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Introducing Theatre Ambassador Mairi Johnson

 

When Mairi Johnson found out about Park Square Theatre’s Ambassadors Program, she leapt at the chance to learn more by showing up at an Ambassadors Bring-A-Friend Day despite not knowing any Ambassadors. She subsequently became an Ambassador during her junior year in Mounds View High School and will continue in her senior year as an Ambassador2.

“I’ve been doing theatre for as long as I can remember,” Mairi told me. “I love theatre and everything about it.”

Applicants to Park Square’s Theatre Ambassadors Program do enter with great enthusiasm for theatre but are not expected to know everything about it. They’ve actually come to learn more and gain a broader perspective about theatre from professional theatre artists, by delving deeply into plays and through peer discussions.

“It was such an amazing experience of community,” Mairi said about her first year in the Ambassadors Program. “Everyone was incredibly supportive. I got to work with awesome performers and artists. I learned what they had to say and brought them into my school. This was a new experience of being able to interact with so many people I wouldn’t otherwise have interacted with, from professionals to peers. It was cool to hear different perspectives.”

Mairi has noticed that she now sees shows with a “theatre eye.” She thinks more about a play’s internal workings. She pays attention to how each song is sung. She searches for symbolism on stage and wonders about the choices made in a production. This new awareness has resulted in more nuanced conversations about productions with family and friends as well as a broadened taste in genres.

“Watching The Liar with my mom at Park Square last season, I found added layers of meaning in the use of the two-dimensional set and flat props. When I brought my friends to see Macbeth on the Boss stage, we talked about all aspects of the play in the car on our way home, like the unique take on the witches. Seeing The Realistic Joneses changed my perspective on what I’d like to see from just musicals to everything on earth. Now, I can’t wait to see Dot on the Proscenium this season.”

As an Ambassador2, Mairi spent this summer contributing to Park Square by helping with the program and assisting various departments. In doing so, Ambassador2s get insight into what it takes to keep a theatre running through their wider exposure to the organization, which includes meaningful interactions with staff who talk to them about what they do and how they got there. They also read and discussed some scripts of upcoming plays at Park Square Theatre.

“Mary Finnerty (Park Square’s Education Director) brought back some of our feedback so we were able to impact the shows,” said Mairi. “We even got to sit in on the first production meeting for Henry and Alice: Into the Wild. It was cool to see how everyone bounced ideas off of each other.”

When they apply for the program, candidates are asked “What does theatre mean to you now?” so I wondered how Mairi’s answer may have changed, having completed a full year of the ambassadorship. Here’s what she had to say:

“I knew theatre was about community, but my view of that keeps expanding. I’m able to interact and understand others in theatre better; I’m able to put myself in someone else’s shoes. For instance, at first I was focused on being frustrated by the lack of a robust theatre program at my school, but now I see how theatre has built a community in my school. I had to reflect on how everyone is having fun together and is like a support group. At Park Square, meeting all the Ambassadors and hanging out with them–like our trips to Candyland–is not something I’ll forget. They’re like my production family. I’m excited to reconnect with some of the same members as an Ambassador2 but also to meet new Ambassadors coming into this program that’s changed me.”

Not all Ambassadors ultimately pursue a career in theatre, but Mairi’s experience in the program did deepen her commitment to the field, and she will start auditioning for BFA programs at colleges this winter. She retained her resolve to become an actor but now with fuller knowledge about other possible options.

When asked what’s been most memorable about being in the Ambassadors Program so far, Mairi specifically cited her meeting with singer/actor Ann Michels to garner advice and insights during Career Day for the Ambassadors, when each get one-on-one sessions with three professionals.

Then Mairi added, “But there’s been so many OMG moments!”

Her final verdict for Most Memorable in the Park Square Theatre Ambassadors Program: “The entire thing!”

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ADDITIONAL FUN FACT: Mairi is Princess Birdie at the Minnesota Renaissance Faire, newly promoted from being a handmaiden in past years. As such, she’s a lead storyteller in the Princess Court. Drop by to listen to a story and say ,”Hi!”

NOTE: Read about the Theatre Ambassadors Program itself and another Ambassador’s experience in the past posts, “THE THEATRE AMBASSADORS PROGRAM: An Arts Leadership Program” and “Introducing Theatre Ambassador Greta Hallberg.”

Introducing Theatre Ambassador Greta Hallberg

Theatre Ambassador Greta Hallberg
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

In a previous blog post, “The Theatre Ambassadors Program: An Arts Leadership Program,” I’d promised to introduce you to two Park Square Theatre Ambassadors so allow me to first present Greta Hallberg, a senior in Minnehaha Academy. You will meet a second Ambassador in a future post.

Park Square’s Ambassadors Program originally offered only one-year ambassadorships to 10-12th grade students before also giving a two-year option for those interested in continuing. However, a few Ambassadors have wanted to stay for a third year, and Greta is one of them.

While a freshman in high school, a good friend had piqued Greta’s interest in the program, and she joined the Ambassadors during her sophomore year. With Minnehaha Academy being a relatively small school, she loved that Park Square would be able to offer her a more robust immersion in all aspects of theatre than her school could. She would learn about “all things theatre” through personal interactions with a slew of professionals in the field.

“I used to be more one-dimensional in my understanding of theatre,” Greta admitted. “All I knew was acting, but the program changed my perspective on what I may want to do in theatre from my talks with lighting designers, directors, stage managers, and so on. I have a better understanding of what goes into a show, and I’m now more open to my future options.

