Youngsters who want to be in a play or sing in a show have many opportunities. Local schools present plays and musicals that were Broadway hits and students get a taste of real “show biz,” which is often the highlight of school year.
In September, 2011, Wiremill Academy of Theater Arts for Young People brought performance and education to a new level. In addition to the thrill of acting and singing in student productions, at Wiremill, young people are taught the professional skills of acting and singing, by faculty members who were stars themselves.
The three founders of Wiremill are Mary Jo Duffy, who has performed on Broadway, internationally and in film and TV. She was in the European tour of Show Boat, and in regional theaters, in Steel Magnolias, West Side Story, Carousel, Oklahoma! and more. She has directed musicals at schools in Connecticut, including the Wilton Summer Children’s Theater.
Rick Hilsabeck is an actor, singer, dancer and teacher with more than 30 years experience on Broadway, national tours, the concert stage as well as the dance world. He starred as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera for more than 1,200 performances and was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Billy Elliott, Guys and Dolls, Ragtime, The Music Man and more. He has also been helping local schools with their productions, teaching a cockney accent to the cast of Oliver and French accents to the cast of Les Mis.
The third founder is Sarah Pfisterer, who is Mr. Hilsabeck’s wife, was Christine in Phantom of the Opera for more than 1,000 performances, and in Show Boat, Sound of Music, Carousel, My Fair Lady, The King and I, Meet Me in St.Louis, to name just a few.
All three live in Wilton. All three come from families of educators. They created Wiremill Academy as the next stage of their professional lives, based on their personal joy and commitment to teaching young people theater arts, which they believe teaches them the joy of discovery, confidence that comes from practice and the power of creative expression.
This spring, they created two productions, Once on This Island, Jr., a musical featuring third to sixth grade students, which was staged last weekend, and Little Shop of Horrors for sixth grade to high school students, which will be performed at The Wilton Playshop Saturday and Sunday, June 8-9.
“We are teaching our students what acting is really all about,” explains Ms. Duffy. “We’ll take a scene from a play, one scene, and we may spend forty minutes working on all the fine points. They don’t just read lines, they learn that everything they’re saying is for a reason, they want something, and that insight and training provides the energy, the emotion, the essence of real acting. Teaching that to children is very gratifying. It’s not just being in a play. They’re learning diplomacy, finding another way, thinking on their feet. When parents ask me ‘Do you think my child has it?’ That’s beside the point. Their skills are money in the bank of life, they’re learning how to think.”
Wiremill Academy just moved to 12 Old Mill Road in Georgetown. The academy started with about 75 students, now there are 150, from kindergarten to high school, from schools in Wilton, Redding, Weston, Ridgefield, Bethel, New Canaan, Westport. There are group lessons in musical theater, acting, dancing for boys, acting for the camera and audition classes. There is private instruction in voice, acting and dance.
Arlene Litt of Ridgefield, a parent of one of the students, has become Wiremill’s most devoted volunteer. “We couldn’t do it without her,” Mr. Hilsabeck said. Her son Jacob will be in Little Shop of Horrors. Arlene says she’s seen firsthand how Wiremill has become one of the most creative environments for young people. Her son Jacob, 17, who goes to Ridgefield High School, and is a talented singer, has been in many musical school productions. “It started young,” she said. “When he was asked what he wanted for Christmas at age 3, he said, ‘A piano.’”
Mr. Hilsabeck said that friends and fellow actors occasionally ask “Why aren’t you still performing?” He tells them: “That was great, but personally, it’s time to move on. Performing is in our blood. We’ve had such great teachers all our lives, we want to bring this to our students. It’s a great joy to know that we’re passing that knowledge on.” Many director and actor friends still active in the business will be brought in to give master classes.
Wiremill Academy is offering a three-week summer camp from July 15 to Aug. 2, for third grade through high school. Children will be divided into age groups for morning classes and instruction in voice, movement and acting, with rehearsals in the afternoon for a cabaret-style production.
Little Shop of Horrors will be staged Saturday, June 8, at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, June 9, at 3 p.m. at The Wilton Playshop, Lovers Lane. For ticket information, call 203-544-9494.