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Kris Kerzman, Published April 06 2014

Educational opportunities abound for Fargo area youth

FARGO – Talk to a few theater educators, and one idea clearly stands out: The theater is a place to build confidence.

For Shanara Lassig, that starts early – even before kids become part of the school system. As a preschool owner and a part of Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre’s Training Ground program, she’ll be introducing pre-kindergarten kids to the stage.

“We play, mostly,” Lassig says. “But there’s a lot of theater stuff going on in there. They’re imagining everything, so we do a lot of imagination play.”

“Through it all, they’re learning confidence and becoming a little less shy. Most of them are doing this in front of people for the first time,” she says.

That theme runs throughout the wide variety of options available to area kids as they get older. In addition to Training Ground, which offers training for all ages, kids can get involved with programs like Trollwood Performing Arts School, Act Up Theatre or the Gooseberry Park Players, all of which offer education independent of well-established elementary, middle school and high school programs. Three of the area’s universities have academic theater programs and offer further opportunities for development.

Part of building confidence comes from giving kids a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves as an alternative to athletics, says Adam Pankow, a theater educator in the West Fargo School District who also heads their Summer Arts Intensive, which begins in June.

“Our responsibility is to get kids on the fringe,” Pankow says. “I just love that. We’re just a bunch of mismatches that have found each other, and we make art together. This is a place to belong and feel accepted and put yourself out in the world. This is a positive and creative place.”

The change Pankow sees in theater kids can be nothing short of extraordinary. Those skills translate into places far beyond the stage.

“I’m writing a ton of college recommendations right now, and I look at students I’ve seen over the course of four years. I think, ‘This kid freshman year could barely say their name.’ But now they’ve become these great and confident leaders, and that’s awesome,” Pankow says. “In terms of their maturity and growth, theater is a piece of that.”

Expanding options

New programs and existing programs are growing in size and scope. This proliferation of options might seem like overkill, with parents, students and audiences bewildered by Fargo-Moorhead’s expanding theater landscape. But Pankow counters that demand for these programs also continues to increase.

“Population-wise, all of our schools are just booming,” he says. “In the last 10 years, there’s been a dramatic shift in how our schools are valuing arts programs. And the bar keeps getting raised by our productions.”

Pankow says these programs are beginning to tinker with their schedules to accommodate each other, which gives more students a chance to be involved in one or another without overloading their time.

As these programs bring in more students, a few might get lost in the shuffle, says Justin DePaolis-Metz. He’s starting a new theater program, Spotlight On Youth, which works with students with special needs or who are caught between middle school and high school programs.

DePaolis-Metz understands theater is a crowded field, but adds that this is also a reason to refine their focus toward the kids who need it most.

“We wanted to supplement, not supplant, what was already out there,” he says. “And whatever they get from our programs, they can take to every other program. They can go anywhere and benefit from what they learn.”

It’s a point of pride for all of these educators that Fargo-Moorhead is a “theater town,” and that all these opportunities add up to more well-rounded kids and, ultimately, adults.

“What’s appealing to me about theater as opposed to other subjects is that you’re going to put every kid where they’re going to be most successful and where they’ll work together in the best way,” DePaolis-Metz says. “We can show each student their own personal success, as well as collective success, which is such a cool way to teach kids.”

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net/artspulse.