If I hadn’t started taking music lessons at age 5, I probably wouldn’t still be playing an instrument almost eight decades later. Although I thought it was going to be my profession, it turned out to be a life-long avocation. There’s no doubt that encouraging a young person to set foot on an arts pathway can have far-reaching consequences.
The Junior Company Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the Good Company Players, has been doing just that since 1978. I had seen them perform on a number of occasions, but became personally involved when some staff members worked in a Fresno Unified arts program recently.
JCF provides training in the performing arts with scholarships available for young people without family resources. They can apply to attend classes in singing, acting and dancing for free. The classes are held during the school year as well as the summer.
For example, this summer two students from Tehipite Middle School in Fresno are enjoying arts instruction – one in ballet and another in theater arts. All they had to do was fill out a one-page application and send it in as instructed on the JCF website.
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Summer classes in dance and voice are held once a week for six weeks, while a theater arts class emphasizing acting is scheduled for a daily three-hour session for two weeks. The ballet student was given dance shoes, and her parents were supplied with a gas card to get them to and from the JCF studio. Without this additional support, some Valley students would be unable to attend due to lack of family funds.
The Tehipite ballet student is learning about dance protocol. Her Mom says, “It looks like so much fun; I’d like to take that class myself.” She says she encourages her daughter not to give up when the lessons are hard.
“It’s giving her a lot of confidence,” she says. Her daughter is getting stronger from exercise and stretches and is hoping to take a gymnastics class eventually.
The young man in a daily two-week theater arts class “always has a smile on his face,” says his teacher. He’s happy to participate and follows directions well.” He thought it was going to be “just acting,” and when he found out there was singing and dancing, too, he didn’t want to do it. His mom convinced him it would be a good experience for him and he ended up enjoying all of it.
He said, “I never knew what a box step was, and now I know how to do it.” He would love to keep acting. His mom said he is very determined and she supports him in whatever he wants to do.
The Foundation also supports the Junior Company, which has been performing since 1978. The Juniors perform for 20 minutes prior to the Roger Rocka shows. The company consists of 18 to 20 young people, usually ages 8 to 16, who are willing to make a substantial commitment of Saturday rehearsal time and four to six performances per week over 14 to 19 weeks.
Although formal training is not a prerequisite for acceptance, students must maintain their school grade-point average of 2.5 (C-plus) to perform. The donations to the foundation pay for production staff, including directors, vocal coaches, choreographers and accompanists, as well as costumes, recording sessions and other related expenses. The Junior Company members can also receive scholarships.
The foundation engages in community performing arts outreach to foster the growth of theater audiences. Groups of students are invited to attend a free performance of a regular show at either Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater or Second Space Theater, and receive a backstage tour.
Each group receives lesson packets, including theater terms, history and themes of the show they will be watching, and an audience etiquette guide. These groups usually include many students who have never been to a live performance. To make it a really special occasion, the students receive a special intermission treat of a drink and dessert.
This year the foundation is planning on sponsoring three groups for each theater with a choice of 12 plays, so interested teachers should get their requests in early.
Another star may be in the making even today as Junior Company players move on to professional work. Is there another Audra McDonald, Chris Colfer, Heidi Blickenstaff or Sharon Leal in one of the classes today? Maybe it’s your daughter or son. Could be!
Francine M. Farber is a retired school district administrator and a full-time community volunteer. She and her husband, Murray, are supporters of the arts in Fresno. Connect with the Good Company Players at 266-1342 or gcplayers.com.