Arts & Entertainment

Theater for Young Minds at Raue Center’s Mission Imagination

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These young thespians are learning their trade at an early age, from a variety of big-name performers. Learn how this Crystal Lake theater is extending its mission beyond the performance venue.

Raue Center Mission Imagination

Raue Center’s Sage Studio workshops often include a live performance for friends and family, where students show off what they’ve learned.

Three years ago, Crystal Lake eighth-grader Lizzie Hendricks was looking for a summer program that would help her to sharpen her acting and singing skills. A friend suggested Sage Studio, a series of theatre workshops offered by the Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., in areas such as acting, musical theatre, improvisation and theatre tech.

Hendricks, now a 15-year-old high school sophomore, signed up for a class and became hooked. Every summer since, she’s attended different classes, where she’s building on her skills and learning from professional actors.

“The program has had a huge impact on me,” says Hendricks. “What I’ve learned from the instructors was invaluable. I learned what the pros go through during their training. They’ve explained the process, how to go through an audition, how to learn from a director’s feedback, even how to have a professional headshot taken. These resources will help me as I get further along in my career.”

Lizzie’s mother, Jenny Hendricks, has seen incredible progress in her daughter, thanks to the Sage Studio programs.

“From the first time she participated in the camp, it was a warm and accepting environment for all of the children, whether you were one of the more experienced ones or willing to try it for the first time,” she says. “That’s key for the kids. They’re putting themselves out there. It helps to meet other kids with similar interests. I have one child who’s an athlete, and I can find sports leagues for him to gain that extra edge. But for kids with theater or singing talents, it was always difficult to find a place to take them.”

Sage Studio is the educational component of a larger initiative called Mission Imagination, the Raue Center’s educational outreach program that offers performances for area children, both at the theatre and in the schools. Mission Imagination started in 2001, thanks to the work of Richard Kuranda, the center’s executive director, and Bill Dwyer, a former board president.

“At the time, we envisioned a studio program where kids and adults could come and learn a craft for the stage or for film,” says Kuranda. “The first couple of years provided small, intense workshops and not performances. We were lucky to work with people like [members of] the [famous] Coppola family, [film actors] Colin Mitchell and Daniel Stern, and [cinematographer] Tom Stern.”

In the past 12 years, more than 200,000 children have attended Mission Imagination and Sage Studio programs. The Mission Imagination performances are designed either as school field trips to the Raue Center or school assemblies during school hours.

This year’s schedule included live theatrical productions of Bunnicula, Martha Speaks, The Velveteen Rabbit, and Walk On: The Story of Rosa Parks. It wraps with a performance of Short Stories and Tall Tales of the American Hero. Past Sage Studio classes have encompassed theatre, as well as filmmaking and sculpture.

“Mission Imagination draws participants ranging from preschool to high school, from surrounding areas such as Schaumburg, Hampshire and Barrington, and runs from October through April,” says Kate Wilford, general manager of the Raue Center. “Thanks to the support of The Foglia Family Foundation, tuition for each course is only $100 per student for the Sage Studio classes, and Mission Imagination performances are $6. ComEd joined us two years ago in this pursuit. These kids wouldn’t have these opportunities without the generosity of our donors and the support of our board of directors.”

Top-Notch Instruction

Lead Sage Studio instructor Amanda Flahive has 17 years of theater experience. As an inaugural company member of Williams Street Repertory, she appeared at Raue Center this past season with The Rocky Horror Show; Company; The Fantasticks; It’s a Wonderful Life; and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Flahive served as the associate director of Prairie Fire Children’s Theatre in Minnesota for five seasons, and has appeared in several regional and touring productions across the country.

Flahive is determined to provide educational opportunities for children who may not otherwise have the opportunity.

“Amanda has been with us since the beginning,” says Wilford. “She’s got the educational background, which is great, and she relates well with the kids. When we were thinking about expanding the program, Amanda was one of the first ones we thought of, because of her background and personality. She was an obvious choice.”

Flahive is joined at Sage Studio by several professional actors with regional credits. Some are lifetime members of the Actors Studio or have performed either on Broadway or Off-Broadway. A few years ago, award-winning actress Elaine Bromka, known for her roles in the film Uncle Buck and several television shows, took part in Raue Center’s workshops.

