With Ketchikan still gripped by snowy conditions and chilly temperatures, First City Players is providing a chance for fun and games with a series of youth theater classes that began earlier this week.
“StarPath Academy” classes have been a Ketchikan staple for over a decade, according to FCP Executive Artistic Director Elizabeth Nelson.
“StarPath started as ‘ActOut’ in the late 1990s,” Nelson wrote in an email to the Daily News earlier this week. “I started it as a way to involve more kids in drama.”
Nelson remembered that when the program was first introduced, classes were held at the old Main Street Theater, in the Order of Red Men building. A few years later, StarPath made the move to the First Lutheran Church annex. After finally ending up at the former FCP offices in the Plaza, the program found its home at the current FCP offices in 2012.
Years after its inception, StarPath is still offered as an annual winter program for First City youth in pre-kindergarten through high school.
However, this is the first year that the program is managed by FCP Education Coordinator Jack Finnegan.
Finnegan was a member of the FCP board of governors until December, when his term ended. At this time, FCP was discussing adding a new position of “education coordinator” to the organization’s staff.
“For several years, one of the goals on our long-term plan for FCP was to establish a position that would tend to the education side of the programs we do,” Finnegan explained during a recent interview with the Daily News.
Finnegan said that prior to the addition, FCP only had two staff positions — Nelson’s position as executive artistic director, and Amanda Glanzer’s job as outreach and marketing director. He said that FCP felt it was in a position to be able to add a third staff member to the small roster.
“We felt that it was time to take the leap and fund this position,” he said.
Finnegan said that the new position currently provides a workload that is equivalent to a less than part-time job, although he is hopeful that after the FCP board of governors discusses the position’s benefits at the end of the fiscal year in June, his responsibilities will grow.
“Primarily, my responsibilities at the moment are taking over management aspects of existing programming — StarPath, ArtsCool and the Jazz and Cabaret program,” Finnegan said.
He also said that through his new position, he will “get a better sense of how to coordinate what’s happening in those programs.”
“We’re the only game in town, and we can’t be all things to all people, but we want to offer as much as we can,” Finnegan said about his hopes as education coordinator. “And that’s one reason this position was created.”
While Finnegan is in charge of overseeing the various programs this year, he has plenty of experience on FCP’s educational frontlines.
“My relationship with (StarPath) began as an instructor,” Finnegan explained. “ … As I became more involved in First City Players productions, the opportunity was presented to me to take over instructing the seventh through 12th grade age class.”
Finnegan continued to instruct that class for three years, and has plans for how to improve the program in the future.
“We (the instructors) were all of a mind that StarPath, as a program, had stagnated,” he explained. “There’s no clear sense of trajectory in terms of skill sets building upon skill sets.”
However, this year Finnegan said that “there is a greater coordination between instructors with respect to the curriculum.”
The curriculum includes elements of theater ranging from improv to character creation, with four experienced instructors helping to make the program happen. When Finnegan was organizing the program this year, he reached out to Dani Pratt, Clare Bennett, Krista Kegl and Liz Bolton about teaching the classes.
“Within, I’d say, three or four days, I had affirmatives from all four of them,” Finnegan said about gathering the roster of instructors.
The four instructors have “pretty diverse backgrounds with respect to theater,” according to Finnegan.
Kegl, a teacher at Houghtaling Elementary School, will instruct students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in a class called “sweetness and storytelling.”
“Storytelling is really the root of all theater,” Finnegan said about the theme for the class.
Liz Bolton will instruct first- through third-graders in the “introduction to improvisation” class.
Finnegan added that he believes Bolton to have “a really rich background in improvisation.”
He said that in this class, Bolton would be “giving those kids the tools they need to explore building creative relationships.”
In Dani Pratt’s class, “character and scene work,” she will guide fourth, fifth and sixth grade students through “scene study and character work,” Finnegan said.
According to FCP registration information, “this class is an excellent balance between those who enjoy the play of theatre, and are also eager to hone their performance skills.”
For students in seventh grade through high school, Clare Bennett’s “theatre for teens” class is the place to be.
During a Thursday phone interview with the Daily News, Bennett said that she will be focusing on the physical elements of acting in her class.
“If you want to do good acting, you really need to focus on physicality,” she explained, adding that her background is as a physical actor.
Bennett’s class also will place an emphasis on character movement and miming.
“I want them to be able to read a piece of theater and be able to make a choice about what’s happening to the character in that piece, and to be able to convey that to an audience,” she explained.
Additionally, Bennett wants to allow participants the chance to offer directions to their peers through acting out monologues.
Usually, Finnegan said, there are anywhere from 10 to 16 kids in a single class. That number stayed consistent for this year.
“I had a cap when I was teaching my class,” he said. “It gets a little unwieldy with performing arts, for me anyway, if you get more than 16 kids in the classroom. You can’t give the same kind of attention to the participants.”
The classes for younger kids might be bigger, Finnegan said, because young performers “don’t need as much refined feedback” as older participants.
No matter the size or focus of the class, the goal of the program is the same for everyone.
“Primarily, it’s to give kids an understanding of not just the basics of theater performance and theater tech work, but also how those pieces relate to one another,” Finnegan explained.
“Any participants in the StarPath program can expect to have a lot of fun and make a lot of discoveries, not only about themselves, but about their fellow players and about the power that theater has as an art form to enrich the lives of the living,” he added.
In a large group of kids who are encouraged to be expressive and creative, Finnegan said there is the occasional need for focusing their abundance of youthful energy to the right places.
“There is — especially with middle and high school kids — there is a social dynamic at play that sometimes takes a little time to read and then to navigate,” Finnegan explained. “That can be true with any group of kids, of course, I find it more pronounced with middle and high school kids. But there are tools you can use to keep those students focused.”
Finnegan said that “listening games” are one type of tool that he has employed as an instructor.
“For me, if I find I’m having a hard time reigning the kids in, and I give them the game that they’re mirroring one another — either physically or verbally — they have very little choice but to focus on each other and kind of forget themselves in a way,” Finnegan said.
Sometimes, he finds it useful to allow kids to act on their nervous energy.
“I just have a total goof-off exercise,” Finnegan said about what he does when kids are acting rowdy.
“It also depends on the group of kids,” he added.
Bennett, who has been involved with the program for an estimated 10 years, has plenty of experience working with participants of all ages and skill levels.
Not only has she been involved with FCP for many years, Bennett also taught speech and drama at Ketchikan High School for around a decade.
Her StarPath class began on Tuesday.
“It’s a great bunch; varied and fun,” she said of her class, which consists of 10 participants.
Bennett said that while most of the kids in her class are outgoing, others are more reserved.
“I try not to make them feel like all eyes are on them,” Bennett said about helping these students through the program.
To help participants become comfortable in the class, Bennett plays a lot of group theater games.
“If you can laugh with someone, you can take a chance with someone,” she said.