School’s in for summer — theatre school, that is.
And with his first two youth shows (“Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka Jr.,” which he also directed, and “Into the Woods Jr.,” which he oversaw) recently wrapped, Bainbridge Performing Arts’ new director of education Pete Benson is setting his sights on expanding the program around the productions.
“A lot of what’s been going on with the teenagers is, let’s just write a basic plot, put some songs on it and perform a show,” he said. “I didn’t feel that was teaching anybody anything about acting. It was so performance driven, and I’d rather be process driven at this point.”
Benson took over for Liz Ellis, who recently moved to California, in March, and if there were remaining doubts as to whether he was in the right place, he said the first show assuaged them.
“‘Willy Wonka’ is the second show I ever did — as a 10-year-old, when I played Charlie — back in the ’70s sometimes,” Benson said. “When I found out I was directing this, I was ‘Oh, kismet. This is all coming around full circle.’”
Now, working closely with BPA instructor and cast regular Ann Wilkinson Ellis, Benson is seeking to take the youth programs of the theater school to the next level, extending the timeline over the course of a year so as to focus more intently on various aspects of the craft rather than gearing up quickly for one show, performing it, then moving on to another.
“What Liz Ellis did with this program was excellent,” he said. “She brought it back from the brink of extinction almost. Classes were smaller, they’d gotten bigger. She put a sense of professionalism and a unification of theory to this.
“The one thing I really wanted to redevelop was the teen program, it had fallen on some hard times and I think ‘Into the Woods’ is our first major foray into that realm.”
It was a good choice, said “Into the Woods Jr.” director and choreographer Adam Somers.
“There’s no better show for theater education, it’s kind of Theater 101,” he said. “It’s a bunch of characters who have their own objectives and wants that are kind of thrust into one environment together and they become each others obstacles and have to explore different tactics to overcome that — and that’s what they teach in any theater school.”
Benson began his acting career at age 9, in San Jose, California working primarily with the San Jose Children’s Musical Theater (now CMT San Jose) and City Lights Theater Company.
After gaining a two-year degree from the Professional Actor’s Conservatory in Orange County, he performed up and down the West Coast with various theaters, including The Western Stage and PCPA.
Looking to further refine his skills, Benson attended the California Institute of the Arts and graduated with a BFA in Theater Arts. For the last two decades, he has been working with Matt Groening Productions, first in the design department of the animated show “Futurama,” and then for a decade-long stint in merchandise and publishing with all of MGP properties, including “The Simpsons” and “Life in Hell.”
Most recently, Benson has been seen in several BPA productions, including “Much Ado About Nothing,” “August: Osage County” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
The recently announced fall offerings from BPA Theatre School exemplify Benson’s stated goal of expanding the program around the stage happenings.
“It’s about finding the kids’ voice, letting them bring the character … the best directors I’ve had have been the directors who ask a lot of questions, bring out what of the actor is a part of that character and bring that forth rather than forcing that character onto the actor,” he said. “I felt like we got to a point in the program where the kids felt like they were done. They got to these teenager years and they felt like they were done and I think we need to get them to the point of where becoming a teenager is actually when they start the real training.”
Under the tutelage of Kate Drummond, students (ages 4–7) in “Creative Drama” will explore the elements of theatre and learn to use their faces, bodies and voices to tell a story. She will also lead students from grades 1–3 as they learn two song-and-dance numbers, and engage in goofy, imaginative skill-building theatre games in “Introduction to Musical Theatre.”
Led by Benson, students in grades 5–8 will meet Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623–1673) — a female science fiction writer from the 17th century whose utopian romance explores science, politics, gender and identity in “The Blazing World.”
Fifth- through 10th-grade students will mix skill-building and rehearsal in “Musical Theatre,” an eight-week course with international singer, actress and philanthropist Stephanie Reese.
In BPA’s “Teen Lab: Intermediate Acting,” students will explore a variety of acting methods and styles through a series of intensive exercises, improv games and scene study for stage, camera and voice over with instructors Benson, Ellis and professional actress Amanda Yeoman Brooke.
Also being offered, “Adult Acting for the Camera,” for ages 19 and up. For those who are interested in working in front of or behind the camera; no experience is required for this eight-week workshop.