The Actor's Workshop of Ithaca

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Ithaca Times - Apr 2, '08: Child Stars

Child stars...In search of diversity, teen acting

by Kelly Spillane

Laura Miller, left, and Masa Gibson work on improv skills at Eliza VanCort's Actor's Workshop. VanCort is inviting teens of different - and less financially able - backgrounds to learn the Meisner technique. (Photo by Rachel Philipson)

Last summer, the Actor's Workshop of Ithaca introduced a new class for teens called the Teen Immersion Course. Eliza VanCort, the director of the workshop, filled the four-week Meisner technique course solely by word of mouth.

This year, VanCort has decided to "go public" with the program, expanding it and introducing scholarships in hopes of drawing a more diverse student body. The idea of bringing this high-end New York City studio program to teens in Ithaca who might not otherwise have that opportunity was enough to keep VanCort bubbly and energetic last week even while fighting off a seriously high fever. Last summer, the Teen Immersion Course was VanCort's attempt to introduce young people to a modified version of the Meisner technique of acting - a more adult-oriented approach.

"What we found is when you give teens the benefit of the doubt they'll rise to the occasion every time," said VanCort about the success of the course.

But things are changing. This summer, VanCort will now offer two four-week courses instead of one three-week session, and students ages 13-16 can now participate in the intimate dynamic of the six-to-eight student class. Despite the successes of the inaugural course, VanCort says the word-of-mouth nature of enrollment only attracted a certain demographic.

"We're really trying to cast a wider net this summer so that we can have kids from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. I've found in my years of teaching that if a class is homogenous there's less learning going on," she said. VanCort is trying to tackle this issue of homogeneity by incorporating scholarships into her program. Private donations by individuals have already been made, but the scholarships will also include money made at Actor's Workshop of Ithaca's April 26 showcase via suggested donations.

Incorporating diversity into her program is of personal importance to VanCort.

"It's a real problem in the arts that I see often - it becomes all kids whose parents have a certain level of privilege," said VanCort. "When I was in high school there was a group of us, myself included, whose parents paid for lessons; it made for a very uneven playing field when it came to auditioning for the musicals. Therefore the musicals were peopled with upper middle-class white kids. So, for me to be able to help in a tiny way to break that cycle and to allow other kids into a really high-end individualized process is very exciting to me," she added. "In my classes I try to balance age, race and gender."

Sierra Carrere took VanCort's adult Meisner course before it was offered to teens. "I loved being young and connected to peers older than my parents in such an open way, which is not common in extracurricular activities at the high school age. It definitely contributed to my wisdom and maturity," said Carrere.

The variety extends to teachers as well. Joanna Horton and David Kossack will both be instructors of the course along with VanCort; neither are strangers to diversity or working with youth. Kossack has worked closely with high school students while directing local school plays and Joanna Horton has worked with youths displaced by Hurricane Katrina and conducted a theater workshop at GIAC last year.

Horton said that working at GIAC showed her how important this opportunity is for many youths in the Ithaca community. "The kids I worked with at GIAC were almost all kids of color from our community, and based off what they told me they're not really involved with the mainstream arts in their schools," said Horton. "We're really just sharing more opportunity for these kids and allowing others to learn from their individual experiences," she added.

The instructors are hopeful the scholarships will bring a diverse group of students this year because they're confident the students will benefit more from this. "If you have a rich diversity of kids they're going to bring different things to the table that they'll all benefit from as they watch each other," said VanCort. "We want our end of the semester [showcase] scenes to be reflective of the American experience, and not just one kind of American experience."

Scholarships are limited and they're on a first-come first-serve basis. VanCort encourages those truly interested to call right away. To find out more about signing up for this course or to apply for scholarships call 339-999 or visit the Actor's Workshop website at www.actorsworkshop.biz.

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