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Students learn theater skills at FCP StarPath Academy
From left, Eli Lundburg, 12, Jayden Greenfield, 12, Sophia Pilgrim, 11, and Adeilyn Reeve, 11, react to improv by Instructor Clare Bennett, front left, and Executive Artistic Director Elizabeth Nelson on Wednesday during an “Exploring Space” class at First City Players. The class is part of the FCP StarPath program. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Daily News Staff Writer

In the sparse upstairs room of the First City Players’ burgeoning Performing Arts Center on Main Street, five FCP StarPath Academy students swooped, monologued and improvised scripts Wednesday afternoon in their class, “Exploring Space.”

Other classes in the StarPath series that are in session are “Dynamic Drama,” taught by Bridget Mattson and FCP Executive Director Elizabeth Nelson; “Exploring Relationships,” taught by Clare Bennett; and “Acting for Teens,” taught by Jack Finnegan.

StarPath Academy was launched in 1999 as the “ActOut” winter theater program for youth from kindergarten through high school, according to information at firstcityplayers.org. The classes focused on teaching young people creative dramatics, improvisation and acting. When the program’s name was changed to StarPath Academy in 2015, the focus broadened to include year-round educational opportunities for adult and youth actors as well as workshops to teach technical theater.

On Wednesday, Bennett and Nelson led the “Exploring Space” students through a warm-up game that asked the fifth- and sixth-graders to push their hands forward while calling “whoosh!” and to make arm “suspension bridges” before suddenly calling out “freak out!” which triggered mad running about with arms flailing high in the air.

“A big part of theater, the ability to act, is the ability to remain playful,” Nelson said after the students had filed out.

The games, Nelson said, increase memory skills, the ability to use one’s body effectively, and quick thinking.

Another theater skill area that Nelson said she and Bennett aim to teach is based on the “CROW” principles, used in improvisation. The acronym stands for Character, Relationship, Objective and Where, Nelson said.

Bennett explained, “You have to establish that, if you want to get a scene going, your partner has to know what’s going on, so they can respond to you.”

Nelson said that the CROW approach is useful for building a character in any theater genre.

“You have to know who you are, what you want, why you’re there, what your relationship is,” Nelson said of portraying a character.

The students attending that day — only about half of the class roster, Nelson said — were fifth-graders Sophia Pilgrim, Adeilyn Reeve and JoJo Robinson, and sixth-graders Jayden Greenfield and Eli Lundburg.

The next game the group played was fast paced, with each player choosing an animal noise they had to quickly make before choosing another player by the name of their chosen animal. The students sat in a circle, and a person in the middle tried to touch them with a rolled up tube of brown paper before they could finish their noise and name call. If they moved from their spots when approached with the tube, or if they couldn’t get their noise and another person’s animal name out in time, they had to take a turn as the paper-tube tagger.

A third game consisted of taking turns quickly calling out a number count, with the rule that they couldn’t call out at the same time. If they did, they restarted the count.

After the games, the students were coached through some improv.

One pair performed in the center of the plywood floor while the others waited at the edge on upholstered chairs mounted on wheels. Each pair would act out a scenario that they spontaneously created, with the challenge to create a short story that would lead to one of the characters leaving the “stage.” When one student left the stage, another would take his or her place and they were required to start a brand-new story.

In one scene, JoJo and Adeilyn acted as customer and hairdresser. JoJo sat on a tall stool in the center of the room, while the class looked on.

“This is a mess, what did you do?” Adeilyn, asked as she ruffled her hands through JoJo’s hair.

“This is just, like, bedhead!” JoJo proclaimed.

In another scenario, after Adeilyn and Sophia acted out shopping for groceries, they “drove” away, Sophia taking the “wheel” with Adeilyn crouching behind, pretending to sit in the back seat. As they mimed screeching away down the street, Eli approached them calling out “Beedo, Beedo!” imitating at police siren.

“You’re under arrest,” he told them.

The next game also involved a “car,” with two chairs arranged as the front seats, and two as the back seats. As the students “drove,” the driver was to lead the others in a scene of their choice.

Nelson and Bennett gave them an example, of acting extremely sleepy, and they instructed the students that all of the passengers in the car would follow the driver’s lead. The students were seized with laughter as their instructors yawned loudly and slumped in their seats, comedically portraying ridiculously exhausted people.

At some point, a student would “hitchhike,” get picked up and then would drive the car, boosting a passenger out for his or her turn to play hitchhiker and driver.

“When you take the driver’s seat, you’ve gotta be big, you gotta do some things that are just really clear and everyone’s going to follow along with you,” Bennett instructed.

When Eli drove, he announced, “We’re going to the fair!”

All of his passengers whooped and stomped and clapped in celebration.

In the last challenge of the day, students were given a monologue to study briefly, then to deliver in a character of their choice.

When the first student stepped up and began speaking quietly, Bennett stopped the action to instruct, “You’ve got to be way louder. It feels like you’re shouting, but really what you’re doing, is projecting.”

“Sharing your voice with us,” Nelson added.

Bennett said that stopping a student in a scene for corrections does make her nervous.

“It scares me sometimes to think, ‘I gotta stop this, because it’s not working and this kids’ not going to get anything out of it,’” she said, adding, “I’ve been pleased to see that when I do that, and the kid tries and we stop again, the kid tries and then is successful — you can see the pride in that.”

The students stood tall and projected their voices as they performed their pieces for the class. Stories ranged from one about what a perfect day would look like to a comedic emperor-with-no-clothes-type plot.

“I’m really seeing a lot of growth and change,” Bennett told the students who had taken the class previously.

“I could tell I’m better than I was,” Sophia agreed.

The last game of the day, the students played “Murder Convention,” where one “murderer” was chosen anonymously. The students pretended they were at a convention, and had to shake hands with each other while milling around. The “murderer” “killed” people by tapping the victim’s wrist while shaking hands. The victim would continue to mill nonchalantly a bit longer, then “die,” lying on the ground, until everyone broke into laughter when they discovered the real “murderer.”

The games, Nelson explained, “are a way to just open you up.”

“To make people feel safe with each other,” Bennett added.

Nelson said that each class, serving a specific age range, the expectations and challenges ramp up as the students get older.

Both the games and the acting exercises “help them develop those skills as actors,” Bennett said. “To be able to interpret a scene, to be able to deliver it, and to be able to find nuances in it.”