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Learning life lessons on stage

(Above) Fifth and sixth graders from the BPA Theatre School rehearse a scene from “King Midas and the Touch of Gold.” (Below) Bainbridge Performing Arts Education Director Karen Harp-Reed oversees a group number.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photos
(Above) Fifth and sixth graders from the BPA Theatre School rehearse a scene from “King Midas and the Touch of Gold.” (Below) Bainbridge Performing Arts Education Director Karen Harp-Reed oversees a group number.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photos

BPA Theatre School stages spring productions this week.

A fifth grader can find a path to Shakespeare, an eighth grader can navigate Sophocles and any artistic child can find a voice through theater.

“It’s that place of imagination where we all find common ground,” said Karen Harp-Reed, education director for Bainbridge Performing Arts.

Greece is the word this week as BPA Theatre School stages its spring student performances. First and second graders will blend “Aesop’s Mice Tales” with the third and fourth graders’ “Aesop’s Fables” for a single show tonight. The production will set pint-sized morality tales in a Greek kitchen replete with tiny mice who have their own stories to tell.

Later this week, shows continue with fifth and sixth graders performing “King Midas” and seventh through ninth graders tackling Sophocles’ “Antigone.”

“It’s a dark play,” Harp-Reed said of “Antigone,” adding that its big themes – the search for identity and the nature of responsibility – have offered excellent lessons for young actors. They’re also themes that permeate the theater school program itself.

“There are so many aspects of theater that provide the skills for dealing with life,” she said.

Once kids are part of the theater school program, Harp-Reed and the other instructors set a high standard for participation and commitment, asking students to take responsibility for their schedules and schoolwork and make good on their agreement to attend classes and rehearsals. Harp-Reed says that “learning how to juggle work and do your art is part of being an artist.”

“That’s life for the rest of your life,” she tells students. “You’d better practice it now.”

Collaboration and trust are natural by-products of the acting process for all the ages. In her nearly 30 years of teaching, Harp-Reed has come to understand that once kids practice and memorize a piece of theater, they become dedicated to not wanting to let their fellow actors down.

“A lot of people who aren’t in theater don’t realize how team-oriented it is,” she said. “If we don’t have you there, we’re missing a big part of the team.”

Harp-Reed said that by and large, the kids who participate in theater school want to be there, which precludes attitude or discipline problems. Occasionally she gets parents who enroll their children because they think the theater will be “good for them,” and in those cases, she makes her expectations clear.

“I keep saying, this’ll be fun, but it’s also work,” she said. “It’s not day care.”

Many parents report that the theater becomes the place where their kids feel most comfortable; Harp-Reed agrees that for an artistic child who feels alone, the theater can be a refuge because qualities that might not quite fit in a kid’s ordinary life are usually appreciated in the theater.

“They’re with people who are in the same land that they live in,” Harp-Reed said. “There’s a wonderful feeling of being part of a group. That’s what acting is really all about – accepting everybody.”

Harp-Reed herself embraced performing at a young age and carved out a career as “an itinerant music/dance/theater person,” performing musical and non-musical theater in Seattle, Los Angeles and New York and recently, on Bainbridge in “Cabaret” and “The Sisters Rosensweig.” Her children grew up with theater, and her husband, Gary Reed, teaches dance and theater on the island.

Harp-Reed’s approach from age group to age group, which range from pre-school to ninth grade, is necessarily different. For first and second graders, initial exercises focus on getting them to listen to instruction, move within the theater space and work as an ensemble. Then they move on to the play itself, using improvisation to help internalize the meaning of the story.

Third and fourth graders begin to memorize their pieces; fifth and sixth graders take on more complex stories and even multiple characters per actor.

Seventh through ninth graders perform intense material that often incorporates complex staging or acting work, for example Antigone’s technically challenging Greek chorus.

The BPA Theatre School program isn’t limited to kids’ theater classes; it also hosts adult classes, an international series, a young playwrights’ workshop and Camp Teen Broadway, which this summer will stage “Les Miserables.” Harp-Reed’s long-term vision for the theater school includes more courses in stage management, sound and other behind-the-scenes work.

Harp-Reed said that kids sometimes move in and out of the program to stretch new and perhaps complementary skills in music and dance, and even sports. All of these moves are encouraged and welcomed, Harp-Reed said, because they help create well-rounded, whole kids.

But after being bitten by the bug, many of the kids come back year after year.

“Once you’re in the theatre school, you’re a theatre school groupie,” she said.

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It’s all Greek

A joint production of “Aesop’s Mice Tales” and “Aesop’s Fables” runs at 6:30 p.m. tonight, May 30, at BPA. The performance is free; donations at the door benefit the BPA Theatre School’s scholarship fund. “King Midas” and “Antigone” run in one show as two separate acts at 7:30 p.m. May 31 and June 1 at BPA. Tickets are $10. For information about these shows, upcoming workshops or BPA Theatre School, visit www.bainbridgeperformingarts.org.

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