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7 time-tested Pittsburgh theater schools for talented kids

Sally Quinn
May28/ 2017

With success stories like Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter, Pittsburgh theater schools have good reason to be proud.

There is probably not a show on Broadway that doesn’t have at least one former Burgh theater kid in the cast or working behind the scenes. Kids who enjoy theater classes just for the fun of it benefit from the experience, too.

“The No. 1 recurring thing kids tell me all the time is they find a sense of home and community here,” says Keisha Lalama, education director of Pittsburgh CLO Academy of Musical Theater. “That, for me, is what theater does. It provides the kids with an opportunity to escape, but also to find themselves. It gives them a sense of security and a chance to evolve and fulfill their potential.”

Through the comradery involved in creating productions, kids learn how to work in teams and articulate clearly. Their emerging confidence is a quality that carries through any career.

“Pittsburgh has quite an extensive opportunity list for kids in theater,” says Jill Jeffrey, executive director of Gemini Children’s Theater. “There are so many different places, from small privately owned schools to much larger places, like Pittsburgh Musical Theater and CLO Academy. Each of us has something unique to offer, and I feel each of us is very supportive of one another.”

An appreciation of theater and the arts is another byproduct.

“I hope to create the next generation of performing artists, but most importantly, I want to create the next generation of professional arts appreciators, audience members,” says Anthony Marino of Stage Right. “People who are going to open their pocketbooks when companies like mine say, ‘support this program.’ ”

Here’s a lineup of some of Pittsburgh’s best, time-tested theater schools for kids:

theater schools
Students work in a master class for “Beauty and the Beast” at Pittsburgh CLO Academy of Musical Theater.

PITTSBURGH CLO ACADEMY OF MUSICAL THEATER

Now in its 27th year, the Pittsburgh CLO Academy of Musical Theater, Downtown, offers classes from preschool age to 18. Instructors range from working Equity actors to college professors from surrounding university theater programs, including Carnegie Mellon and Point Park universities.

“It’s really, really top-notch training,” says Keisha Lalama, education director. “The training and curriculum combined challenge the students in a way that may not necessarily be comparable to other programs.”

Students as young as 3 use their imaginations as they sing, dance and act their way through fun-filled classes that teach basic performance skills and critical thinking lessons.

The Student School for ages 10-18 helps students explore musical theater and the performing arts field. The core curriculum includes acting, voice, and dance with additional electives available, including Hip Hop and Acting for TV & Film.

“We offer classes that are more for social development for kids that want to have a little more fun, maybe develop life skills for confidence and communication building,” Lalama says. “Then we offer a more rigorous program for kids that are very serious that want professional training.

“And I also think that’s what makes us a little bit different. We understand the value of developing these kids to make sure they have the skills that are applicable both onstage and off the stage as talented artists.”

The CLO Mini Stars performances offer kids a chance to put their skills in front of audiences throughout the region. Students audition for this professional development program designed for grades 6-12.  Along with performing, the Mini Stars experience the behind-the-scenes process, and constructive networking skills needed for performing success — public speaking, public relations, social media etiquette, and personal marketing management.

Pre-professional classes, designed for ages 10–18, are for more focused and motivated students who want to continue training in college and pursue a career in the performance arts.

theater schools
A production of “Peter Pan” tests the skills of students at Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

PITTSBURGH MUSICAL THEATER

More star power can be found at Pittsburgh Musical Theater in the West End. The school is at the end of celebrating its 25th season.

Kids will enjoy training in dance, voice, and theater from age 2 to 18. Classes are offered as a single or in specially priced packages, such as the Musical Theater Workshop Package that includes jazz, acting, and musical theater repertoire. Kids ages 4 to 7 have fun with the Creative Learning Package that includes Tap Tots, Plies and Pirouettes, and Broadway Juniors.

“One of the things Pittsburgh Musical Theater provides for our students is the opportunity to test their skills,” says Colleen Doyno, executive artistic director. “That would be one of the top things that we do. We provide a conservatory season for our students that provides four shows throughout the year in which they are among all students in the production.

“They have their own season that is wrapped in a professional blanket. They use the same lighting designers, the same costume designers, the same set designers, the same prop designers – everything the pros use.”

