The Harker Conservatory held its inaugural Summer Conservatory program in June and July, inviting young theater enthusiasts to grasp a unique opportunity to hone their craft and learn from top instructors and industry professionals.
Laura Lang-Ree, Harker’s director of performing arts, had been exploring the idea of a summer program at Harker, as she knew firsthand the value of strong summer performing arts programs, both as a professional and a mother to three performing arts-loving kids.
“But I also knew that there was nowhere to host it. … With nowhere to host such a program, it was only a dream – until this year,” said Lang-Ree, alluding to the opening of the Rothschild Performing Arts Center. As the opening of the new building approached, she began looking into how to develop a summer program while addressing another challenge: how to create a program that would not directly compete with other summer performing arts offerings outside Harker that she felt were “already doing a wonderful job.”
“There was a lot around that was really great, and there is no reason to compete with programs that are already doing a great service in the community,” she said. To this end, Lang-Ree began searching last summer for a specific niche that the future program would fill to enhance the selection of summer offerings without competing with them.
It was around this time that Lang-Ree discovered that one of her favorite theater companies, the California Theatre Center, would be closing its doors after more than 40 years. Lang-Ree, who found the news “devastating,” stepped up to help fill the void left by CTC’s closure. Her own children – rising senior Ellie, Cecilia ’13 and Madi ’15, who was on staff at Summer Conservatory – had enjoyed great experiences at programs including CTC and Peninsula Youth Theatre. “Our summers were full of fantastic theater opportunities,” she said. “Losing CTC was a loss to the entire community.”
With the information she had gathered from consulting people from other summer programs, Lang-Ree designed the Summer Conservatory to be “a process-based, in-depth, thoughtful program for kids who are really hungry to learn more, do more and be more as a theater artist student.”
Students in grades 6-9 joined the Conservatory Presents course, designed for young theater lovers eager to build their chops. A more advanced course, called Conservatory Intensive, was available for grade 9-12 students by audition only. Morning classes – both required and elective – emphasized voice and movement, scene study, improvisation and other techniques.
“One of the interesting things about being a performer is you go deeper as you repeat lessons already learned,” Lang-Ree explained. “There’s a certain level of repetition that’s very important to becoming a more finessed performer, and yet we’ll always have something a little bit more to hand the older child so that they’re getting more to chew on as they grow.”
Students spent the afternoons rehearsing for one-act plays that were performed on the final day of the program. Performers were cast following auditions held at the beginning of the course.
Among the directing staff, 2015 Harker Conservatory graduates Zoe Woehrmann and Madi Lang-Ree were brought on as co-directors for the showcase, and helped develop and teach acting classes in addition to their directorial duties.
“We’ve been a part of the performing arts program at Harker for our entire lives, and it’s what inspired us to pursue theater in college as well,” Woehrmann said. “When we heard of the opportunity to be able to help be part of the inaugural group of teachers and directors to start the summer program at Harker … we just jumped at the opportunity.”
Because of their extensive conservatory experience (both were directors featured in the 2015 Student Directed Showcase), she and Madi were given considerable freedom when helping to create the Summer Conservatory curriculum along with Lang-Ree. Both alumnae are also studying theater in college, with Madi having directed a one-act play in her most recent semester at Chapman University, and Woehrmann, a rising senior at New York University, planning to take a play she wrote and directed to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“We worked together before camp actually started to design the curriculum and the daily schedule of classes we thought were important and how we were going to structure them and what we were going to teach within them,” Woerhmann said. They then worked in conjunction with Lang-Ree to come up with the best possible age-appropriate class curriculum for serious theater students.
Madi, who has previous experience teaching at other summer programs, said she was surprised by how much students already knew and their enthusiasm for the many aspects of the program. “I don’t remember knowing very much at all about Shakespeare in middle school, but I’ve had a couple kids who are like. ‘I’ve got this monologue memorized from Hamlet and this one from Macbeth!’” she exclaimed. “And then some kids will really like movement or really like improvisation and some kids will keep asking us, ‘Can I help with costumes or can I help with tech elements as well as being on stage.’”
Students with that eagerness to delve deeply into theater are precisely the type Laura Lang-Ree hopes to attract. “[Summer Conservatory] is for the kid who believes what’s fun is the day-to-day work, the rehearsals where they can go deeper and bring out all the details of their characters and the story they are telling” she said. “That’s what they will achieve here.”