By Suzanne Vanderhoef
The St. Louis Municipal Opera Theater – better known simply as The Muny—is the oldest and biggest outdoor theater in the country.
During its 100-year history, its relationship with the St. Louis community has evolved from just a grand venue for musical theater to include educational opportunities and outreach to the next generation.
“The Muny Kids and Teens have been around for basically forever,” explains Muny Managing Director Kwofe Coleman. “But in the most recent years looking forward, what we’ve added are educational programs that speak to a different audience. They speak to individuals who may not have access to musical theater or may not have access to trade training in musical theater. And what those two are, are the Technical Training Program and the Make A Musical program.”
The Make A Musical program is designed to connect local middle school students and teachers with professionals to give them the tools to put on a full Broadway Jr. musical. Those tools include a complete “show kit,” given by the Muny to the participating schools. Each kit contains scripts, karaoke CDs with the show music, a DVD with choreography and suggestions for set construction. The Muny then helps them put that all together and guides them toward being artistically and financially self-sufficient.
“They’re supposed to be with us for 3 years and each year we step back just a little bit more – always available but hoping that the teachers will take the reins and drive the program forward,” says Nancy Sherwin, Muny Director of Youth Programs.
By contrast, the Technical Theater Training program – or T3 – takes high school students off the stage and goes behind the scenes, teaching them the technical skills that take place backstage.
“We were looking at our outreach programs and growing them and we started the Make a Musical program, we were working with the high school musical theater awards program, and all of those are really based on actor, singer, dancers, so a few of us were like, what about us?,” asked Muny Production Manager Tracy Utzmyers. “What about the technical people who are just as vital to the theater as the actor, singer, dancers? What are we doing for those kids?”
Participants in T3 learn about set design and construction, painting techniques, and electronics and lighting. Skills that could give them a leg up if they choose to pursue a career as a stagehand or other backstage professional.
“The kids that are here, they’re here because they want to be here,” says James Spies, Muny Master Electrician. “They’re not here because they have to be. So, it’s really good to teach the ones that want to learn, because they’ll take it into a job in the future.”
But the overall benefits are a two-way street.
“This is not something that we see as an obligation but something that we see as an opportunity to give back to the community that has helped us be here for a century,” says Coleman. “We look forward to making that investment for another century.”