Education has been a hot-button issue in our state recently, and it's not just academics and educators who are getting in on the debate. Local actors and directors are filling a void in arts education by providing theater classes to area students of all ages.
Recently, Mindy and Joshua Barker, a husband-wife acting duo who've been active in Tulsa Spotlight Theatre, formed their own company, Encore! Theatre Arts. Through it, the couple offers acting classes for children ages 4 to 18, as well as acting opportunities for adults.
But even more recently, Encore! announced a partnership with The Playhouse Theatre Tulsa, founded by Oral Roberts University professors Chris Crawford and Courtneay Sanders, which is in its second season.
Through the collaboration, Encore! Theatre Arts will be Encore! Playhouse Tulsa and operate within The Playhouse Theatre Tulsa, acting as the company's youth theater -- plays performed by children -- component. The company regularly offers adult theater, and its Playhouse Playground series offers children's theater -- children's plays performed by adults -- component.
"Chris and I always knew from the beginning, when we started Playhouse, that youth theater was going to be a component of it at some point," Sanders, who is Playhouse's managing director, said. "And it is neither one of our specialties, so we always knew we would be bringing in other people to help run that part of the company."
Sanders said she and Crawford met the Barkers through a mutual friend, and local actress Tabitha Littlefield cast them both in their summer productions House and Garden.
"Both groups were being very successful on our own," Sanders said. "They don't want to do just youth theater; that's why they have Steel Magnolias in their season this year. They want to do an adult show. And we wanted to do youth theater. It kind of fulfilled a need for both of us.
"There's no reason for us to start a youth program when theirs is flourishing, and they're people we want to work with."
The Barkers began teaching youth theater classes last year as an outgrowth of the directing work they were doing within Tulsa Spotlight Theatre.
"A few years ago, we started getting parents asking us if we taught classes, and we kept saying, 'No, no we don't,'" Mindy Barker said. "And after a while we thought, 'OK there are so many parents asking us, why don't we do it?'"
They began teaching one class last summer at Spotlight, and as demand for their program grew, so did the number of classes offered and the number of children enrolled in each class. The capacity for each class is around 10.
For children ages 4 and 5, the Barkers offer "Baby Broadway," teaching kids role-playing and how to use their imaginations. They act out well-known fairy tales and children's stories, changing the characters or giving them alternate endings.
For 6- and 7-year-olds, the Barkers introduce readers' theater and begin instruction in character development and audition techniques.
Eight- to 12-year-olds get instruction in scene play and improvisation.
"We start doing improv games with them, and that's another way to help them break out of their shell without being tied down to a script," Barker said. "There's all sorts of improv games to help them think on the spot and learn reactions -- instead of just thinking about themselves -- and pay attention to what's going on onstage and listen."
The Barkers instruct teenagers in monologues and prepare them to audition for and study theater in college.
Classes are offered on Saturday mornings at Encore!'s studio at 15th St. and Peoria Ave.
In addition to the classes, children have the opportunity to perform in Encore!'s season of plays, which includes The Jungle Book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Steel Magnolias, Fame, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland.
Playhouse is also performing its own season this year, which includes Macbeth, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Love Song, Howie the Rookie and Shining City, The Great American Trailer Park Musical and Noises Off.
"This year is kind of weird because both of our seasons were announced, and we're going to fulfill both our seasons, but then going into next year, it will be more clear," Sanders said.
Mindy Barker, in addition to Encore!, also teaches drama and music at Stonebridge Academy in Okmulgee. She got involved in theater in high school at Bishop Kelley when she was asked to play piano for the school's production of The Fantasticks. The director made the pianist a character and gave Barker a role, and, after that, she was hooked. She performed in all of her school's plays after that and then started working with Spotlight.
"Honestly, I probably would have gotten into theater much earlier if the opportunity had been there when I was younger," Barker said. "My elementary and middle schools didn't offer anything in theater."
Spotlight and Clark Theatre also offer youth classes, and the success and popularity of those combined with the steady demand for more, proved to the Barkers that Encore! could be successful.
"Arts is not taking a priority in the schools anymore," Sanders said. "And it needs to. I think that people who grow up with an appreciation for theater and an appreciation for the arts carry that throughout their lives. I think it's our job, especially as a theater company, to educate the youth in our community, and this is a way for us to be able to do that."
Barker said she's also seen how the acting classes have given students more confidence and made them more outgoing, helping them make friends.
Eventually, Sanders said, Playhouse will offer adult classes as well, and her dream is for the company to, in partnership with a university, offer an MFA in acting.
"There are so many actors in Tulsa," Sanders said. "And I think that you never stop learning. I think, as an actor, when you feel like you've stopped learning is when you should start worrying. You can never get enough training."
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