TEEN TALENT COMPETITION: Fox Theater Performing Arts Foundation

Emcee Ben Nordstrom (left), with scholarship winners Connor Low, Race Simmons, Christian X.M. McGhee and Cynthia A. Prost, president of the Arts and Education Council (right).

Emcee Ben Nordstrom (left), with scholarship winners Connor Low, Race Simmons, Christian X.M. McGhee and Cynthia A. Prost, president of the Arts and Education Council (right).

The Arts and Education Council presented a trio of teen musicians with a “Keep Art Happening” Scholarship at the Fox Theater Performing Arts Foundation Teen Talent Competition. The winners were: Christian X.M. McGhee, drummer, age 16, junior at Westminster Christian Academy; Race Simmons, vocalist, age 15, sophomore at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School; and Connor Low, guitarist, age 15, sophomore at Liberty High School.

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THE HEALING AND ENGAGING POWER OF THE ARTS: STAGES St. Louis’ “Access the Arts”

STAGES St. Louis’ “Troupe Broadway” performs in the End of Year Showcases at The Kent Center for Theatre Arts.

STAGES St. Louis’ “Troupe Broadway” performs in the End
of Year Showcases at The Kent Center for Theatre Arts.

Opportunity seems to be the guiding principle behind STAGES St. Louis’ “Access the Arts” programs, which consist of classes, workshops and performances for young people with physical, cognitive or developmental delays, allowing them to fully participate in the performing arts.

“To my knowledge, we are the only professional musical theater company in the region that has programming for students with special needs, as well as having them be members of our Performing Arts Academy,” says Tali Allen, director of education at STAGES St. Louis (an A&E Operating Grant recipient). “We provide opportunities to those with special needs who otherwise might never have the chance to perform before an audience on stage.”

Students with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities participating in STAGES St. Louis’ “Access the Arts” program.

Students with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities participating in STAGES St. Louis’ “Access the Arts” program.

Roughly 350 students, including those with Down syndrome, visual impairments and autism, take part in “Access the Arts” programs annually. Many meet weekly for 90 minutes throughout the academic year to develop skills in acting, singing and dance. Students are divided into classes according to grade level, and while costs range from $450 to $570, no one is turned away due to inability to pay.

Special-needs students ages eight and above can also participate in three-week performance camps during the summer, which, like all of the “Access the Arts” programs, culminates in a talent showcase.

STAGES St. LouisIn addition, STAGES’ “Troupe Broadway,” an invitation-only program, gives special needs students the chance to be part of an ensemble and perform onstage in a musical revue at various venues throughout the St. Louis area. Our ATA students memorize their lines and songs, learn choreography and respond to the material just like all of our students at the Academy,” said Allen. “The great thing about musical theater is that everyone can appreciate and have fun with it.”

Both trained artists and special educators teach the “Access the Arts” classes. Katie Hayes is manager of STAGES’ outreach education, which collaborates with area schools to host inclusive classes on their campuses. These classes combine typically developing and special-needs students in workshops that last anywhere from a few months to an entire school year.

“What I notice in most of our “Access the Arts” programs is how  many of these kids go from being shy and unaware of their surroundings to more comfortable and confident,” said Hayes. “It’s amazing to see how far they come from when they started.

“I can’t tell you how many parents are surprised and so impressed to see their child speaking in sentences and singing on pitch because they weren’t able to do that before. These programs strengthen speech and movement skills and help them feel comfortable with their body language.” Allen points out that teachers and artists who work with these kids also get a lot out of the programs.

“It’s incredibly demanding on them. They are not just doing a lesson plan because the class can change from moment to moment,” she said. “But it’s incredibly rewarding. We really do feel we are making a positive impact in these students’ lives.”

STAGES St. Louis is an Arts and Education Council Operating Grant recipient. For more information visit STAGES St. Louis.

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GRANTEE SPOTLIGHT: Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera’s 2012 production of Das Rheingold, the first opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Union Avenue Opera’s 2012 production of Das Rheingold, the first opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Opera lovers have one more reason to love the summer – Union Avenue Opera’s 21st season opens July 10 with Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Union Avenue Opera, an Arts and Education Council PNC Project Grant recipient, will put on three operas during July and August: Don Giovanni July 10 to 18, Verdi’s Rigoletto July 31 to August 8 and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung August 21 to 29, all performed in the intimate setting of Union Avenue Christian Church.

“I’m looking forward to bringing three new operas into the UAO repertory. Though all three offerings are standard repertoire – they are all new to our stage,” says Scott Schoonover, Union Avenue Opera artistic director and conductor. “Over the years we have done plenty of Mozart, Verdi and now Wagner, but somehow after twenty years we are just now coming to these three masterpieces. It’s amazing to discover the breadth of the operatic genre – there is so much to explore! I can’t wait to hear our orchestra bring life to these three wonderful scores.”

