Annual Summer Triple Arts Intensive Completes Its Run

By: Aug. 31, 2013
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Walking into the downstairs lobby at National Dance Institute, into a silent gallery filled with Rauschenbergs and Al Hirschfeld caricatures, along with a collection of paintings, sketches, and other artworks celebrating dance, it's all deceptively quiet. There's no indication that in the next rooms, things are exploding with noise and chaotic fun. But when you pass through the side doorway, there are young teens tying shoes and downing water in the corridor, and in what was a former school gymnasium, more are filling a crowded relatively new dance floor.

Thirteen students, of various ages, heights, and backgrounds, are racing around the floor while their director, Charlotte d'Amboise - yes, she's due to be on stage in PIPPIN later in the day - is moving around and expending nearly as much energy as they are. They're working on their own arrangement of ANNIE'S "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile," this version featuring a fairly competent kick line and some floor work. They've previously been assisted in assembling the routine by choreographer Christopher d'Amboise.

It's mid-August in New York, and if it's hot outside on 147th Street, it's hotter in here, where the action is. This is the summer Triple Arts theatre intensive for teens, a two-week immersion program developed and run by Tony nominees (and triple-threats themselves), Terrence Mann and Charlotte d'Amboise. Students from twelve to eighteen, of varying degrees of prior experience, are learning theatre, dance, and vocal skills, and today they're rehearsing for the concluding production that will be the next day.

Mann and the d'Amboises are both working with the students that day, as is Broadway veteran and Tony nominee Liz Larsen. Mann, the d'Amboises, and Larsen are far from the only adults working with the thirty students in the program; there are professionals who'd be happy to have the collection of trainers who are inspiring this summer class.

Choreographer d'Amboise and Larsen explain that working with the children in the program can be particularly rewarding for everyone. D'Amboise explains, "I'm interested in reinventing the ways in which a scene can be interpreted. I want the kids to see what dance can do outside its traditional form to bring in the story." The dancers are certainly doing that with ANNIE, but they're also doing it with some of the music from MATILDA.

Larsen indicates, "The kids love doing Christopher's stuff - it's based in touch and feeling, not just step-kick. We've got kids dancing who have never danced before."

And eleven are experiencing that at the moment, with one of the songs from MATILDA, using a routine that they've developed with d'Amboise. They're working on "When I Grow Up," younger singers sitting cross-legged on the floor, older soloists singing out their lines cheerily.

Charlotte d'Amboise, directing them, is once again pouring in as much energy as is the cast. "This is a happy song," she explains to them. The rest of the crowd fills in on the dance floor as the singers come to the chorus. And indeed, what's sad about being able to watch cartoons all day "until my eyes go square"? Nothing, plainly.

"We teach them to be specific," Mann says, "have no fear, and know that there are no wrong choices. If you can do that, you can handle yourself in anything you do."

According to Mann, about a third of the students who come each year are returning from previous years' programs. That's the students' own choice - stage mothering is discouraged. However, parents do have a great deal to say about the program, usually about its impact on their children. Larsen says, "Just this morning I got a letter from a parent - we had his boy last year and he was very shy. They went on and on about how the program changed his entire life. You don't realize the effect you have when you teach art and expression." She adds that of those students who don't return, many are away with their families for the summer or they've moved. But all of the students aren't New York-based. "We've got kids from Annapolis, Maryland, and from Hershey, Pennsylvania. They stay with relatives. One comes in daily from Connecticut." Still others come in from Florida for the program. Not only are the students from various parts of the country, but they cut across class lines. Scholarships are available to help those whose families can't afford the entire program fee.

Every student in the program won't go on to be a theatre major in college, though a number will. Although many participants have been active in school or other amateur theatrics, others come in with little or no experience. None is required, and although ambitions are encouraged for those students who have them, there's no pressure to follow the footlights. The program faculty see a great deal of value in the program for any student, regardless of their backgrounds or their future plans. "It's for everyone," Mann says. "We've got kids who can do everything, kids who can do nothing. You can see in their eyes that they want to learn. They want to study musical theatre. It's great discipline even for ones who will never go into musical theatre."

