Theater Aspen Education launches a summer of superlatives
In the educational wing of the Aspen Theater, it’s the summer of superlatives: students will stage the most productions ever in a “marathon” lineup that includes the department’s first-ever outdoor production.
The heat of the season kicks off Thursday morning with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at John Denver Shrine – two premieres there, as the program’s first outdoor performance will also be a foray into uncharted Shakespearean territory.
“Obviously the John Denver Sanctuary is beautiful, it’s the perfect location,” said Elissa Russell, director of educational programming and administration for the Aspen Theater. “We are so happy that parks and recreation have allowed us to do this. … ‘Midsummer’ is specifically about the forest and the outdoors, and being able to tie some of that together by placing it outside, that seemed like such a logical pairing, so we’re very excited for that.
Unlike other shows in the Theater Aspen lineup, production is free. This contributes to accessibility in the performing arts, according to Russell and Erica Colarusso, choreographer and artist-teacher in the education department.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was an appropriate entry point for Shakespeare, Russell said, because some students (and audiences too) are already familiar with him from school curricula.
There are, of course, some variables to an outdoor performance – particularly at John Denver Sanctuary, where it’s not just the weather, but also passers-by, pets, and wildlife to contend with. Director Graham Northrop kept that in mind, Russell said, with advice on screening, focusing in the midst of distractions and keeping “the show has to continue on the mentality.”
“It’s a really valuable tool for young actors to learn, just to roll with the punches,” Russell said. “And maybe a dog wanders on stage, what are you going to do?” I think that’s actually a very valuable skill set to continue under these circumstances.
The first iteration of Shakespeare in the Park also adds an additional performance opportunity for students in Grades 7-12 – another first to have two top-level performances in one summer.
The other performance for older students, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” will be presented August 5-8 at the District Theater. Colarusso will be directing this show and said she will work a lot with design and storytelling to create a “physical, almost dance-like production” staged like a “giant actor’s playground.”
Colarusso, who was an education apprentice last year, has already expressed his confidence in his interpreters.
“I am very excited,” she said. “This is a really fantastic, talented, smart, kind bunch of individuals, so I’m very, very excited about it, and getting to know them as artists and as people.”
A medium quality production of “Willy Wonka, Jr.” (July 29-31, also at the District Theater) features students in grades three through six. There were also two spring productions, to create a “marathon” season of five shows in five months, Russell said. This adds to an already stacked list of summer camps for students as young as kindergarten and as old as high school seniors.
“In theory, the idea of producing three shows this summer on top of all of our camps that we do for our younger students is a big job, but we have a really strong team in place,” said Russell.
The mainstream musicals of previous seasons were so popular that they attracted nearly three dozen top performers in some cases, according to Russell.
“While a large-cast musical can be invaluable and a very educational experience for the students, we found that we weren’t able to spend as much one-on-one time with our actors as we would like. Russell mentioned.
This year’s enhanced programming offers more individual support to students, with 16 performers in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and around 20 in “Peter and the Starcatcher”. (“Willy Wonka, Jr.” will have about a dozen artists playing multiple characters, according to Colarusso.)
A high turnout is indicative of the enthusiasm for the program, said Russell.
“It actually works really well that we can introduce (Shakespeare) this year, because this year seems… like a very exciting time, like we’re kind of able to get back to some semblance of normal,” Russell said. , “and so it’s great to have students here and excited about a new program in this very special year.