Special Guest Column By Lesley Stevenson
In the last weeks of my ninth grade year, my speech and drama teacher handed me a flyer printed on red paper, an announcement detailing what became the beginning of my love affair with the Orpheum Theatre.
Thinking a weeklong summer intensive in acting techniques and business operations would benefit my interest in the arts, I signed up for the 2009 Orpheum Summer Institute. For that week, I worked with professionals from the theatre, performers from Voices of the South and actors from the second national tour of Wicked, which was then in its first Memphis run.
I memorized the name of every level of seating in the theatre and generated lists of new marketing and development ideas. I worked with my peers to choreograph a movement piece, and I learned one of the many dance breaks to “Dancing through Life.”
I met dozens of students from across Shelby County and the surrounding area, friends I probably never would have met otherwise. We did all this together that week in makeshift dance halls, classrooms and rehearsal venues; the three rooms adjacent to Main Street — the Broadway Club, the parlor and the concessions room — became our domain, out of the way of the Wicked professionals backstage.
Despite logistical challenges, we all relished the chance to be anywhere near the historic Orpheum stage. It didn’t matter a bit that there was barely enough room for us all to fit in the lobby, much less learn a dance from Wicked. We didn’t mind the pillars in the Broadway Club that imposed in the middle of any circles we would form — it was all part of the backstage experience. (Some students even affectionately named the pillars, fully embracing their intrusion.)
We and the Orpheum staff made the best of a logistical challenge, but the new Centre for Performing Arts and Education means future generations of performers, teachers and businesspeople don’t have to. With new classrooms, rehearsal space and a dance studio, the Orpheum’s educational programming, including Broadway Institute (the new version of Summer Institute), teacher training workshops, High School Musical Theatre Awards (HSMTAs) rehearsals and STAR Council events, can take place in spaces expressly designed for those purposes.
Education Coordinator Brittany Church, who took me on a hard-hat tour of the Centre, pointed out that the new building has an area built to match the floor space of the Orpheum’s stage. In the not-too-distant future, then, rehearsals for the HSMTAs can happen in the Centre, in a place where performers can feel how much room they’ll have on the actual Orpheum stage.
Teacher training sessions, which bring in educators from across the Mid-South (as well as some students like me), can accommodate many more individuals seeking to learn how arts education can improve a child’s school experience. Master classes, taught by professional artists, can take place in an actual dance studio.
My favorite part of the Centre, though, is the stage. Everything in the room will be entirely black, save for a sea of red chairs, as Brittany told me. The venue can host all kinds of performances, and the technical space allows for students to get hands-on experience in lighting and sound design alongside industry professionals — the control panel, for example, has room specifically built in for an operator and an observer.
The possibilities for learning of all kinds in the Centre are truly endless, and thinking of the ways in which the Orpheum’s Education staff will use the space makes me glow with anticipation and pride. Because of my experiences at three Summer Institutes and in the STAR Council, a student advisory committee that launched in fall 2009, I gained invaluable insight into theatre management beyond performing that has since guided my academic and professional paths.
Students in the coming years will get an even more holistic view of theatre operations, especially in components like management and lighting or sound design that are often lacking in most high schools.
This chance is not something the Orpheum has taken lightly. After years of seeing bits and pieces of the plans come together, I know that the building’s grand opening will be an immense tribute to the tireless efforts of the theatre’s entire staff and their dedication to the arts in Memphis.
But the best part will always be yet to come. The real payoff to the staff and to all of us who have been touched by the Orpheum’s educational programming will be seeing the hundreds and thousands of people who benefit from the new space. Students like me will come and grow older, but the Orpheum will always be there to inspire and encourage the delighted crowds of children and adults who believe in the power of the arts to make a difference in the world.
Lesley Stevenson is a junior at the University of Notre Dame, where she majors in Film, Television and Theatre and American Studies. She serves as Marketing Director for the Pasquerilla East Musical Company, Notre Dame’s only student-run musical theatre troupe. A 2012 graduate of St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis, Lesley joined the Orpheum’s STAR Council in its inaugural year and worked at the first four High School Musical Theatre Awards from 2010 to 2013.