Students can audition for the PMT professional company’s Broadway shows, too. That means “our students are working side-by-side with professionals,” Doyno says, “giving them the education of being on a professional stage.”

An intern program allows kids to work alongside a professional in either the artistic side or the technical side as, say, an assistant stage manager or as a student director. “We all take that very seriously,” Doyno says. “Every one of us is attached to the educational end and has a student with us.”

PMT counts about 300 kids in its student body, but remains a very personal place to train, Doyno says.

“Every single one of our teachers and our staff members knows everybody’s name. We’ve never gotten to that point and don’t ever intend to get to the point where it’s not a personal experience for every student.”

theater schools
Stage Right theater kids perform “The Lion King.”

STAGE RIGHT

The Greensburg-based Stage Right is in its 19th year of teaching kids from preschool to high school age. There’s a lot of fun involved, but theater training is taken seriously.

“We were built on the tenet and belief that our instructors are people that do this for a living,” says Anthony Marino, artistic director. “We have professional experience and continue to work in the professional world so we can give the kids the firsthand taste of what it’s like to do this.

“Secondly, we believe kids learn best by doing. It’s all about doing. So, we try to get them on their feet doing as soon as possible.”

Kids take classes in acting, tap, jazz, ballet, voice and musical theater. “But we have these workshop classes on Saturdays where we treat it like a rehearsal process for the 8-week semester,” he says. “Everything is done as much on a professional schedule as possible.”

The company produces five professional Equity shows a year with students auditioning for roles. “Those are in rehearsal for three weeks, just like the normal Equity process, and they get to work alongside people who do this for a living.”

Kids perform in three full student productions, too.

Learning by doing can mean also mean performing in the company’s Bring Books to Life show, which travels across three counties to over 100 libraries over the course of a year. Other acting opportunities come in the form of school assembly shows on subjects like bullying and computer safety. The Stage Right Sensations numbers 45 kids in its talent pool. They perform at local functions, as well as having appeared at Disney World.

“Every kid that comes through our door, we want them — whether they do this professionally or not — to be associated with the values we want to get across to them,” Marino says. “Being professional, being polite, being thankful for the opportunity. Because I always say to them, ‘talent can get you your first job, but how you behave during your first job will get you your second.’ ”

Kids with special needs can take part, too, in the Spectrum Workshop. The weekly class explores music and movement for students and young adults on the autism spectrum, as well as those who have other needs.

“Every single day that that class meets, I feel a miracle occurs,” Marino says. “And I have parents who feel the same way. I have parents standing at the door waiting for their kid to freak out and have to leave like they do at countless other activities, who, by the end of the hour, are like ‘I cannot believe that they’re in there taking part.’

“It’s really rewarding.”

theater schools
Kid-focused training is at the heart of the Center for Theater Arts.

CENTER FOR THEATER ARTS

Now in its 35th year, the Center for Theater Arts in the South Hill has a curriculum of over 80 classes offered to kids from age 4 to 17.

Dance classes include tap, jazz, ballet, and hip-hop. Acting classes include acting for the camera and improvisation, while the “Acting Playground” class explores how voice, body, emotions, and creativity are tools for the craft of acting. Voice classes and those in musical theater are offered, too.

“The school is about and for kids. Period. When they come through the door at our school, they can come to the center and be themselves,” says Billy Hartung, executive director. “It’s like they say, I have found my people. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about career training. It’s about artistic experiences and growth and celebration.”

Hartung, an alum of the school, went on to play Broadway and appear in film before returning to raise his family in Pittsburgh. He appreciates and supports the center’s nurturing environment.

“I’m not a theater company. I’m a theater school,” he says. “And I think what we share with these kids every chance we get, is the character that you develop in yourself is more important to us than the character you’re playing.”

The kid-focused training is vital to help kids improve their self-image and self-confidence through artistic expression, he says.

Which brings us to the center’s Special Actors program, which boasts over 100 participants with special needs from age 9 to 86.

“We close our school on Fridays, and we open all the studios, and we have the same teachers and the same resources,” Hartung says. “And we have musical theater classes for children with special needs. Some of those kids have been here for 25 years.”

theater schools
Gemini Children’s Theater stresses teamwork and acceptance with its students.