Another wow factor for Greta was that the Ambassadors Program provided a teaching artist of her choice to hold a workshop in her school, with the expectation that she would do the legwork to coordinate and advertise the event. This perk resulted in a visit by Stephen Houtz, who is a director, music director, actor, composer and vocal coach, to teach “Acting Through Song” in her school.

The community-oriented aspect of the Ambassadors Program was definitely a strong attraction for Greta. Not only did the program outreach to her school community, but it has also provided her with a strong community of theatre-loving peers who can freely and comfortably share and express ideas, opinions and thoughts with each other. That has been HUGE.

“I’m naturally more of an introvert so at first it was intimidating to make connections with people from other schools, but the friendships I’ve made through this program got me out of the bubble of just being in my school’s theatre program and really helped me to branch out a lot,” Greta said. “And each time we see a show together, we meet afterwards for a discussion. The kids are smart and have different perspectives on how they see things. Mary Finnerty (Park Square Theatre’s Education Director) encourages us to be honest about why we liked or didn’t like something, and whatever feedback we give is valued and respected. Mary has even shared our comments with people involved in the show, and sometimes they’ve taken our suggestions. I feel like our opinions really matter!”

Greta steadily became more aware of the interconnectedness in the Twin Cities theatre community as well. She would recognize actors whom she’d met or seen at Park Square Theatre on other stages in town. She noticed that the theatre professional who’d coached her on monologues as an Ambassador was involved in the Guthrie’s Native Gardens.

“I’ve also gained a broader human perspective,” Greta continued, “on how we connect with each other. Theatre creates empathy; it promotes empathy for people with different lives than our own.”

Besides theatre, Greta also has a strong interest in music, just like her mom, who is the band and orchestra instructor at Minnehaha Academy. Greta herself has been in bands and a youth symphony. She prefers the humanities, while her dad and brother veer towards the sciences but are invested in the arts as well. With still one more year of high school left and plans to attend college, Greta has plenty of time to explore her interests. But whatever her route in life down the road, Greta knows one thing for certain; she will always maintain the love of theatre that was further nurtured by her involvement in the Theatre Ambassadors Program at Park Square Theatre.

THE THEATRE AMBASSADORS PROGRAM: An Arts Leadership Program

Theatre Ambassadors Payton Anderson, Mairi Johnson, Catherine Vorwald, Soren Eversoll and Greta Hallberg (l to r) volunteered at Park Square this summer.
(Photo by Quinn Shadko)

The Park Square Theatre Education Program further invests in our teens through its Theatre Ambassadors Program. This program offers 10th to 12th grade students who have a passion for theatre the opportunity to more deeply explore its mysteries through workshops with teaching artists, talks with theatre professionals and discussions with fellow Ambassadors.

Education Director Mary Finnerty proposed the program in 1999, as she had been keenly aware of students she’d taught during her ten-year teaching career who were deeply passionate about theatre and loved to talk about it all the time, but who she described as “artistically lonely” in their schools. The funding for the Ambassadors Program was found in 2011.

In 2012, the Ambassadors Program was launched! Since then, many 10th to 12th grade students have applied to participate in this unique program, which requires a serious time commitment (Theatre Ambassadors meet one Saturday a month, for six to seven hours per meeting, from September to May) and tuition cost of $150 or $35 for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

As Ambassadors, the students:

  • Take Master Classes from professionals in Voice, Movement, Stage Makeup, Acting, Stage Combat and Musical Theatre.
  • Learn about Theatre Design (scenic, costume, lighting, sound) from professional theatre designers.
  • Attend six shows at Park Square and discuss them with their peers and the artists who created them.
  • Get career advice from theatre professionals.
  • Become a part of a group of teens from throughout the metro who enjoy theatre as much as they do.
  • Bring a free theatre workshop to their school or community.

However, the Ambassadors are expected to contribute, too. They must:

  • Attend all seven sessions. (Absences for theatre performances are excused.)
  • Plan and invite three students to an event to introduce them to the Theatre Ambassadors Program.
  • Connect a teacher artist to other students in their community by coordinating and advertising a theatre workshop to be taught in their school.
  • Read excerpts from scripts.
  • Blog or journal about their opinions and thoughts about the shows.

Initially conceived as a one-year program, some participants begged to continue for another year. Now they can do so as Ambassador2’s. As such, they spend the summer to not only help Education staff prepare for the incoming group of Ambassadors but also gain valuable insight into how a theatre runs by doing hands-on work to support various departments. So far, three students have actually done three years in the program so are technically Ambassador3’s.

While not all Ambassadors may ultimately pursue a career in Theatre, Park Square’s Ambassadors Program definitely impacts their lives and further enhances their love of theatre. Certainly, many have gone on to major in Theatre Arts but now with an expanded view of possibilities beyond acting. Past Ambassadors have also started their own theatre company or landed roles on the Park Square stage. And many of these Ambassadors have left the program intending to be physicians, teachers, microbiologists or other occupations who will love theatre forever and probably serve on Theatre Boards or work to keep arts alive in our community. In upcoming blogs, you will meet two Park Square Theatre Ambassadors to hear about their experiences in our program and the effect it has had on their lives.

If you would like more information on our Theatre Ambassadors Program, contact Quinn Shadko at 651.291.9196 or education@parksquaretheatre.org.

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