Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Teaching Stage Combat to Elementary Students!!

Mark Penzien, Fight Master and Stage Combat Guest Artist for Opera for All
When my friend, Whitney Hershberger, contacted me about helping her teach stage combat as part of the COT Opera For All program, I was excited to be involved.  When I was told it would be 13 classes of middle-school students, and we’d have only an hour with each class, I panicked a little.  After all, even though stage combat is fake fighting, it is a dance of sorts that is highly choreographed to deliver a good story, and an exciting spectacle, but mostly to ensure safety of the combatants.  The professionals have been training for years or decades.  How could we teach them enough to be interesting, but keep them safe?
Trained stage combatants don’t generally go “all out” with a lot of speed.  If they did, the audience is going to miss most of what happens.  That lack of full speed is also for safety.  What if we went to the other extreme and taught the kids slow motion fights?
So Whitney and I went about choreographing a simple fight that included slaps, punches, pushes, and hair pulls.  (It’s amazing how much fun it is to get into a brawl with a friend when you know neither is going to get hurt!)  Along the way, we discovered how to make the fight interesting:
If it can’t be flashy or fast, make it BIIIIIG!!
I’m not talking a fight with 6 or 7 people at once.  No, I mean wear the biggest, meanest-looking fighting faces.  Choreograph large movements that ordinarily would look clownish.  And encourage vocalizations that are fierce, loud and drawn out.  With the fight slowed down, the audience gets to take in all of the minutiae that usually get mixed together in typical stage combat.
When we got into the classrooms, there was a lot of excitement to be learning (and being allowed) to fight.  Naturally, it was a constant struggle to make sure everyone remained in slow motion and that safety was being respected.  Whitney and I even made sure that safety wasn’t just the first rule of stage combat, but the first three!  “Safety for myself, safety for my partner and safety for those around me.”  Once we had that ingrained, it was a lot of fun for teachers and students alike!
Seeing the students take to the choreography and make it their own was quite rewarding!  Once the movements were familiar, the warrior faces that were donned were impressive.  A beastly face that normally would be comedic took on very serious tones because of the vocality and slowed-down energy of the fights.  I truly worry about the Great Chicago Fire that these students will be fighting in their operas!

COT for Teens at Gallery 37

Chris Richard, COT for Teens Teaching Artist
What an amazing semester we had!  Our teens just ate up everything that we threw at them...and we threw a lot!
This term we focused on a scenes type program - not a full show.  A program such as this is quite common and we explained to them the numbers we chose were from a WIDE range of styles. We were fortunate to have so many good students that we wanted to give as many of them as possible a chance to shine, so we had LOTS of SOLOS!!!  Our program of numbers were easy to transport to various locations, which was great because we performed our program at several locations.  This gave the students many chances to perform, learn to deal with nerves, learn to change performance spaces and the technicalities that go along with all of that.
Our program was as follows:
Ever After, Act 1 Finale from Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim
Va, penseiro from Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi
Cell Block Tango from Chicago by Kander & Ebb
A Weekend In The Country, Act 1 Finale from A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim
Who Will Love Me As I Am? from Side Show by Russell & Krieger
We performed all of these selections at The Museum of Contemporary Art along with the other Gallery37 performing groups from ASM.  We also made a jaunt up into Lincoln Park and sang our numbers for the Sunrise Senior Living Center.  The audience there was very appreciative of our sound and bright energy filling the space!
We had visits from a number of members of the COT staff, which is always a welcome and informative diversion from Ms. Ott & I cracking the whip.
After we took our students to the Dress Rehearsal of Queenie Pie, a few of the leads came to visit our classroom. The teens were enthralled with them and had MANY questions for the panel.  The Queenie Pie cast were gracious enough to let our students perform for them too! 
Another wonderful highlight was a visit from some staff and students from Northwestern University.  These students were Music Theater majors and all of them sang a number individually for us.  It was especially inspiring since these NU students are the ‘next level’ of where our students want to be.  We almost couldn’t get them to STOP talking to each other!  It was really great to hear how the NU students transitioned from high school into one of the top universities in the country….and it’s in our own back yard!!!!

Our last performance of the term was for Chicago Opera Theater’s Spring Gala on April 24.  We paired with the Solorio students to perform ‘Va, pensiro’.  I think our students might even call this the biggest highlight of our term.  Our teens performed just as beautifully as the professionals earlier in the evening.  I heard through the grapevine that COT Board President, Henry Fogel was so moved by our teens performance the he snatched the microphone from the emcee to say a few unplanned kind words about our teens…THANK YOU to Mr. Fogel!!!
It seems I say this every term, but it’s true – I am honored to be a part of this program and am in awe of the teens. I am extremely proud of each and every one of them. THEY inspire ME!

COT for Teens at Solorio Academy High School

Michael Roemer, COT for Teens Teaching Artist

Early in the month of April, the Chicago Opera Theater for Teens at Solorio gave their final performance. It was such a joy and thrill to see the students up on the stage as they saw the ten-week program through the end. Some were introduced to opera for the very first time! They performed “Modern Major General” from Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, “Prologue” from Sweeney Todd by Sondheim, “Va pensiero” from Nabucco by Verdi, “You can't stop the beat” from Hairspray by Marc Shaiman, and “We're all in this together” from High School Musical. We had one senior, Valeria Lopez, who sang “Nel cor piu non mi sento” by Giovanni Paisiello.

This is my second semester working with students at Solorio, and I'm always surprised to see which students step out of their comfort zone and accept the challenges during the program. The final performance marks an important benchmark for all of the teens. They were onstage in front of their parents and in front of their peers, which can be some of the most nerve-racking moments in life. No matter what happened on the stage, mistakes and all, they kept going. They saw it through, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes after is quite an amazing thing to see.

The final performance shows only a portion of what goes on during our program. We were very blessed to have many talented professionals come to talk or teach our students about different professional areas surrounding the arts. Performers from the Queenie Pie cast came in to talk with our teens, and they learned about how much energy it takes to be a performer. It was an inspiring moment to see Lil Daddy, Jeffrey Polk, showing the kids a more energized version of “You can't stop the beat” including added cartwheels. Several Chicago Opera Theater staff members came, including Jessica Weber, who spoke to them about building resumes and college preparation. Terry Harper and Jane Hulburt came and talked about their experience in the arts field. Terry awed them with stories from his life and Jane provided a nice perspective on the importance of communication, networking, and opportunities including internships. Earlier in the semester, we brought in Enanna Sheena, a student at Northwestern University pursuing a degree in speech and language pathology. They were amazed to see how the voice works from a medical standpoint.

All of these opportunities, guests, and experiences give the teens important exposure to a large world of possibility. We gave them an opportunity to act on the stage as a different person or learn what it takes to be a different person. Every semester is a challenge and a success story about how the students learn to be punctual, responsible, and energetic as they reach for their goals. Music and opera is a powerful tool that continues to inspire and challenge a future generation. I cannot wait for another semester to see new and returning students and present them with more opportunities and challenges. We return to Solorio with a summer program of Chicago Opera Theater for Teens, presenting The Music Man.