He continues, "More than anything else, we're giving them a sense of work ethic. These kids have learned ten production numbers in ten days. They're working hard, and they're accomplishing these things." Along with the work ethic, there's also discipline, and, Larsen notes, developing that discipline makes it easier for the students to learn to express themselves.

Christopher d'Amboise adds, "In any encounters I have with teaching, we're all bigger than we think we are. Doing this gives them a sense of self-esteem. And there's some competition. Competition's healthy, too. I watched a Little League game the other day where no one was allowed to win or lose. It was going on for hours, just going - there wasn't any point or purpose. We're afraid of hurting kids by exposing them to competitive activities, but the real world is competitive." He goes on, "We help each of them find out what's really special about themselves and about how to express it. Every kid has their own special thing, their own super power."

The students on the floor have moved from "When I Grow Up" into another major number from MATILDA, "Revolting Children." The energy level has yet to drop; there are no wallflowers in the crowd.

How is Triple Arts different from other summer theatre programs for high school students? Larsen and Mann believe it's their emphasis on scene to song. "What Terry taught me," Larsen says, "and what we're trying to do here, is scene to song. And what's so different here is that the kids select the scene." As with the choreography, much of what's happening is partly student-selected, which helps keep the participants' interest high, even when things get tough.

Larsen explains that a foundation exercise in the program is that each student "has to stand up and sing in front of everyone. If you don't know a song, you sing 'Happy Birthday'. It's new and it's terrifying for them and it lets them out of the box immediately."

"And if you fail," Mann points out, "you learn how to get back up and do it again. And they all make the adjustment. You can see them come out of their shells." The students who are occupying the floor and rehearsing "Revolting Children" have definitely come out of any shells they may have had; they're certainly not showing any inhibitions in expressing themselves during this rehearsal. There are hands in the air, backs and arms against walls, and plenty of sound as well as movement - no one's having to remind them to sing out.

Mei-Lin and Tamar, two of the slightly older students in the program, agree with the faculty assessments. According to Tamar, "I'm gaining confidence from doing new situations - I'm singing solo lines now. That's new for me." The program is a safe space for experiencing that.

Mei-Lin, who wants to study musical theatre, believes she's getting experience in "living out a full day working on stage, keeping up energy all day. I've got these amazing people to help me do it." She says that the experience she's getting from the program - this is her third year in it - is crucial, both in terms of her development as an actor and because it allows her to see where she needs help, and how to get it. Larsen's point about singing in front of everyone else has been a challenge for her this year, as Mei-Lin was asked to sing a solo song from MATILDA. "I was panicking about performing in front of everyone and how I was going to portray it, but they helped me through it."

Tamar, about to start at Florida State, agrees that there are challenges. "Every day there are little things I have to push through. There's always a 'try this'. There is a lot being thrown at us, more than I've ever handled before, but they really help us."

The faculty agree with Mei-Lin and Tamar that every student comes up against their own wall, that every year, each one meets a hurdle they need to work through. It's their aim to help the participants find their own ways of meeting those challenges.

And the participants aren't the only ones who are learning from the program. The faculty have some learning experiences of their own. Christopher d'Amboise finds that "watching the students, you learn that the simple things really are big things."

Mann and Larsen agree that working with the students is a reminder of why they do what they do as actors. According to Larsen, "It makes me realize how I love doing this for a living. I feel like it saved my life when I was younger, and I can share that with them. I know that the experience may be the same for some of them, too." Larsen steps away to watch the students at work on their MATILDA routine.

Charlotte d'Amboise also comes up on some of her dancers, who may be enjoying their work just a little too much for the scene they're in. "No smiling!" the director chides, trying not to smile herself. "You're revolting!"

More information about enrollment inTriple Arts and about staff and faculty is available at its web page,

Photo credits: Angel Gardner/National Dance Institute