By Pat Launer
Most youth theater groups, says Courtney Corey, founder/director of the seven-year-old Theatre Arts School of San Diego, “are hyper-focused on the product. I think that does kids a disservice.”
Corey knows her way around a stage, having appeared in the original Los Angeles and Chicago companies of “Wicked” (ultimately as Elphaba) as well as both the 1st and 2nd National Broadway tours of “Rent” (as Maureen). An alumna of San Diego State University, she has performed locally at The Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Her philosophy of “placing value on process over product” must be working; this year, she was nominated for the 2020 Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre Education.
In her small program, she’s the primary instructor, with guests brought in for special skills or Master Classes. She has, thus far, served approximately 500 students, age 8-18.
“We’re not just focusing on performance,” she explains. “We also work on playwriting and devised theater. We do more plays than musicals, and zero in on the craft of acting, challenging the Euro-centric white-male view of theater. Yes, theater may have been born in Greece, but what about storytelling traditions have a long history around the world.”
She has traveled extensively, and worked with Colombian and Cuban artists, among others. These experiences, she says, “changed my approach and the theories I give kids.”
Now, undaunted by the constraints of the pandemic, she’s taking off in yet another direction, presenting a highly innovative mini-series film featuring 25 “emerging digital theater, animation and visual artists.” Those would be 25 of her students, age 10-18, who, she found through this process, possessed other talents she hadn’t dreamt of.
She wrote this latest production, “The Island of B.A.D. Kids,” and penned the lyrics for the seven original songs created by her husband, award-winning composer Matthew Armstrong, who was named 2015 Teacher of the Year for the San Marcos Unified School District. Armstrong and his brother did the mastering, in San Diego and Los Angeles.
The cast rehearsed for five months via Zoom. Students were provided with classes on how to utilize their phone technology to record audio files and film video sequences. They were given a workshop on animation voiceover and classes in filmmaking. They participated in art sessions and developed digital projects which became part of the film.
“They had to learn new techniques,” says Corey. “How to use their voice effectively for film versus stage (‘You don’t need a big belt,’ I’d tell them); where to place the camera and phone for recording. They sent me files, which now total about 1500. I asked them to send me video of ‘your feet walking’ or ‘you on a skateboard.’ The results were amazing. All of our kiddos are now filmmakers. And I’ve learned so much about them that I didn’t know. They had skills with digital animation, 2- and 3-D art. So many things they hadn’t utilized in our shared theater setting.
“The result is an amazing and unique piece of digital theater,” Corey says. “The piece comes in three 30-minute episodes, which will be posted two weeks apart. And it will remain available forever. So they can say, ‘During that crazy time, this is what I did.’ It’s pretty cool. And it does something to lift their spirits.”
The story of “The Island of B.A.D. Kids,” Corey explains, “begins the second week of March 2020, as news arrives that schools are being shut down. Students leave school with unresolved feelings, unfinished projects, and their plans for the remainder of the school year are unknown. Many of them feel BAD.
“They are castaways on their islands (their homes), shut off from friends, teachers and their community. After braving the swell of the initial storm, the waters calm, and they learn to use the resources on their islands. They discover art and music, which helps them connect with the outside world.
“Eventually, the bad feelings subside. And they learn that they are Beautiful, Bold, Brave; Awesome, Authentic, Amazing; Daring, Dynamic and Dope. I came up with those words to explain the title and the characters, because that is truly how I see these young artists. They ARE all those things.”
Corey is thrilled that the process allowed these students talk about their feelings: “their hopes and fears, about personal issues — like being scared about starting college — or larger matters, like climate change, racism, the pandemic, Black Lives Matter. It’s been very therapeutic.”
Corey feels strongly that this is not just a show for kids.
“It’s something everyone will like. The music is very hip. The concerns apply to all of us.”
The process has been a learning experience for Corey, too, who has acquired skills in filmmaking and editing. She found it exhausting but rewarding. Early on, she herself was sick for six weeks (“probably COVID”). She isolated at home (“food was brought to the door”) and worked on the show from her bedroom. Her husband briefly got sick, too, but thankfully, not her 16-year old son. On the final weekend before the premiere, she was back at Urgent Care.
For the grand opening on Aug. 30, Corey will do a quick intro before the Watch Party on Facebook. She and her husband are also creating a Spotify channel.
“The takeaway from all this,” she says, “is, you have resources within you. Sometimes you have to figure out how to use them. This show speaks to the moment. We may each be on our own island, but we’re all in the same boat.”
- “The Island of B.A.D. Kids” will be shown in three episodes, premiering on the Sundays of Aug. 30, Sept. 13 and Sept. 27 at theatreartsSD.org. All episodes will remain on the site long-term.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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