Excelsior Arts Academy and Youth Theater opens to fill a gap in Auburn’s creative community

Have you heard about the youth arts academy that is opening in Auburn?

“It’s been kind of a missing piece of the puzzle of our community,” says Kent Johnson, Executive Director of the new educational group.

Although there is a thriving dance studio community in Auburn, and there are adult acting opportunities (like the Auburn Actor’s Theatre), there has been no comprehensive theater training for kids in the community. So Johnson decided to fill the gap.

That’s how Excelsior Arts Academy and Youth Theater came to be. 

“Excelsior means ‘ever upward,’ and that's what we hope our students achieve,” Johnson says. “Moving ever upward.”

But the realization of Excelsior Academy only happened after Johnson accumulated years of experience. As the technical director at DeKalb High School for many years, he co-directed more than 60 shows.

It was in 2011, when he helped lead the musical “Annie” at Dekalb, that a young audience member made a profound impact on him.

“A little girl in third grade stood up (as the policemen took Miss Hannigan away in the show), and she yelled, ‘Hurray!’” Johnson recalls. “That was pretty cool,” he says, chuckling.

The next year, his students did two single-act plays, and he had another realization.

“I looked at my wife and said, ‘When I’m done with high school, I want to get into youth theater,’” he explains.

Excelsior Arts Academy and Youth Theater is opening in Auburn.

Since then, the pieces of the puzzle have been “falling together,” Johnson says.

Mary Kay Clark, a teacher from Country Meadow Elementary, retired and became the Director of Drama for Excelsior. A former DeKalb High School student, Alicia Smith, became Excelsior’s Director of Stage Movement after selling her own dance studio in Garrett.

Then there was Shelley Johnson, Kent’s wife, who was the Director of Choral Music at DeKalb High School and now works as the vocal music and theater teacher at Northrup High School in Fort Wayne. She became Excelsior’s Director of Music.

“We’ve all been in education for years,” Johnson says. “We have over 100 years of (accumulated) experience (from all the educators who are part of Excelsior).” 

In January 2019, classes officially begin at the Academy, and enrollment is already open.

Classes will meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. But Johnson is careful to stress that they aren’t trying to compete with any of the dance studios in town, and they aren’t exclusively focused on theater as a profession.

“A vast majority of kids are not going to go into the profession,” he says. “But what we can help them find is poise, self-confidence, respect for themselves, and others.” Excelsior Arts Academy and Youth Theater's first show is Dec. 6-8.

The American Alliance for Theater Education says drama activities for youth can “help students improve reading comprehension and both verbal and non-verbal communication skills.” That’s Johnson’s hope, too.

Essentially, he wants students to learn life skills that will help them no matter what they decide to pursue in the future.

“Learning a monologue and delivering it will serve you well at a job interview,” he hints.

Something he is particularly excited about is a class called, “The Great American Songbook.” It will teach students about composers and lyricists of early modern Broadway stage productions, including artists like Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Richard Rogers, and Oscar Hammerstein II.

“I think it’s really our job to expose these kids, to (help them) know how Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of Broadway hit ‘Hamilton’) built on the backs of all these previous composers and lyricists,” Johnson says.

In this class, students will choose different works to learn and perform for their peers.

Excelsior has an ambitious program of public performances scheduled for the coming year, too. A musical will happen in March, followed by plays in July, and a Christmas production in the 2019 holiday season.

For students who have other obligations and are not able to be part of the big productions, Johnson says that there will be two annual showcases, as well, in which they can perform.

But anxious patrons don’t have to wait to see Excelsior’s first show.

To “announce our presence to the world,” as Johnson puts it, Excelsior is giving four performances of “A Christmas Carol,” from December 6-8. Actors in this tale include people “as young as 5 and as old as 73,” Johnson says.

Performances will be given at First United Methodist Church in Auburn, and tickets are can be purchased online from Brown Paper Tickets.

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