Lise Lindstrom, Scott Schoonover and the UAO orchestra at our 20th Anniversary Gala in November 2014.

Lise Lindstrom, Scott Schoonover and the UAO orchestra at our 20th Anniversary Gala in November 2014.

“Audiences can expect classic productions of all three operas. We have an exciting blend of new singers and many friends from past seasons returning to our stage,” continues Schoonover. “Each of these three stories is powerfully dramatic and takes actors with a certain gravitas to pull them off believably. Similarly we have three wonderful directors (Jon Truitt, Tim Ocel and Karen Coe Miller) at the helm for these productions. We always try to hire directors that are committed to engaged story-telling and the ‘theater’ of opera.”

Jordan Shannahan as Alberich, David Dillard as the Wanderer, 2014 Siegfried

Jordan Shannahan as Alberich, David Dillard as the Wanderer, 2014 Siegfried

Union Avenue Opera was founded in 1994 by Schoonover with support from the Arts Group of Union Avenue with the goal of bringing affordable, professional, original-language opera to St. Louis. Union Avenue’s first production was Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the summer of 1995.

This year’s production of Götterdämmerung marks the end of a four-year endeavor to present Wagner’s Ring cycle. “I am so glad and grateful that we took it on. It has certainly been a growing experience for me, for our singers, orchestra and our production crew. It has stretched all of us and in the end we are a stronger company for having taking on such a challenge.”

Bringing affordable opera to St. Louis audiences is only part of Union Avenue Opera’s mission. It is also dedicated to providing professional development opportunities to emerging artists. UAO prides itself on hiring based on ability rather than resume to provide promising singers a stepping stone for their professional careers. UAO also offers “Crescendo” – a free, hands-on, performance-based training program designed to further the education of emerging local artists who are preparing to join the St. Louis arts
community. The program gives undergraduate voice students the opportunity to work with Union Avenue Opera professionals and compete for scholarships and paid chorus positions in UAO productions.

2015 Crescendo Participants

2015 Crescendo Participants

“We just finished our second successful year of our Crescendo program which is a six week training ground for 24 undergrads from the St. Louis metro region.  The students get to work with top professionals in the business on honing their craft — working on vocalism, acting, diction, stagecraft and performance practice. The six weeks culminates with a judged public performance where we hand our $3,000 in scholarships to the top four artists,” comments Schoonover.  Also, up for grabs are spots in the chorus for the summer productions. This year we are able to hire 10 of them in the chorus which is especially gratifying as it extends their learning into the summer as they get to be surrounded by professional singers from all over the country and experience how a professional production is put together.  It’s one of my new favorite parts of UAO and I look forward to it’s growth.”

Union Avenue Opera is an Arts and Education Council PNC Project Grant recipient. To learn more and purchase tickets visit unionavenueopera.org.

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IMPACT ON INDIVIDUAL: Annie Donnell, St. Louis Children’s Choirs

Annie Donnell (second riser, Soprano Two Section) practices with the St. Louis Children’s Choir for an upcoming concert.

Annie Donnell (second riser, Soprano Two Section) practices with the St. Louis Children’s Choir for an upcoming concert.

Annie Donnell uses words like “joy” and “peace” and “happiness” to describe what singing with the St. Louis Children’s Choirs (an A&E Operating Grant recipient) has meant to her for the past seven years. The experience has been so rewarding that Annie wrote an essay about it as part of her college application process.

“The second riser, in the Soprano Two section, is a place and experience that has changed my life,” the 18-year old wrote in her essay. “It has given me a passion for music and an understanding of how music can affect others. Through my participation in choir, I have grown in my ability to work with others to achieve a goal – a great performance. The beauty of the music, the splendor of 70 voices in harmony, the sense of belonging – all have added meaning to my life.”

The choirs also have provided Annie with a sense of independence. The recent Ladue Horton Watkins High School graduate is visually impaired and can see only lightness and darkness. Her impairment is the result of retinopathy of prematurity – an eye disease that can affect premature babies and cause the retina to detach.

During high school, Annie explains she was assisted by a paraeducator, who translated her assignments into braille. At choir practice and performances, her friend Catherine guides Annie on and off stage by holding onto her arm.

“Choir has always been a place where I have made strong friendships. It’s always been a really inclusive environment,” said Annie, who also ran track during high school tethered to another runner. “This is especially true in the highest [choir] group, which I have been a part of for two years.”

Barbara Berner, artistic director of the St. Louis Children’s Choirs, says students often tell her how meaningful participation in the Choirs is to them.

“[They] tell us that in choir they have found a refuge from ridicule and bullying at school, problems at home, the stress of academic pressure,” Berner said. “Students say that the Children’s Choirs becomes a second family.”

