and dancing come naturally, then throw acting into the mix.

That’s the hard part, said Ben Nordstrom, a professional actor, singer and instructor for the Muny’s new educational initiative called the Acting for Musical Theatre program. Students in grades 6 through 12 develop skills to blend acting with song and dance. Classes include improv and scene work, as well as song study and physical movement.

“Acting is more of a challenge for kids this age — being an actor and knowing who you are,” he said. “There are a few kids in the class who are Muny Teens (with experience on stage) and some who maybe haven’t done a thing, or maybe a high school show. They all have to jump into the same pool here. The goal is for them to take away some tools they can use.”

The key? “Listen,” said Ben as he worked with students on scenes from musicals and had them do improv. In a recent class, improvisation involved sitting in an imaginary taxi (four folding chairs) and carrying on an unscripted conversation that changed as passengers got in and out of the cab.

“I don’t want you to ask questions! I want you to talk to one another. Listen to what that person is saying. Go from that!” Ben shouted, laughing as students switched topics/emotions/reactions in the cab. One did nothing but pretend to smoke a cigarette. Another carried an imaginary shotgun on his way to vote for Donald Trump.

There are a few kids in the class who are Muny Teens and some who maybe haven’t done a thing, or maybe a high school show. They all have to jump into the same pool here. The goal is for them to take away some tools they can use.

Ben Nordstrom on the purpose of the class

Students not in the taxi sat or stood nearby, ready to leap into the front passenger seat and get their chance to change the scene.

“Today is a great day!” shouted a grinning Alexis Wooten, 14, as she jumped in and took someone else’s place. Irritated riders stared at her.

“This is just too much for me!” a back-seat passenger moaned, putting his head in his hands. Another asked Alexis to stop being so friendly.

“I’m always like this!” said Alexis, still in character. She is a freshman at the Milburn campus of O’Fallon Township High School who has done most of her singing at church and yearns to do more.

The class has 16 students and meets from 4:30 to 6 p.m. every Thursday for 10 weeks. Another class for younger students meets on Tuesdays. The winter semester ends March 24.

Students work out of a rehearsal hall that is part of the Muny complex. It’s the kind of big, open space, with wood floors, an upright piano and mirrored walls, that seems both professional and inviting. Floor-to-ceiling windows on one wall look out on an area where set construction goes on during the summer.

Being there is a bit jaw-dropping for teens who love to perform.

Daniel Polahar, 16, of Belleville, still can’t quite believe he’s getting advice and training from someone he has seen on stage.

“I’ve seen Ben in a couple things. This is such a great opportunity. I act and sing, but I’ve never taken any lessons,” said Daniel, who is homeschooled. His parents are Barbara and Daniel Polahar. Their son belongs to a drama group made up of about 40 other local students who are homeschooled. Daniel appeared this winter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” with the group, as well as auditioned and won a role in the touring Missoula Children’s Theatre’s production of “The Secret Garden.”

His mom heard about the Acting for Musical Theatre program, Daniel said. “Moms are the best agents. I love the Muny,” he said of seeing musicals there with his family.

“I think this is awesome,” Barbara said of the class. “It’s a creative outlet for him. He likes to play interesting and unusual characters.”

The most challenging part of the class for Daniel?

“It’s a prolonged feeling of unsuredness,” he said. “We had this group activity where we couldn’t talk and we had to use our hands to explain an object. It was frustrating.”

Alexis, daughter of Charna and Antoine Wooten, called the class “My happy place.”

“I always had the desire for music since I was a kid,” she said. “This is where I need to be.”

Again, it was Mom who made it happen.

She’s been singing since she was a little bitty girl. She outgoing, an extrovert. She likes to entertain. Why not put her in a class like this? I think it was a good move.

Charna Wooten on why daughter Alexis is in the class

“She’s been singing since she was a little bitty girl,” Charna said. “She outgoing, an extrovert. She likes to entertain. Why not put her in a class like this? I think it was a good move.”

Ben, 39, relishes the opportunity to work with budding musical theater performers. He has appeared in more than 50 plays and musicals at major theaters around the country and earned a St. Louis Theatre Circle Award and two Kevin Kline Awards.

“I watch Ben and he’s someone I’d want to be,” said Alexis. “He’s a good role model. ... He teaches us how to connect with each other.”

That connection is what Ben hopes to find for his actors as they work together. Students were put in pairs and small groups to work on selections from musicals.

He sat Daniel and fellow student Emma Sowards, 17, in chairs facing each other as they struggled through a scene they had been assigned from “Shrek, The Musical.” Daniel was the ogre Shrek and Emma the princess Fiona.

He kept them seated so they would focus on communicating with each other and making eye contact. “It’s not just memorizing our lines and it’s all going well,” he said, looking at the group sitting on the floor.

As attention for a few drifted from the two actors in chairs, he pointed out: “There is value in watching someone else work. I want you to watch for the connections.”

All had been asked to write about their characters in journals. It helps with the process of learning who the character is, he said.

Alexis had been working on Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“I’m a little nervous,” she said. “I’ve never played anyone like her. Audrey is really low, doesn’t feel like she deserves the good things in life.”

Daniel, for his part, was having a tougher time figuring out how Shrek should deal with a demanding Fiona.

Ben told his students to think about what that person across from them wants, what he or she is afraid of or needs from the other character.

“What does she want?” Ben asked Daniel as he and Emma read a confrontational scene from the script.

She wants cooperation, things done her way, Daniel realizes as he and Emma respond to Ben’s questions and go over their lines several times.

But Fiona is not being very nice about it. “So what do you want to do?” Ben asked.

“Knock her off her high high,” said Daniel, grinning. Ben nodded.

At a glance

This is what you need to know about Acting for Musical Theater @ The Muny

  • Who: Students in grades 6-8 and 9-12
  • What: 10 weeks of classes after school one day a week taught by professional musical theater performers. The focus is on integrating storytelling with a musical. Students will develop the tools to blend acting with song and dance.
  • When: Registration is closed for the spring semester, but more classes are planned for the 2016-2017 school year.
  • Where: The Muny rehearsal hall, Forest Park, St. Louis
  • Cost: $180
  • Information: www.Muny.org
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