“A lot of the actors have day jobs,” Wilford says. “This is their release and their passion. This keeps them grounded in who they are and what they enjoy doing.”

This year, Sage Studio launches four workshops that touch on a range of theatrical skills. With class sizes of just 20 students, these youth have the opportunity to interact personally with their instructors.

Starting this spring, Sage Studio offers a new six-week advanced program, designed for teens who are preparing for college theatre school auditions, spring and summer shows, or audition callbacks. This Triple Threat Workshop is offered every Saturday from April 6-May 11, for three hours a day. Students will learn from theatre veterans, focus on practical techniques, and discuss strategies in acting, singing and dancing – all in an effort to make them more well-rounded performers.

To qualify for this and many other workshops, students must demonstrate an appreciation for musical theater and submit a video audition of a song.

The Musical Theatre Workshop is an intensive three-week course that focuses on acting, singing and dancing. This year, it’s held from June 10-27 and July 8-25 for students ages 14-18. These workshops include guest instructors and special sessions on audition technique, improvisation, movement and vocal health.

Also this year, Sage Studio holds its first-ever technical theatre workshop, July 8-11. The one-week course focuses on audio and lighting technologies for students involved in anything from high school theatrical productions and worship services to local bands.

This year’s final session is an advanced scene study workshop for high school actors, Sept. 7-28. Students will work in small groups on scenes from contemporary plays, with a focus on making bold choices, understanding character analysis and learning strategies for making “the moment” come alive on stage.

Discovering Passion

Flahive and her fellow instructors are deeply passionate about their work and sharing it with local children. Whether through Raue Center workshops or Mission Imagination programming, Flahive is determined to provide educational opportunities for children who may not otherwise have the chance.

“There are so many studies that show how music and theatre improve children’s self-esteem and carry over into their educations,” she says. “It helps with their discipline, and it teaches them how to get outside of themselves. We draw every type of kid with both programs. Kids who are involved with Mission Imagination maybe have never seen a show. Maybe Sage Studio will light a fire under some of them. It’s giving kids the courage to dream big. With younger kids, it’s a matter of getting them comfortable. It’s about breaking down those filters and getting them to feel comfortable onstage. With a younger student, that’s where you start. It’s getting them comfortable talking in front of people and being silly. It’s also about freeing their creativity.”

Still, it’s a long shot that these youngsters will someday become professional actors, a reality Flahive shares with her students. “In this business, there’s going to be negativity at every turn,” she says. “There are going to be critics, tough directors, tough auditions and hurdles along the way, so it’s important to stay positive.”

During the first class of every program, Flahive displays a poster board with the number “4” written on it, and asks the kids if they know what it means. “It’s the percentage of people who pursue acting that are actually making a living at it,” she says. “It’s a dramatic statistic. You’re fighting a tough battle, but it’s a battle that can be won. It takes 100 percent commitment, 100 percent focus on your craft, and it takes things like these programs. It’s teaching the kids to find that ambition, and to be comfortable in pursuing that passion.”

When Lizzie Hendricks first began taking Sage Studio improv classes, she didn’t know what to expect. “I was nervous,” she says. “When I got there, however, I saw how nervous other people were. That was settling for me, and I also saw how passionate they were, just like me.”

Hendricks started singing at age 7 in her church choir. Singing will always be her main love, but since enrolling in Sage Studio, she’s developed an equal passion for acting.

“I enjoy putting in the hard work,” she says. “The payoff for me is doing it onstage and getting that huge applause at the end. I enjoy making people laugh and cry – it’s a heartwarming feeling. I’ve gotten better, thanks to Sage Studio. It’s gotten me to where I am today. But I know I can get better.”

It’s Wilford’s hope that the Raue Center can expand its offerings to area children who want to explore a future in the arts.

“I would love to see a wide range of classes offered to all ages of children,” she says. “We want to offer programs that serve as many people as possible. That’s our ultimate goal, for both Mission Imagination and Sage Studios. We have to keep the arts going. We can’t let them go away. These kids walk away from these programs with new skills and new friendships. This may be the only opportunity some of these kids get.”

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