By May S. Ruiz
Pioneering students at California School of the Arts-San Gabriel Valley (CSArts-SGV) will display what they’ve learned, as well as their natural talents, when they present an all-school performance of the celebrated musical ‘Pippin’ at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center on January 11 to 13, 2018.
Filled with dance, humor, and soaring songs by Stephen Schwartz (‘Corner of the Sky’, ‘Magic Do’, and ‘Glory’), ‘Pippin’ tells the story of a young person’s journey to find his place in the world. This original production is set with a unique and imaginative steampunk aesthetic, offering a relevant edge and visceral quality that will leave the audience questioning what it truly means to be extraordinary.
Erik Altemus, an OCSA (CSArts-SGV’s sister school) alumnus who was an original cast member of the 2013 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of ‘Pippin’, came on campus during a master class and rehearsals leading up to the show.
It was a significant occasion for all the conservatory students who had the opportunity to hear Altemus speak about his experience auditioning for parts and how he finally realized his passion for the performance arts.
One student for whom Altemus’s words hit home was Christian Dorey, a ninth grader from Covina, who has the role of the leading player. He says, “Back in August when the show was announced during a CSArts-SGV growth retreat, I felt a spark within me. I was quite excited and decided that I wanted to be part of this show. To set myself apart from the other talented people who were also trying out for the same part as I, I practiced my audition song for quite a while – I made sure I was conveying the spirit of the song and staying in the right key.
It was a lucky coincidence that I sang ‘Corner of the Sky’ for a musical revue in middle school. I already knew the story of ‘Pippin’ and its characters, so I felt I already knew the essence of the characters. I also did my research and for my audition I chose the song from a another show choreographed by Bob Fosse.”
“Students went through a separate dancing and singing audition for an amazing casting panel. I chose to do the movement/dance audition first and it was to the opening number of the show, ‘Magic to do’. When I went to the song audition, I sang 16 bars of ‘Willkommen’ from ‘Cabaret’. I got a callback for the role of leading player and all potential candidates sang 16 bars of ‘Simple Joys’. The next day, the cast list was posted and I got an email that I had been chosen for the role I had been hoping for,” states an ecstatic Dorey.
Sierra Madre resident and ninth grader, Jessie Ellico Franks, is playing a starring role in this musical. She echoes what Dorey says, “It was a very well executed process that began with a vocal and dance audition which then moved onto callbacks. They had us read sides for certain characters and, if needed, sing a song from the show. It was nerve-wracking of a good kind and an easy process at the same time.
To prepare for the audition, I searched through repertoire books to see if there was a song that fit a character from the show I was interested in and one that was suitable and showed my voice range and acting abilities. For the dance call, I made sure I was warmed up and calm. And I made sure I had a water bottle with me!”
The choice of ‘Pippin’ came about intentionally. Explains Jay Wallace, CSArts-SGV’s Chair of Theatre, “Selecting the inaugural musical for our school was quite the deliberation. There were many considerations. We certainly wanted to mount a production that would set us apart from many traditional high schools. But, we needed to make sure that the show would be accessible to our student body, as well as accommodating to our current talent pool.
I wanted something with a bit of flare and energy. And something with an undercurrent of substance and carries a level of relevance. ‘Pippin’ provides so many creative opportunities. To a certain extent, it is a blank canvas. This show allows us to craft our own unique impression and perspective of the universal story of the search for one’s voice and purpose in life.
‘Pippin’ also allowed us the chance to provide multiple performance opportunities for singers, dancers, and actors. It is truly an ensemble production and that was an important priority. I was not looking for a star vehicle for our first production.”
This reasoning is a reflection of the school’s mission. Wallace states, “As Chair of Theatre, I lead the Acting and Musical Theatre Conservatories. Collectively, we are an ensemble of creative, empathetic, and collaborative storytellers growing together as artists and individuals. Empowered through musical expression and dynamic storytelling, our collaborative and goal-oriented performers will excel as professionals on stage and screen and impact society as innovative, passionate leaders. Culture is the highest priority and provides a challenging but nurturing environment for students to find their creative voice, build self-confidence, and develop into exceptional performers.”
Accomplishing its lofty objective requires a daily regimen for its students to adhere to – a full day of academic courses followed by two Conservatory courses. Acting and Musical Theatre students take four courses in their field of study per semester. They are also enrolled in year-round Acting Technique classes. Musical Theatre students attend a year-round Musical Theatre Repertoire and Technique course.
Additionally, there are classes that provide diverse opportunities for students to explore and develop specific skill sets. They get the chance to work with high echelon Master Artists who visit CSArts-SGV conservatories to inspire the next generation of artists. Students involved in a main-stage performance rehearse each evening until 8:30. A typical rehearsal production process lasts six to eight weeks that culminates in a presentation of their work for audiences.