Annie couldn’t agree more. “My choir family is an integral part of my life, and there is nothing better than making music with people who truly enjoy it,” she said.

“Choir is the place where I create strong friendships, learn complex songs, and gain confidence in my singing ability. It is a stress-free time, a time when thinking about anything else is nonexistent.”

Now in its 37th year, the Children’s Choirs includes 450 young people ages six to 18 from about 200 St. Louis area schools.

Berner says funding from the Arts and Education Council has made a “tremendous difference” because it has provided more than $192,000 to the Children’s Choirs over the past 12 years. A&E grants have enabled the Choirs to provide programming for 20,000 to 40,000 audience members each season and to reach out to children in 34 schools, many of which are in underserved areas. The choir awarded more than $40,000 in financial aid last season to remove barriers to any child’s participation.

This summer, Annie plans to tour Europe with the Children’s Choirs, singing in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. “I think the thing I’m looking forward to most is singing in cathedrals,” she said.

This fall, Annie will attend Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she plans to major in communications and minor in education. She says her goal is to become an elementary education teacher.

And singing?

“Oh yes,” she says laughing. “I definitely plan on auditioning for their choir. I really can’t imagine my life without singing.”

The St. Louis Children’s Choirs is an A&E Operating Grant recipient. For more information, visit St. Louis Children’s Choirs.

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THE HEALING AND ENGAGING POWER OF THE ARTS: Circus Flora

Claire Wedemeyer as Claire the Clown making a “clown round” at a children’s hospital.

Claire Wedemeyer as Claire the Clown making a “clown round” at a children’s hospital.

Did you know St. Louis is one of only three cities in the United States with an annual resident circus that offers year-round outreach programs? Circus Flora (an A&E Operating Grant recipient) is St. Louis’ own theatre company that blends traditional European circus with modern theatre techniques.

The 2015 Big Top was only up for May and June but Circus Flora continues its outreach programs throughout the year, including “Clowns on Call” and “Tumbling and Teamwork.”

Since 2011, Circus Flora’s “Clowns on Call” program has been bringing circus performers into hospitals to entertain and interact with hospitalized children and their families.

Claire the Clown performing at a children’s hospital.

Claire the Clown performing at a children’s hospital.

Claire Wedemeyer is one of six performers who make ‘clown rounds’ at SSM Cardinal Glennon and Mercy Children’s hospitals. “A lot of these kids are put in this room and their choices are taken away and they’re in an area where everyone is trying to fix this problem. We’re not there to do that. We spend a lot of time bumping into walls and getting tangled up in curtains and finding difficult ways to put on a robe. It’s a nice change of focus. It gets them color and sound and bright things flying through the air and live music at their bedside and it changes the whole vibration of the atmosphere. And from the parents, at least once a day I hear ‘I haven’t seen my kid laugh in days’ or ‘that’s the first time I’ve seen him laugh since he’s been in here.’”

The only program of its kind in the bi-state region, “Clowns on Call” has impacted more than 3,000 young patients, providing them laughter, music and help through the healing process.

Students participate in Circus Flora’s “Tumbling and Teamwork” program.

Students participate in Circus Flora’s “Tumbling and Teamwork” program.

“Tumbling and Teamwork” is a free program that offers students with learning and socialization challenges a chance to practice a variety of circus skills, including tumbling, balance, juggling, clowning and aerial arts though a two month intensive training program. Students train with professional artists to prepare a performance showcase of individual and ensemble acts. By working as a team, students also develop social skills, build self confidence and have the chance to express themselves creatively.

Claire the Clown making a “clown round.”

Claire the Clown making a “clown round.”

In addition to work in the community, Circus Flora offers a Sensory Friendly Circus performance during their Big Top show, welcoming to those with autism and other sensory disorders. Circus Flora removes bothersome stimuli, adjusts noise levels and modifies lighting in the show to create an experience that allows everyone to enjoy the magic of the circus.

Circus Flora launched a power2give.org campaign through A&E to raise funds for their first Sensory Friendly Circus performance in 2014. The show was such a success that they included a sensory friendly performance in their 2015 season.

 Circus Flora’s “Tumbling and Teamwork” program.

Circus Flora’s “Tumbling and Teamwork” program.

“The efforts of our acting company to create this specially-modified performance were rewarded by the outpouring of appreciation by parents, several of whom, through barely suppressed tears, expressed what it meant for them to attend a live performance
together, as a family, and not have others stare or pass judgment at their child for spinning to express excitement, or clapping too long or needing to exit and return several times,” said Circus Flora’s director of development, Susan Mintz.

Circus Flora, an Arts and Education Council Operating Grantee and tenant in the Centene Center for Arts and Education, has a variety of shows and programs throughout the year. For more information, visit Circus Flora.

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