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Pine Creek High School Theatre goes the extra step, creates powerhouse program

April 7, 2017 Updated: April 8, 2017 at 7:02 am
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Pine Creek High School Theatre students from right to left, Geoff Frederic, Jacob Saisi, Brandon Hansen, John Herman, Lex Bliss Turner Cash and Donovan Kriskowski practice a dance routine for their production of "Beauty and the Beast" at the high school on Thursday March 23. 2017. Carol Lawrence, The Gazette

Possible adjectives for high school kids: lazy, petulant and bored.

The words best used to describe Pine Creek High School Theatre students: engaged, diligent and invested.

These are teenagers who, on the last day of classes before spring break, show up to an after-school rehearsal of the forthcoming musical production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and put together a schedule to meet and practice during their week off.

As she gives notes to the cast, theater director and instructor Carrie Barnhardt-Roberson, known as BR to her students, assures everyone vacation rehearsals weren't her idea.

"But I am endorsing this," she said. "I'm proud that you took the initiative to do this."

It's that drive, under Barnhardt-Roberson's guidance, that has created a theater program to rival that of any fellow community or professional theater. Corey Wiggins, a 2008 Pine Creek graduate who now teaches social studies at Gateway High School in Aurora, spent four years performing in shows with Barnhardt-Roberson and recently directed Gateway's production of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "In the Heights."

Now that he's been out and about in the world for a number of years, he can look back and reflect on how Pine Creek's program stacks up against others, including that of his alma mater, the University of Colorado.

"It's almost incomparable," Wiggins said. "My experience doing theater at CU Boulder was amazing but never as professional and I never worked with a director as thoughtful or that pushed their actors the way BR does. Coming to work at my school, the culture we have for theater does not exist. We've got some super-talented students, but they might miss rehearsal for silly reasons and that was just unheard of for BR. Not because of fear but because of dedication to the excellence that she was creating."

That striving for greatness led to a noteworthy coup, in terms of high school theater - having their 2015 spring production of the Broadway musical "Xanadu" (yes, that one - with the roller skating, Olivia Newton-John character and Electric Light Orchestra music) selected as a main stage production at that year's International Thespian Festival at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. About 40 high school theater departments apply each year and only five shows are chosen. It was the first time a Colorado Springs school was selected.

Though there was no money to be won and the high school had to pay to transport both the crew and set to the week-long training and performance intensive, the accolade is one any director or student would want on her resume or college application.

"They are the .001 percent of the population," said Doug Berlon, deputy executive director, education and content, for the Educational Theatre Association, which puts on the festival. "It's by far the top pinnacle of any national organization around theater and theater education. Five thousand people could potentially see the shows. The best people in the world are watching the best people in the world perform."

Berlon still remembers the performance.

"It was hilarious and sweet. They were unbelievable," he said. "It's a tricky show because it's campy and silly, but you can't totally make the characters so fake that there's no heart in it. They were easily one of the crowd favorites."

Leader of the pack

Barnhardt-Roberson came to Pine Creek in 2002 and has since elevated the school's theater program to such lofty heights that students from around the region use Academy District 20's Choice Enrollment Program to become part of it. "In essence it's creating its own magnet without being a magnet program," she said. "They come because they want the training, they want the experience. Usually kids who are more serious or driven, they realize it's better to be a small fish in a big pond and learn more than being a bigger fish in an environment where they're not as challenged."

Ryan Maikell, a 16-year-old junior, is one of those students. The transfer student from Falcon Middle School has performed in six shows, including "Xanadu," and dreams of becoming a professional performer.

"I knew this was the place I had to come if I wanted those goals to come to fruition," he said. He stars as Beast in the musical that opens Friday. "I didn't know about her, but I knew the reputation she had created. She's taught me how to live and love and how to put every experience, hardship and struggle I've had into the performance and into a release and escape."

