When Kathryn Wind was a freshman at Rosemount High School, having earned the coveted title role in a school production of The Diary of Anne Frank, she and other cast members went to see the same play at Park Square Theatre in downtown Saint Paul. Little did Wind know then that, starting at age 23, she would go on to play Anne at Park Square, from 2009-14.
“It’s an immensely satisfying role to play. As an actor, you are able to experience almost the whole range of human emotions in this play,” says Wind. “Anne experiences wonderment, mischief, young love, fear, finding strength and finding out who she is.”
While the majority of students who attend productions at Park Square Theatre in the Hamm Building do not get the chance to live a character’s life on stage as Wind did, thanks to the innovative education program at Park Square, they are able to experience the stories as audience members.
C. Michael-jon Pease, executive director, says that each year approximately 32,000 students in grades 7-12, from all over the state and western Wisconsin, attend school performances specifically targeted to them. Tickets are offered at a special rate. For the 2015-16 season, there are 11 productions featuring school shows. And including the adult audience members who attend evening and weekend performances, approximately 80,000 people visit the theater annually.
“There’s such value to the arts in education,” says Pease, who has been at Park Square since 2000 and director since 2012. For that reason, the theater is committed to ensuring that students get as much as possible out of the live theater experience.
“We have an educator advisory board, made up of working teachers, who advise us on topics like programming, logistics and workshops. They also write the pre-show study guides for the schools,” he says, adding that the guides are written at an accessible seventh-grade level. The study guides feature information about the character and plot, as well as details to help reinforce the production’s historical or cultural context.
Another popular feature of the school shows is the opportunity for the cast to come out prior to the performance, in street clothes, to talk informally about the show. “They may also talk with students about how a particular pivotal moment in the play is built, and then the students will recognize that during the show,” says Pease. “It’s nice for the students to meet the actors as real people first. I think that has its own impact.”
Park Square Theatre has renovated several facets of its performance spaces – the proscenium stage, which seats 348, and the Andy Boss thrust stage, with seating for 200. The latter was named for Boss, a longtime benefactor of Park Square and an active member of several nonprofit and arts boards.
“We like to compare the large theater to a traditional grand hotel, and the Andy Boss theater is more of a boutique hotel,” says Pease. Each theater now has an enhanced and dedicated rehearsal space, which has been a boon, given the number of productions Park Square presents each season. Additionally, there is an elegantly casual lobby space, also updated, which serves both theaters by offering a full service bar.
Recent productions at Park Square Theatre include Nina Simone: Four Women, the story of the legendary jazz singer, and Love Person, which is a story of language, both American Sign Language and Sanskrit. Focusing on diversity in subject matter, actors and writers is an important focus when it comes to putting together a season, says Pease.
Again this spring, The Diary of Anne Frank will be featured in student performances, through April 29. Wind, who is pursuing a master of arts in teaching (language arts), says that her inspiration to pursue education occurred in part because of “my involvement with Diary and watching young minds make exciting connections.”