GEMINI CHILDREN’S THEATER

Entering its 20th season, Gemini Children’s Theater at the Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks conducts interactive, musical performances for kids from age 4 to 17. Classes and performances are held throughout the school year, along with summer camps. Kids can audition for performances at age 10.

Kids make life-long friends through the experience, says Jill Jeffery, executive director.

“We are trying to teach that theater is a place of acceptance,” she says. “That theater is about teamwork and helping one another. And we just find that it’s really cool to watch these kids embrace that.”

The youngest can take part in “Bring Imagination to Life!” The 12-week class explores the most basic elements of acting, music, movement and creative expression through games, puppetry, and story acting. Music boosts imagination through singing, sound recognition games, and playing simple instruments.

For older kids, writing a script and bringing a production to the stage is part of the “Page To Stage” class. They do improvisation exercises, directed script work and note taking, as well as character development and more advanced stage movement and voice/diction drills.

On the technical theater side, Gemini offers classes through internships in which they might be an assistant stage manager or run the sound.

“It gives kids a more rounded idea into how theater is created and made instead of feeling like it’s just acting,” Jeffrey says.

Taking kids to a Gemini performance might prompt them to want to sign up for that first theater class. All the shows involve audience participation.

“With some shows that are called interactive, the kids stay in their seats and one or two will come up on stage,” Jeffrey says. “In this, we invite every child to participate. We make them characters within the story. So, if Snow White is lost in the forest, they become all the animal friends who guide her through the forest safely.”

Once kids have that chance to perform, they often have the confidence to take a greater interest.

“We get quite a few of our students and the kids who audition for our shows as a result of them coming to our shows,” Jeffrey says.

theater schools
Students rehearse in the studio at Prime Stage.

PRIME STAGE

Wayne Brinda, producing artistic director of the 20-year-old Prime Stage, North Side, believes the company’s theater classes give students a definite edge.

“They learn how to do some creative writing and express themselves creatively,” he says. “Not only creatively through their writing, but creatively through their movement. They learn about how their bodies work and how they can tell a story through their bodies. They can tell a story through speaking and their writing and stimulate their imaginations.”

The company produces shows from November through May, along with a mentorship and internship program from September through May in which kids can work with members of the company throughout the entire season. And they have a summer camp, too.

“We are more a producing organization that has an educational program,” Brinda says. “And pretty much our educational program is really focused on literacy, focused on reading and writing. It’s different. There are not a lot of other theaters that focus on literacy like we do.”

The program takes kids who are struggling readers and uses theater techniques and theater strategies that help to improve their reading and help them to discover that literature can fun.

Prime Stage’s Young Artist Company is in the process of being redesigned right now. Its most recent high school traveling outreach program, called “Teen Dating and Violence,” was developed through their teen advisory board. The company is looking at other current topics of concern to teens to develop a new program.

ACT ONE THEATER SCHOOL

With three locations in the North Hills – two in Wexford and one in Shaler – students at Act One range from kindergarten to pre-professional high school kids.

The youngest start out with playful classes like improvisation, puppetry, and theater games, which eventually lead to more advanced classes like costume design, script analysis, and auditions skills along with voice, dance and acting.

The longevity of its 31 years comes as no surprise to Karen Cordaro, Act One’s owner and artistic director.

“I have drawers full of letters from kids, some who are on their 40s at this point, talking about just that,” she says with a laugh.

“Like any theater classes, they are going to learn to get up in front of a group, express themselves, think creatively and see what all goes into a production, work as a team and take on a project larger than themselves and learn to work with others to make it come to fruition.”

Kids are exposed to different areas, from stage combat and set design to costumes and makeup.

“The biggest thing that sets us apart is our whole concept is to create a community where it’s not about art as competition, but art as collaboration,” Cordaro says. “And fostering an environment where kids are supportive of one another and help each other to grow.”

An important component, she says, “is using the arts to teach them life skills and a work ethic that teach responsibility and team building so that when they leave here, they take those skills to any area they pursue.”

Sally Quinn

Sally Quinn is an award-winning writer and editor who has been covering her favorite city for more than 20 years. She welcomes comments and story ideas for Kidsburgh.