Performing arts at Escanaba school takes center stage

ESCANABA – Upper elementary-aged students in Escanaba have been offered a new opportunity that exposes them to the performing arts.

On Stage! Performing Arts is a new program made possible through the William Bonifas Fine Arts Center. In the program, 22 fourth- through sixth-grade students at the Escanaba Upper Elementary meet twice a week for eight weeks in a chance to become more familiar and comfortable with being on stage and learning basic performing skills.

Mark Cowman and Jamie Peterson, active members of the local Players de Noc group who are heavily involved in theatre in the community, serve as instructors of the On Stage! program.

“With the cutbacks that are happening in the schools and kids losing some of their outlets for talents and interests, it just seemed like a need that wasn’t being met,” explained Peterson of On Stage!.

The program teaches participating students basic skills in a fun atmosphere rather than focusing on a big production at the end of the program and skimming over important performing skills.

Many of the topics covered in the program include an introduction to the stage and new terminology, acting style, improvisation, and skits. The program also welcomes guest presenters who will discuss stage movement, costumes, and directing. Students do vocal and physical warm-ups prior to each meeting to get them focused on performing.

According to Cowman, the skills students learn through On Stage! allow them to be better prepared and more comfortable for future theatrical productions.

“If the first time you step on a stage you know where up left or down center is, you’re a step ahead of the game,” he said. “You’re going to be a better performer at the end of that show than if you go up there cold. Just to be able to give the kids those fundamental things make it a lot less frightening.”

Additionally, students involved in On Stage! will get a firsthand look at a high school drama production later this year.

“We’ve made arrangements where we’re going to be able to get opening night seats for the (high school) show and the kids will get an exclusive, backstage experience prior to it,” explained Peterson.

On Stage! students will go backstage by the cast and crew during their opening night pep talk and again after the show.

The student response to the program has been very positive, according to conversations with parents and teachers who noted the students cannot stop talking about their experiences.

“I’ve seen great things from the kids,” noted Cowman. “In the first session we had, we had done a couple of improv exercises and there were a couple of the girls who were coming up and saying, ‘Next time we do this, I want to be this,’ and…I had a girl talking to me after the first session say, ‘My sister’s going to be so bummed she didn’t do it. I tried to get her to do it, but she didn’t want to do it.'”

Cowman and Peterson thank the schools, Bonifas Fine Arts Center, and Players de Noc for their support and providing such a program to the students.

“It’s a great group and really, without our involvement and history with Players, I don’t think we’d be able to be here providing what we are for the kids,” said Peterson. The On Stage! Performing Arts sessions are sponsored in part by the Plum Creek Foundation and the Dagenais Foundation.