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Next stop, Broadway: Summer programs at Academy of Music give children a primer on musical theater

  • Young thespians at an Academy of Music summer workshop take part in a performance of “42nd Street” at the Northampton theater. The summer programs are designed to give children and teens basic skills and confidence to be on stage. Photo by Emily Curro/courtesy Academy of Music

  • Young girls and boys at an Academy of Music summer workshop for musical theater. Photo by Emily Curro/courtesy Academy of Music

  • Young teens at an Academy of Music summer workshop for musical theater. The programs are designed to give children and teens basic skills and confidence to be on stage. Photo by Emily Curro/courtesy Academy of Music

  • Children at an Academy of Music summer workshop for musical theater perform songs from “Annie Jr.” Photo by Emily Curro/courtesy Academy of Music



For the Gazette
Thursday, August 08, 2019

The house lights dimmed as the shuffling sound of many feet hurrying to places filled Northampton’s Academy of Music on a recent Friday. Thirty performers were about to spread the magic of theater in “Alakazam!: A Review of Magical Thinking.”

These performers, though, were all between 7 and 10 years old — and their presentation represented the culmination of two weeks of singing, acting and dancing taught by co-directors Martha Potyrala and Susan Dillard during the Academy’s “Second Act” summer musical theatre workshops.

The Academy, which dates to the 1890s, is well known both for its rich history and its varied programming, from music to theater to film to dance. But for 10 years now, the downtown theater has also hosted a variety of summer workshops for children, ages 6 to 16, to introduce them to musical theater and to being on a stage.

For two weeks in late July and early August, Potyrala and Dillard, instead of rehearsing for a fully-fledged production, put together a review of song and dance numbers that aren’t necessarily from musicals, but give kids a chance to use skills learned during the workshops.

“We teach the style of musical theater — so singing, acting, dancing, is telling a story with your bodies,” said Potyrala. The program, she notes, helps kids, many of whom may have little to no theatrical experience, develop body awareness and confidence essential to performing.

“Our whole goal is to make you think and not think at the same time,” Potyrala explained. “[We want kids to] keep moving, and create the brain synapse in theater.”

Potyrala said many of the students become yearly program participants. And now, according to Academy of Music Executive Director Debra J’Anthony, the high retention rate of summer students has encouraged the theater to expand its programming.

Helping that expansion is a $150,000 grant from the Barr-Klarman Massachusetts Arts Initiative in Boston. The Academy of Music is one of 29 Massachusetts organizations that were asked to apply for the grant after the Barr-Klarman foundation conducted an outreach program to determine community needs.

Soon, the Academy’s musical theater classes will continue into the fall, though they’ll be held at Pine Box Studios in Florence. Classes will take place for one hour a week for eight weeks and, like the summer programs, will include workshops that build up to a final performance.

“We look at this as opportunity capital,” said J’Anthony, explaining that expansion before the grant would have posed a risk to the theater’s financial health. “We can now step forward without worrying about whether or not we’ll fail.”

J’Anthony started the youth programming in 2009 after she was appointed AOM executive director. At the time, the program only lasted a week and was open to a smaller age range of students.

Now, though, she said the Academy also hopes to improve outreach to “audiences we haven’t served yet,” including members of the Latinx community. Outreach plans are still in the works, but currently include appointing a new board member to help approach school systems in Holyoke and Northampton to generate interest.

Can you top that?

Before Friday’s performance, program participants ages 7 to 10 were practicing musical numbers in accordance with that theme. They warmed up with a game called “Top That,” where one person comes up with a movement and the others repeat the movement, then create an explanation for what they were doing.

Soon, four young thespians stood imitating a peer’s movement. They rocked from side to side, clapping their hands across their chests with their elbows stuck out. One player explained she was catching bugs in her hands. She called “Top that!” to pass her turn to the next player, who said she was a banana that someone kept peeling and gluing back together.

“And I don’t know how to stop!” she continued. “Top that!”

Summer youth programs, along with a yearly youth production that hits the stage each March, are supported by fundraisers that typically include an event adults can pay to attend. This year, the theater will celebrate ten years of programming with fun for the whole family.

A “Peach Party” at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton on Sunday, Aug. 18 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m will feature face painting, peach pie and a singalong to performances staged by former Academy youth program participants.

Tickets are $10, and proceeds from the party will go towards the creation of a giant peach for the Academy’s winter youth production of “James and the Giant Peach Jr.”

Juliette Langer of Florence, who’s 13, performed in the Academy’s 2019 winter production of “42nd Street.” She was meeting Potyrala after Friday’s rehearsal for younger children so that she could pick a piece to perform at the Peach Party.

“The production itself was so fun, so it’s really nice to be coming back to it,” said Langer. “The cast is so great, and then Martha is such an amazing director, and it’s … such a great experience. I love doing it.”

Langer currently attends John F. Kennedy Middle school in Northampton and says she plans to continue performing in high school.

Emily DiBartolo, a recent Northampton High School graduate who participated in the youth program when she was younger, had returned to the program as an assistant for the “Second Act” workshops for 7 to 10 year olds. She’s been dancing for fourteen years and was also a member of the high school’s a capella group, the Northamptones.

Looking back, DiBartolo said the Academy programs she took part in helped kindle a lifelong passion for theater.

“Even at Northampton High, we have a lot of people who come to this program first,” she said. “I would say that they’re very prepared for what they do when they move to high school and then beyond. It sparks something really nice in all the younger kids.”

According to Dillard, the co-director of the Academy’s recent summer program for 7 to 10 year olds, freewheeling creativity makes this age group a joy to work with.

“The ideas they have and their passion for [theater] is really, really cool,” Dillard said. “You can see so much growth in just two weeks, you know?”

Tickets for the Aug. 18 Peach Party can be purchased at https://www.ticketfly.com/purchase/event/1871828 or by calling the AOM box office at (413) 584-9032, ext.105.