Explaining the boom

Students go backstage with Edison Theatre and K-12 Connections

Senior Melissa Freilich (left) and junior Claire Stark lead a workshop on stage combat in The Gargoyle. Photo by Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photo Services.

“The first thing we’re going to do is teach you how to throw a punch,” says senior Melissa Freilich.

No, it’s not Boxing 101. Earlier this fall, the Edison Ovations Series welcomed approximately 500 eighth-graders from across St. Louis for a special matinee performance by nationally acclaimed Aquila Theatre.

“Roughly one-third of our professional touring companies offer school shows,” says Ann Rothery, program coordinator for Edison.

Costs are underwritten by Edison and K-12 Connections, a partnership of WUSTL’s Community Service Office, Institute for School Partnership and Department of Government and Community Relations. In addition, Edison recently established a subsidy program to help defray transportation expenses.

“For a lot of schools, transportation is really the biggest hurdle,” Rothery says. For Edison, “it’s money well spent.”

“We just want to plant the seed that college is within their reach.”

Is your accent real?

And so, on a crisp fall morning, a fleet of bright yellow school buses ferries students into WUSTL’s Mallinckrodt Center. In Edison Theatre, Aquila’s mostly British-born actors perform excerpts from current production Taming of The Shrew. One unsuspecting guidance counselor, Tony Lippert of Hollenbeck Middle School, is drafted for the role of Baptista Minola, Kate’s overmatched father — much to the amusement of students.

Afterward, the actors joust with students during a good-natured Q&A:

Q: Is your accent real?
A: Is yours?

Senior Marybeth Stork leads a backstage tour of Edison Theatre. Photo by Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photo Services.

The most important thing is safety

Following lunch, approximately 200 students from St. Louis Charter School and Vashon and Metro high schools break into smaller groups for a series of 30-minute workshops — all developed and led by undergraduates from WUSTL’s Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences.

In The Gargoyle, Freilich and junior Claire Stark introduce students to the fine art of stage combat.

“Basically, there are three tricks,” Freilich explains. All exploit the same phenomenon: weak depth perception.

To demonstrate, Freilich and Stark align themselves parallel to the audience. Freilich throws a punch, missing by a yard. The group chuckles.

The pair rotates 90 degrees. Freilich throws the punch again, as Stark stomps a foot and launches herself backwards. The group gasps.

“The most important thing is safety,” Freilich says, as students begin pairing up. “Remember, you’re working with people you like — and you have to work with them again the next day.”

Is anyone afraid of heights?

Sophomore Ryan Blumenstein explains the finer points of theatrical lighting design. Photo by Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photo Services.

Other workshops include a game of Shakespeare Dodgeball and an interactive analysis of Taming of the Shrew.

Back in Edison Theatre, sophomore Ryan Blumenstein and senior Marybeth Stork lead a behind-the-scenes tour, introducing students to crew members as well as to the mechanics and terminology of sets, costumes and lighting.

“Is this the first time you’ve been on stage?” Stork asks, to a chorus of nodding heads. She gestures downward to a row of floor mics; upward to the two-story “fly space,” filled with ropes, pulleys and rails; and sidewise to stage right, where a large halogen lamp perches atop a slim black pipe.

“Lights on pipes,” Stork quips. “When a pipe is vertical, you call it a boom.”

Blumenstein directs attention outward. Dozens of additional lamps hang above the seats, suspended from steel scaffolding.

“Is anyone afraid of heights?” he asks. “I used to be, but you can’t get anywhere as a lighting designer if you stay afraid of heights.

“You spend a lot of time up in the rafters.”