Big year ahead for York City's Performing Arts students


The Performing Arts Institute at William Penn Senior High School — through a partnership between the district and Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center intended to enhance the school's arts program — was reopened last school year for the first time in several years with a string of praised performances and learning opportunities.

The institute, after more than 25 years of success, had been forced to close as a result of budget cuts, Superintendant Eric Holmes said.

The cost for running the institute is $300,000 a year, which covers the cost of staff and supplies, said district spokeswoman Erin James.

Reopening: "We decided to concentrate on certain funds and make sure we'd be able allocate those funds to the institute because it was really important for us to bring it back," Holmes said. "It was always a huge part of the high school."

And the reopening of the institute did not disappoint.

"One of the best things about the partnership with Strand-Capitol is the access to the resources they give us," Holmes said. "To hear our students singing on their stage better than a lot of adults, with so much poise and talent, is a privilege."

Programming: In addition to performing two major productions and concerts throughout the year, students were also involved in the technical aspects of their shows, said Strand-Capitol director of education Cassie Rush, noting that they built and painted the set as well as programmed and ran the lights for their productions.

They also went on several field trips where they were able to see professional performances and participate in master classes.

"Master classes are a one-time teaching opportunity with a professional actor," Rush said. "During our trip to New York, they worked with Heidi Stalling," who starred in "Cats" for several years, "who taught them about Meisner."

The Meisner technique, developed by Sanford Meisner, is a method that relies heavily on sense memory and the repetition of text.

"On the bus drive back they were repeating everything we said and we were getting a little frustrated, but at the same time they were making Meisner jokes! I couldn't help but think those are some high-class students," Rush said.

While in New York, students also saw a production of "Into the Woods" at Roundabout Theater, where they benefitted from seeing a majority of younger performers on stage, Rush said.

Students also took a trip to Philadelphia, where they participated in a second master class at Walnut Street Theater and later that night watched a production of "Memphis," a show that features performers of a variety of races.

"For my students to see people who looked them performing was truly amazing," Rush said. "The student who played Aida saw the leading actress in this production and was able to say 'That's what I want to do.'"

And keeping in theme with their production of "Aida," students also were able to attend the Egyptian exhibit at the Penn Museum.

"As an educator this was one of my favorite stops," Rush said.

"They were able to make connections with their show and look at maps and see where their characters lived and died."

New year: After a successful first year, the institute will be the recipient of several additional classes and programs.

Rush announced that this year's shows will be "Almost, Maine" and the musical "In the Heights."

"The show takes place in a Dominican community, so there's a lot of Spanish and English, which I think will really connect with a lot of people," Rush said of the musical.

Students will again participate in Encore this year, and instead of performing monthly, student performers will do so four times in the upcoming school year so that "they can really focus on the art and craft of it instead of rushing to prepare for monthly performances," Rush said.

There will also be several new classes, which include dance II, playwrighting, acting II, acting for film, videography, stage make-up and costume design, and a dance ensemble class.

Dancewear, including tights, leotards and shoes, were donated by Greater York Dance.

There will also be a touring group of six to 10 students who will perform "Schoolhouse Rock!" at the district's K-8 buildings.

The school board last week voiced their approval for the institute.

"This has united a tremendous amount of creativity within our students, a creativity that they may have never otherwise knew they had," school board member Michael Breeland said.