If you’ve seen hordes of young people running through downtown Helena in orange shirts over the past two weeks, you’re not alone.
The Grandstreet Summer Theater School ran from July 11 to 22 for grades 3 to 12. Students arrived around 9:00 a.m. and finished around 5:00 p.m. each day
That year, around 200 students attended the third through twelfth grade program, 60 attended the kindergarten through second grade program, and 10 attended a special audition-only program. All these students were accompanied by around 55 lecturers and employees.
The program was scattered around downtown, taking place at Hill Park, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Park Tower, two plazas on Fuller Avenue and, of course, the Grand Street Theater.
“They bring directors from all over and[students]connect with actors who have been all over the United States,” said Ashlyn Gasmick, a freshman at Capital High School who has attended Grandstreet’s summer school since sixth grade . “You make a lot of friends here. A friend of mine is from New York and just comes here for the Grand Street summer program.”
Following the COVID-19 closure, the Summer Theater School transitioned to a hybrid learning style both outdoors and indoors. Marianne Adams, director of education at Grandstreet, who has been in theater for 35 years, noticed an increase in empathy among theater students as they are exposed to and interact with more people outside.
“I don’t want that to be the primary focus, but these students see inner-city homeless people or people struggling with mental illness, and they’re more empathetic than anything,” Adams said. “Your first thought isn’t, ‘I’m afraid of this person.’ It’s ‘this person needs love and help’.”
On Wednesdays, the Summer Program hosted a special Election Day to give the kids a break from the classroom and help them explore more niche topics. Some of the special July 20th electives included a poetry slam, superhero boot camp, meditation, juggling, the 11th Annual Hunger Games and more.
The pool noodle tournament had around 25 kids running around and hitting each other with pink, purple, yellow and turquoise pool noodles at Hill Park.
The tournament fights grew in intensity and at one point fifth grader Robin Hollow shouted, “If you die, I will fight in your honor!” to the instructor, who was taking a pool noodle punch.
In mid-swing, Zie Drume, a fourth-grader who was joining for the first time, stopped.
“Can I say something?” asked Drume. “Hi.”
A student of few words. She ran back into the crowd and started hitting her dueling partner with her purple pool noodle.
“May I say something too?” asked Olivia Hellerman, a fifth year student who was also attending for the first time. “Grandstreet is the best thing ever!”
Hellerman dueled Drume and did not concede defeat.
Another special elective was Pie Toss 101, hosted by drama teacher and frequent Grand Street performer Mary Linn Crouse. Crouse had created a poster to show students the eight ways to toss a pie and another poster on pie tossing safety.
Safety tips included: “Close your eyes and mouth when in or near your face or head.”
The students then split into small groups to create skits in which they threw “cakes” (paper plates full of whipped cream) at each other. Unsurprisingly, some of the students chose not to remove the whipped cream at the nearby kids’ pool, instead leaving it on their faces as a snack for later.
“On Wednesdays in the past I have typically done human art installations with the students where they pose and interact with downtown buildings. They have to keep it as long as they can like statues. It’s really fun,” Crouse said.
The two-week summer school culminated on Friday when it was time for the groups to perform the showcases they had rehearsed.
At the start of the program, students are divided into groups of approximately 15-17. Sometimes they choose something to perform and sometimes they create their own performance. As the icing on the cake, it all ends with a dance at Hill Park.
“The goal (of the summer drama school) is to raise really great people, not make them all fantastic actors,” Adams said. “It’s supposed to teach resilience, get rid of the fear of failure, teach them how to look someone in the eye. Even something as simple as walking on the right side of the sidewalk.”