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John Lamb, Published May 28 2013

Have F-M summer theater programs reached max capacity?

FARGO – High school is just winding down, but classes and rehearsals for youth summer theaters start next week.

But it’s already curtains for one production.

Theater B announced last week it was suspending its summer student program, Theatre B.E.A.T. (Theatre B Emerging Artist Training). In a statement, the troupe stated they couldn’t get enough students signed up.

The move raises a question of whether summer theater programing geared at teenagers has reached a capacity.

As recently as six years ago, the only two such programs were the veteran groups, Trollwood Performing Arts School and Gooseberry Park Players.

But over the past few years, three other troupes started up, all trying to attract teenage students.

“We don’t get the mass numbers we got several years ago,” says Gooseberry Board President Dana Haagenson. She says as recently as 2008, the year Gooseberry produced “The Wiz,” the show attracted about 100 kids to the audition. This year they saw half of that.

“We definitely have seen an impact as a result of the other shows, the other programs that are happening in town,” she says. “But we still get the kids we need.”

“There’s an unspoken competition between all of us to find the quality talent that we want to be part of it,” says Adam Pankow, a theater instructor at West Fargo High School and the leader of the West Fargo-based program, Summer Arts Intensive, which stages “Chicago” Aug. 1 through 4.

“We’re looking to draw from the same pool,” he says. “And the pool is deep. But at some point you’ve got to hit a bottom. It’s not limitless.”

“Honestly, we’re sort of saturated with theater arts opportunities for kids in the summer,” says Rebecca Meyer-Larson, a Moorhead High School theater teacher who also heads the summer program ACT UP. The troupe, for students ages 16 through 20, stages “Bare” Aug. 1 through 10.

While she says she was, “kind of heartbroken,” to hear Theatre B shelved B.E.A.T. this summer, she’s not surprised that it’s become difficult to attract the number of students needed to make a project work.

“Does it surprise me that it’s that one? Absolutely,” she says about Theatre B. “That’s one of the finest programs in town. They’re doing the kind of theater in this town that’s vital. There’s really serious theatrical training.”

Brad Delzer of Theatre B says the decision to pull B.E.A.T. for the summer was largely due to the troupe waiting too long to set dates for the program, which was looking for 12 to 15 students.

“The quality of the program itself really wasn’t in question, Just the timing and communication,” he says.

Delzer adds that feedback from last year’s production of “Metamorphoses” was overwhelmingly positive, particularly since B.E.A.T. was the only troupe doing drama and not a musical.

“There has to be something else for kids other than a great big musical. Every high school in this town does a great big musical,” Meyer-Larson says.

The biggest of the great big musicals, Trollwood’s annual mainstage musical isn’t having any trouble attracting students. The 45 roles for this summer’s production of “Shrek: The Musical” were all filled in February.

Trollwood Performing Arts School’s Executive Director, Kathy Anderson, says the summer will see a record high enrollment of more than 600 students. Rehearsals start on Monday with classes starting the next day and “Shrek: The Musical” running July 18 through Aug. 3.

The competition to attract students has led the troupes to think differently about recruiting.

Gooseberry’s incoming director, Debbie Griffith, made a point of visiting the theater and singing classes in the area schools to talk about the upcoming production of “Oklahoma!,” which runs July 16 through 21, with classes starting on Tuesday.

“That’s something we didn’t have to do for a few years,” Haagenson says.

Theatre B is still offering actor training in July, but Delzer hopes to bring back a B.E.A.T. show next summer. He says the troupe will have to get out in front more about scheduling and working with the schools to make sure students know about Theatre B opportunities.

He says there is room for all five summer programs in Fargo-Moorhead.

“There certainly is,” Delzer says. “The question is, how do we each offer something unique and find students who can be empowered by that.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533