This combination of a disciplined artistic program and rigorous academic schedule necessitates a balancing act for students. As Franks explains, “Quite a few people who aren’t aware of how conservatory-type schools work have asked me how I do it. And my answer is ‘motivation.’ If I don’t do well academically, I will not be able to take part in events that involve my art within my school. I am for my art, so I want to be a part of it as much as I possibly can.
I would like to attend a college in the future and high grades will help in that goal. So that motivates me to get my work done on time, to make sure it is executed in a way that shows my knowledge of the subject, and the end-product is something I am proud of.”
“My hope is that this school betters me both as a performer and a human being. The classes I am taking have already taught me so much about my craft – some information might have been things I had already learned but some are completely new – and I want to keep learning more!
So far this school is a dream come true for me. And while there are a few things which could be better, one has to make allowances for the fact that it is a brand-new school and it needs time to hit its stride. I hope good things are yet to come. But as long as I leave senior year proud of the work I produced and the performer I have become, I’ll be as happy as a dog with a bone!,” Franks concludes.
Dorey offers another aspect to the CSArts-SGV experience, “The teachers are extremely understanding of our busy schedules. They recognize the extent of my involvement not only in my conservatory classes but also in the musical production and in the performing group, FUSION. They have given me extended times to turn in and finish assignments.
I am very happy with what I have accomplished, so far. I have the most amazing teachers who are focused on what we are doing and who see our passion. They realize that this is what we want to do. But I’m still awestruck at the amount of time into what they’re doing with us. They truly want to not only make us into the best performers but the best people we can be.”
“There is a big emphasis on acceptance at CSArts-SGV,” Dorey says further. “The thing I love is that they don’t pick favorites here. All of us are treated equally as people and as performers. It is an environment that allows us to find ourselves.”
Lily Annino, an 11th grader from Arcadia, is a Musical Theatre student and assistant to the creative team. She has learned how to navigate this world, “I utilize office hours – 30 minutes between academic and conservatory hours – a lot. Sometimes I use my lunch time to finish work. I make sure to get all homework done the evening it’s assigned so I don’t have to worry about it on a day with different blocks.”
“I like what I’ve seen and done at CSArts-SGV,” appraises Annino. “There are so many very hard-working, professional students who are determined to make their experiences at this school matter. I expect that I will leave school fully prepared to audition for professional theatre companies and productions. And in the long run, help me grow into a well-rounded and professional individual.”
It certainly looks like Annino has already made a positive impact. Wallace describes her as “offering ideas, dictating notes, and generally bringing a wonderful spirit to the room.”
That is quite a validation coming from Wallace, who has spent the past 12 years working alongside the directors of the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) Acting and Musical Theatre Conservatories. Widely recognized as a leading school for the arts, whose alumni have gone on to achieve great fame on Broadway, television and in films, OCSA opened a sister school in the San Gabriel Valley to give the same opportunities to students in the region who are passionate in the arts.
“OCSA provides an excellent foundational model to align our programs after,” Wallace declares. “We share similarities in relation to curricular offerings. Each Conservatory proffers a comprehensive and progressive program designed to provide training in the specific areas of focus related to either Musical Theatre of Acting. We are looking to produce versatile, balanced, and informed young artists in these two fields of interest.
However, we are also striving to create our own CSArts-SGV Musical Theatre and Acting Conservatory identities. This will be crafted through our cultural approach as well as our production selections.
Through our production of ‘Pippin,’ we are establishing our own specific aesthetic by looking at the story stylistically through the lens of Steampunk. Our inaugural Acting Conservatory show was ‘The Yellow Boat,’ a powerful, dramatic piece based on a true story that carries a message with significant social impact.
It’s important to me that we create a healthy balance between entertainment and content that is socially aware. Likewise, it’s imperative that students are exposed to a wide variety of styles, genres, playwrights, and composers.”
The school location also provides a different atmosphere. States Wallace, “OCSA’s campus is in a much more urban environment. There is also a bit more sophistication due to longevity. CSArts-SGV’s locale tends to be a bit edgier and energetic while having a more traditional campus setting. Both campuses thrive off passion for the arts and a desire to achieve excellence. As our conservatories evolve, the sophistication will take hold.”
Wallace asserts, “We expect our Musical Theatre and Acting Conservatory students to be their best each day. We are an ensemble growing together as artists and individuals. We must always be prepared, be willing to take risks in our work, support one another, and value each opportunity. This is just the beginning of the journey. But, I look forward to seeing every one of these young artists to achieve their true potential.”
Those confident words are a source of inspiration for Annino, Dorsey, and Franks. They are an assurance that through their individual hard work and concerted efforts they will one day realize their dreams. Aspiring to greatness is, after all, what compels everyone to do their best.