Broadway comes to WCU: Young talents hone their skills with some of Broadway’s best

By Michael Beadle

So you think you’ve got singing talent? Think you have what it takes to leap and strut on a Broadway stage? Think you’re ready for the bright lights?

Young actors, dancers and singers from around the country came to Western Carolina University last week to take part in the first-ever Broadway in the Mountains camp, an intensive week-long study that featured master classes in auditioning techniques, scene study, dance, song interpretation and all aspects of a musical theatre performance.

The camp, which was open to high school and college students between the ages of 16 and 22, ran from July 29 to Aug. 5 and culminated with an ensemble performance on the final day at the Fine and Performing Arts Center on Western Carolina’s campus. The students, who came from as far away as Dallas, Texas, were taught by instructors with Broadway credentials and Tony-nominated honors. These instructors included WCU’s new distinguished music theatre professor Terrence Mann, his wife Charlotte d’Amboise, and her brother Christopher d’Amboise, a New York City-based choreographer.

Mann, who starred in Broadway hits such as “Cats” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and his wife, who currently stars in a revival of “A Chorus Line,” gave students invaluable insights and inspiration — along with plenty of grueling classes — to simulate what it’s like to audition and perform in a high caliber professional musical.

By all accounts from the participants and instructors, the first-year camp was a huge success.

“It’s been a life-changing experience,” said Terry Evans, one of the fifteen students who took part in the Broadway camp. Evans, 18, will begin working toward his musical theatre degree when he starts classes as a freshman at Western Carolina this fall. “My dream is to go and perform on Broadway,” he said.

The week proved to be an emotional roller coaster for some who had never been through such intensive theatre training. Many were often brought to tears by the physical challenges of the dances and the emotional power of their peers who learned to dig deep into personal experiences to act out a scene.

“I’ve been pushed and pushed and pushed beyond my limits,” Evans said.

With the recent rise in popular TV shows like “American Idol,” “Dancing with the Stars” and “America’s Got Talent,” more of the public is getting exposed to the rigors of these performing art forms, but there’s nothing like going through a week-long crash course in the Broadway School of Hard Knocks.

While some of the campers may have been gifted in one aspect of musical theatre — a good singer or a good actor — few had been challenged to the limits of this triple threat art form: singing, acting and dancing. Jay Raines, an 18-year-old rising freshman who also plans to major in musical theatre at WCU, may get lead roles back in his hometown of High Point, but at the camp he found a whole new level of commitment to his craft.

During dance classes, students learned to take a certain word like “scissors” or “tsunami” and create a movement to express the idea. “Poker chip,” for example, meant that students would squat into a ball and roll over. “Freedom” started students in a squatted position and they would rise with arms and legs outstretched. Instructors emphasized body tension or the slow ease of limbs to emphasize the feeling behind each word. Then, these words strung together became a code for learning the choreography of a dance. As with a piece of video animation, a few seconds of performance came after hours of preparation.

In addition to six-and-a-half hours of daily instruction and three-hour rehearsals two nights, the campers also took evening field trips to see “Unto These Hills” in Cherokee and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Flat Rock Playhouse.

The final performance, which took place on Sunday, Aug. 5, featured the campers in a musical about auditioning for that big part in a Broadway hit — all the anxieties and frustrations performers go through on their way to the big time. Aptly titled “The Audition,” it included monologues, songs and dance choreography that the actors themselves created. In a play about wanting to get the part more than anything, the actors learned to find more emotion, focus and confidence than any production they’ve ever been a part of.

The students gladly took to individualized instruction, but they also found a family of fellow performers who came together like a family. It didn’t take long for performers to be on a first-name basis and playing around with Mann’s two children during rehearsal breaks.

“There’s an absolutely positive, supportive attitude everywhere you go here,” said Courtney Olivier, an 11th-grade home schooled student who took part in the camp. Olivier, who attends Triple Threat Performing Arts Academy in Sylva, is already interested in pursuing a career in theatre.

“I love it all — especially acting,” she said.

Certainly many of the students were awed by the opportunity to take classes from Broadway performers, but they were equally impressed with the fact that the instructors were down-to-earth and took the time to share advice, air out frustrations and speak honestly about what it means to be a performer.

“You get frustrated, but that’s the part I love the most,” said Sara Larcher, a ninth-grader at Smoky Mountain High School and one of the youngest performers in the camp.

Exhausted as the students were by the end of the week, there were no regrets.

“You feel so lucky to have this experience,” said Leslie Putnam, a rising freshman who will be attending WCU this fall. “You’re being taught by people who’ve actually done what you want to do.”

Putnam said she was blown away by the fact that she watched the movie version of “A Chorus Line” and then got to perform the actual moves on stage during camp — no doubt one of the most taxing performances many of these students had ever been though (especially for the gentlemen).

Add that to the steep hill climbs walking up to Reynolds Hall where they stayed on campus, and these performers felt like they had climbed the metaphorical mountain many times over during the week.

“They’ve really come a long way,” said Kelly Crandall, one of the camp’s dance instructors and a New York City assistant choreographer. “It’s amazing to see what people are capable of.”

The camp also included instruction from WCU professors such as the theatre department’s Claire Eye and the music department’s Bradley Martin. For WCU English professor and acting veteran Terry Nienhuis, who sat through some of the rehearsals and classes, the camp offered some ideas to take back to his own classroom teaching this fall.

“It’s been a very inspirational week for me and I’ve just been watching,” Nienhuis said. “And the kids have been so diligent.”

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