For three weeks in January, junior Kevin Singer and a number of schoolmates spent almost no time on academics and at least 7 hours a day rehearsing for Bat Boy: The Musical. It was their J-term project.
Singer attends St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA), a free public charter school sponsored by the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. J-term is the time every student gets to dig into their art—whether theater, music or dance—full time. Some did improv, others did swing choir and band. Students get to work with area professionals, such University of Minnesota jazz dance instructors Cyndi Gutierrez-Garner and Laura Sell.
Those involved in Bat Boy: The Musical, got to do two shows at the Concordia University campus. “That is what the real world will be like,” said Singer, who played Bat Boy. “It is your job. That is your career. With J-Term, you can get a taste of it.”
SPCPA is a small art-focused school, where students see the Perpich Center for Arts Education High School as “the competition,” not a nearby high school football team. Both Perpich and SPCPA are small. SPCPA has 370 students and Perpich takes up to 310. Yet there are key differences.
Perpich opened in 1989 and is established while SPCPA is only in its third year and still evolving. For instance, it just added a Dance Company this year for higher skilled students. SPCPA is a 4-year high school; Perpich is for juniors and seniors. SPCPA focuses on the performing arts; Perpich offers more options, including visual and media arts.
Perpich is nestled on 30-acre campus in Golden Valley. SPCPA is in the heart of downtown St. Paul and students do a fair amount of walking between classes. The school’s main academic area is on the Landmark Center’s fifth floor, but dance and music theater students practice at the River Centre, music students practice in the Lowry Building and theater students emote in the Weyerhauser Auditorium in Landmark’s basement. Some students go to the Science Museum of Minnesota for math and chemistry classes.
SPCPA doesn’t even have a student cafeteria. Some students bring their lunch; others, such as Singer, might grab a cheeseburger and fries at the Lowry Building’s Q Kindness Café or other downtown eatery.
While students go through a portfolio review and spontaneous art exercise as part of their admission test, SPCPA is open to all regardless of skill level. If more apply than there is space available, students are selected by lottery.
Similar to Perpich, SPCPA tries to connect students with working artists. Carly Devries, a violin player, and other music students got to perform with members of the Minnesota Orchestra at McNally Smith College of Music during J-term. DeVries’ stand partner was the Minnesota Orchestra’s Rudolf Lekhter. It was intimidating at first, she said, but he gave her a great tip on the bow crescendo. “Instead of more pressure, you increase your bow speed,” DeVries said. “He showed it to me. Then he had me try it. It was really cool, a free lesson from a professional.”
SPCPA has several wrinkles in its program. On Fridays, students have two electives that can be outside of their specialty area. DeVries chose Pilates and Dalcroze’s Technique, a rhythm class with stomping and clapping, she said. “It has helped music students feel the music and stay with the beat better,” she said.
The school also has an extended arts absence program, Singer said. It allows students to get involved in the arts community during school time, get credit—and not get dinged with an absence. Singer missed some school in December 2006 to play the Bookseller in Beauty and the Beast, which the Youth Performance Company staged at the Howard Conn Theater in Plymouth Congregational Church.
“I had teachers who understood,” he said. “It was easy for me to make up all the work I missed and still get good grades.”
Theater is the largest program at SPCPA, Singer said. It’s what students choose if they come to school more for the small learning environment than for the arts themselves. The theater track ranges from students who are not committed to students who could go a long way in the field, he said.
SPCPA bills itself as a college prep school. Singer is taking an English class and a political science class that allow him to earn college credit through College in the Schools (CIS), a University of Minnesota program. In teacher Jason Bryant’s CIS literature class, the reading list includes The Life of Pi, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and poems by Billy Collins. In a recent class with 12 students, several read poems they had selected by James Wright, Marianne Williamson or Edgar Allen Poe—and critiqued the rhyme schemes, tone, alliteration and other elements.
Singer’s Tuesday and Thursday afternoons are devoted to theater, including David Doering’s acting class. On this day, students began the period with an extended discussion of a news report that Hopkins High decided to drop the n-word from its staging of To Kill a Mockingbird. “I don’t like it when they baby-up shows,” said one student.
The discussion evolved and became more personal as the class discussed an SPCPA decision to drop the f-word from a play it had performed—and one actor’s unilateral decision to use it anyway. One student offered that his parents are offended by the f-word.
“I don’t know if I have an answer for this. We have to get our parents there to see the show,” Doering said. “You are going to run into this constantly throughout your career.”
For most of the class, students practiced physical acting, pairing up to rehearse confrontational scenes from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, (either Kate-Petruchio parlay or the fight between Kate and her younger sister, Bianca.) For the better part of an hour, students leaped from ledges and chased each other around the theater. There was choking, cowering, shoving, and even simulated knees to the groin as voices raised.
In contrast, Singer’s directing class was sedate. Students sat on the theater stage and barely moved during class as they read a scene from Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. Teacher Genevieve Bennett discussed how to mark the “beats,” the key changes in the scene. Defining the changes would help them break down the action and direct actors, she said. “It will be clearer to you what the characters want,” she said. “It is not about what you want. As a director, it is your job to figure out what the play needs and facilitate it.”