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Workshop Helps Teens Find Their Own Voice

Students at the theatre workshop.

Students expressing themselves at the theatre workshop.

By Jay Fields

High school students who participate in summer workshops at UT’s Clarence Brown Theatre come into the program from a wide sea of circumstance. One painfully shy. Another adrift in grief from the loss of a parent. A third, street-smart and angry, and worried about acceptance.

But for each teenager who makes the commitment, something invariably happens to change things. By the end of two weeks of voice lessons and improvs and performances, there’s a shift. The heart lightens, the world offers a new slate of possibilities, there’s a willingness to take risks that wasn’t there before.

“To begin with, there’s a lot going when you’re in your mid-teens,” says Carol Mayo-Jenkins, UT resident artist and workshop coach. “You’re trying to figure out who you are, how you fit in. You’re discovering you’re different from your parents. You’re learning to use your own voice, maybe for the first time.

“Then we get into this work, nine to four every day. It’s a lot of physical work. There are exercises and games and technique development in the morning, scenes and musical numbers to run through in the afternoon,” she says. “We set up a very positive experience. We suspend judgment. We encourage a sense of daring. So everyone is more willing to take risks. And when someone falls down, everybody supports them. We dust them off and they get right back in the game, usually with a lot of laughter.”

A Theatre of Change and Growth

The Clarence Brown Theatre High School Acting Workshop, founded in 2001, enrolls 30 to 40 high school students each summer in two separate intensive workshops. Past participants, from Tennessee and seven other states, have worked on skills that include basic acting, improvisation, voice, movement, and musical theatre technique.

“There’s no audition,” says Terry Silver-Alford, UT Theatre Department faculty member and director of the program, “just an interest in performance.

An acting couple.

An acting couple.

“Over the past few years,” he continues, “we’ve added a musical theatre component. Students are assigned duets from Broadway musicals, receive voice coaching, and learn one or two large ensemble numbers that require singing and dancing. All these pieces are presented in a final showcase, which includes acting scenes from major American plays.”

For each student, the theatre at hand is a theatre of change and growth.

“You meet your coaches—like Carol and David Alley—and they’re really accomplished actors with great careers, and you realize, ‘You know, they’re people too. I can do this,'” says Rachel Winfrey, a workshop participant for four years and a recent UT theatre graduate. “What’s going on opens you up emotionally. And, let me say, there is some awesome socializing. You’re part of a family.”

Rachel, who has assisted in the workshops, talks about students adapting to games, to improv situations, to different ways of thinking and doing things.

“You might jump rope while delivering lines from Shakespeare,” she says. “It’s amazing. And it’s amazing to see how much it can mean.”

In a stage exercise, one young man wrote a rap song to his father whom he had never known. “It came out of a big group scene where the actors stepped forward with a monologue they had each written,” says Carol. “It was extraordinary. All the monologues were stunning.

Exposing the Talent

“The most surprising experiences for me are those times when this sort of unrealized ability just comes out in one of the kids. I don’t really know what talent is but I do know when a student puts something of themselves forward—that is amazing. Often it’s just for the moment—something they are able to reach inside themselves—something unforgettable.”

And, says Carol, “I think when it pops loose, when it comes up in a performance, yes, I think they recognize it too.”

“These are kids from across every spectrum,” Rachel says, “and they’re pushed at the same level. They grow, they learn, they come into a light heart.”

In addition to Carol Mayo-Jenkins and Terry Silver-Alford, David Alley, another honored professional actor and UT resident artist, takes a major role in workshop coaching, as well as Jimmy Brimer who has musically directed a raft of shows at the Clarence Brown over many years of service to the university and to its theatre.

“In Tennessee,” says Terry Silver-Alford, whose own daughter is a recent participant, “there’s nothing quite like these workshops.”

For further information, contact Terry via email at tsilvera@utk.edu or phone 865-974-6011. Student participants pay a fee for workshop attendance.