The auburn-haired director, who has a propensity for shelving a writing utensil behind one ear, earned a bachelor of fine arts in musical theater from the University of Michigan and a master's in educational leadership from San Diego State University. She taught at Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts and stage managed for the San Diego Civic Dance Company. In 2008, she received the Colorado Senior High Theatre Educator of the Year award from Alliance for Colorado Theatre, a professional organization for theatre educators.

One might presume the theater instructor's CV is littered with both big and small roles, but it's never been the spotlight she craved, though she did act in college productions, most notably as Dolly in the Broadway musical "Hello, Dolly!" Instead, it's always been the director's chair that called to her.

"I have always been able to see the whole picture in my head," she said. "I feel like I can create the larger perspective of what the whole piece should be more than just one part of it and I excel in communicating to actors, especially young actors, how to convey things."

It's showtime

What's striking during rehearsals are the leadership roles the students take on. As the cast gathers - a mishmash of freshmen through seniors and even six middle schoolers - it's clear how seriously they take their participation in the production.

"How do we know how good we can get if we aren't consistently giving and showing up to the table?" said Maikell to a couple dozen of his fellow actors as he guides them in vocal and physical warm-ups on stage.

"Guys, too much negativity, too much," said Brandon Hansen, who stars as Gaston.

As the students give each other pep talks, Barnhardt-Roberson quietly circumnavigates the auditorium and stage, checking items off her to-do list and keeping track of the rehearsal schedule. When the warm-up ends, she gathers students for notes as they sit with pads and pens, poised to catch any feedback that might enhance their performance. Criticism can be challenging for any performer, high schooler or not, but these young people already understand it's the only way to improve.

"To be able to take criticism well is definitely something I've learned from this experience and being in this program," said 17-year-old senior Ellie Swanson, who stars as Belle. "It's something at first I didn't really like - you're always being told things you can be doing better - but it's such a good life skill because you need that in every job or anything you'll do."

These are no bare bones productions, either, even though the department receives $1,200 each year, a far cry from the close to $40,000 budget for "Xanadu," which included hiring a professional flying company to help with a flying horse; a fee to bring Thespian Festival adjudicators to screen the show; and a portion of the travel costs to attend the festival.

The program is self-funded through ticket sales, donations and production fees from students - about $200 per teen per show.

This year's "Beauty and the Beast" has a budget of about $12,000, a slimmed-down number because Barnhardt-Roberson hopes to make enough money to purchase a new microphone system and take another show back to the festival.

Ticket prices are also higher at Pine Creek than other high schools, but Barnhardt-Roberson believes you get what you pay for.

"The difference between this and another high school is our quality is very high," she said. "You will definitely get a professional-feeling production."

Secret to success

Barnhardt-Roberson credits the school's success to the artistic team of independent contractors she's assembled - there's Ruth Schubarth, Pine Creek's music director who also does most of the set design, choreographer Debi Spencer, sound and lighting consultant Matt Stoneback and acting coach Kody Maynard, a former Pine Creek theater student who now teaches at Challenger Middle School.

"All the adults that work with us are at the top of their game," said Maikell. "It's crazy to think we're even working with them. It's an incredible environment to learn in."

Performing at the Thespian Festival also netted them a connection with Emmy Award-winning TV writer Cherie Steinkellner who wrote and produced the sitcom "Cheers" in the 1980s and '90s. Steinkellner was there to watch another high school perform her musical "Hello! My Baby" and asked Barnhardt-Roberson and Schubarth if Pine Creek would do the regional premiere of her show. It opened last year and Steinkellner held a master class for students.

In many ways it all comes down to the work ethic and attention to detail Barnhardt-Roberson has instilled in these teenagers. She cites a few days earlier in the week when she was ill at home and students texted to ask how they could help get the show ready.

"I feel like teaching excellence is really important as a life skill for all students," she said. "We talk about this all the time. It's way more than doing a strong performance. It's teaching integrity and follow through and teaching that you do your best to your ability and you push yourself no matter what you're doing. How much further can you grow? How much further can you go beyond where you thought you could go, which are skills you'll use in whatever you end up doing in life. I build kids' confidence. There's a delicate balance between arrogance and confidence, and we teach them to go right up to the line of that."

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