Hippodrome partnership brings theater to Lansdowne High

.@HippodromeBway partnership creating a new perception of #Lansdowne High

When "Phantom of the Opera" cast member Christopher Howard tells Lansdowne High School students to do a dance move one more time, it doesn't really mean one more time.

It means three or four more times, then adding another step. It means doing it with him counting out the beats, then doing it to music.

Howard is teaching the students to dance as if they're in a performance of "Phantom of the Opera," a musical that finished a run last week at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.

Howard is the assistant dance captain for the show, which is touring the country. Through the Hippodrome Foundation, he and three other cast members have come to the school to teach a master class in dance, singing and acting in 30-minute sessions. For about 4 1/2 years, the Hippodrome Foundation has brought artists in to teach through its partnership with Lansdowne High.

As the students practiced moves Feb. 3 to the number "Masquerade," Howard encouraged them to make their motions big. Big enough for someone sitting in the back to see the emotion they're trying to convey — joy.

"Make it really big — 'I'm having such a good time, this is so much fun!'" he said.

In the choir room, Tynan Davis and Kathryn McCreary are doing the same.

"What I need from you is a lot of diction. I need a lot of mas-quer-ade," McCreary said.

The song depicts a New Year's Eve dance six months after a chandelier was dropped in the opera house by the phantom.

"We don't say 'seething shadows, breathing lies,' we don't say those words on a daily basis, so enjoy that sensory expression," Davis said.

The students value having the performers visit because it gives them a chance to learn from people who have experience performing for a living.

"I learned to not be so nervous, and to put yourself out there," junior Violet Adams said.

Experiential learning

The performers can bring a dose of reality as well as professional lessons. During the choir exercise, one student complained that there wasn't enough time given to memorize the lyrics. In the real world, performers auditioning for a role get a packet three times the size they got in class, McCreary said, and the show's organizers tell them to come in the next day ready to perform.

"I'm just telling you how it's going to be," she said.

Howard said it was his first time teaching through the Hippodrome Foundation and that he enjoyed the segmented format of the class.

"I think that's really important because in a show like 'Phantom' we have to use all three of those skills on a regular basis," he said.

The challenge of teaching any class, not just high schoolers, is connecting with students who have multiple skill levels.

"It can be a challenge; you have to modify your classes and your teaching style on the spot to keep them engaged," he said.

During Howard's portion of the class, the students learned the moves to about 14 seconds of the dance number in 'Masquerade.' At the next station, in the choir room, they learned about 30 seconds of that song.

At the final station, acting, students practiced improvisation drills, passing words back and forth in a circle while conveying an assigned emotion, such as anger, fear or sadness.

"It's good to get to these kids on an almost grass-roots level," Howard said.

The value of art

Last year, the Hippodrome Foundation expanded its partnership with Lansdowne to include not only master classes for high school students, but middle schoolers as well.

"The partnership has just grown and grown," said Barb Wirsing, the foundation's education director.

"We believe that theater and the arts can be life-changing," she added.

The plan was to do the same this year, but a record blizzard the weekend of Jan. 22 caused a scheduling change at Lansdowne Middle, preventing students from attending the master class once school was back in session.

The snow also prevented students from watching a performance of "Phantom of the Opera" at the theater Jan. 28, though they plan on attending a different production there later in the school year to make up for the missed show, according to vocal music teacher Rob Tracy.

Tracy, who has worked at Lansdowne High for four years, said he thinks the partnership with the theater has enhanced the school's image as a performing arts destination for Baltimore County students.

"When the Hippodrome Foundation comes and does master classes and workshops with us, we become a conservatory for a day, and we try to maintain that level when they're gone," Tracy said. "Over the last several years we've grown and changed."

Lansdowne has been contributing a growing number of students to All-County ensembles, which comprise the best performers out of Baltimore County's 111,000 students. Making connections with careers in the arts encourages students to try more classes, such as band, choir and dancing.

"It's a mindset change for these kids," Tracy said. "From the outside, that's going to translate into the greater community here in southwest Baltimore County saying, 'Oh yeah, we better pay attention to what Lansdowne's doing because there's some great things happening.'"

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