Berea Spotlight

Ragtime: the musical – Berea’s summer 2012 sensation

Posted on by Sam Gilbert

On July 6, 2012, Ragtime: the musical opened to boisterous applause. The student actors were confident and capable. After a month of rehearsals as well as voice training they had good reason to be.

The young thespians had been trained through and through by an all-star cast of faculty: From the Berea College Music program, Asst. Professor Mark Calkins (Masters, University of Colorado), and Dr. Stephen Bolster (Doctorate, University of Colorado); from the Theatre program, Dr. Deborah Martin (Doctorate, Texas Tech); from the Dance programs, Stephanie Woodie (Masters, University of North Carolina at Greensboro). These faculty members made the Broadway hit come to life and provided an incomparable experience for the student cast.

More than the value of the show alone was the value of education the students received from the month-long summer class. The class, which began on June 13, 2012, was one of the most intensive music classes taught at Berea and, indeed, one of the most intensive music classes taught in the region. No other music department has attempted to do what Berea College has done. The boot-camp-like schedule combined with the commitment required by both faculty and staff meant all involved came out changed by the process.

Mark Calkins referred to the class as a marathon for the students, both mentally and physically. The students spent nine hours a day, forty-five hours a week, working in contact with the faculty. Yoga and vocal warm-ups started early in the morning followed by dance choreography led by Stephanie Woodie. As the afternoon progressed Bolster led the ensemble in music rehearsals. As night fell the staging rehearsals began. When the performance dates grew close the rehearsals grew longer and the student cast added set construction to their routine. Deborah Martin achieved the near impossible in her time as the dramatic director, taking the cast “off book” in a mere ten days, a great accomplishment given that there were 20 pages of lines to memorize.

Ragtime was academically “cross-listed” to cover four different perspectives for students, no easy task as each cross-listing required numerous pages of paperwork. Calkins recalled filling out seemingly endless forms to create the cross-listings, but felt the paperwork was more than worth it to allow the class to be accessible to as many students as possible. The perspectives covered included theatre, music, arts, and an Active Learning Experience (ALE). For those students participating in the ALE portion of the class there was an extra level of challenge, as they each had to write a full page journal entry for each day of the class. At the end of the class, students gave ALE presentations. During these presentations they talked about the class, their learning experience, and how they felt changed.

Remarkably, several of the students had no prior theatre or singing experience. They came from abundant majors with backgrounds as numerous and varied as the student body of Berea College. In this class — compressed, diverse, exhausting and exhilarating — many of them had their first taste of the music and theater majors. In the mind of Mark Calkins, this was the perfect opportunity for them to experience the disciplined study and practice of musical theatre. Calkins had dreamed of a class like this for years.

When Calkins first came to Berea he learned of the month-long summer terms and sought to put together a program for those terms. Since then, he has expanded his vision considerably. He considers a four year cycle. The first year would be spent doing scenes — simple vignettes from various musical pieces, the next year would be spent doing a full musical. The third year of the cycle would be a light operetta and the final year of the cycle would be spent doing a full opera. It is one of Calkins’ dreams to take the students through all four years of the cycle and, in the fourth year, direct the opera. During the cycle the students would advance from one genre to the next until they had obtained a full exposure to music, musical theatre and opera. This would prepare them for the world of performing arts. Calkins said he wished to give the students the experience of what it was like to be nothing but a performer, if only for a month. He of course intends to continue on with the program since the curtain has closed on Ragtime — and he’s not alone with that commitment.

Deborah Martin has already expressed interest in continuing with the class. She says her experience was nothing but positive and she would enjoy participating in “this amazing process” again. She said, “What I looked forward to was working with colleagues I have not had a chance to work with before. But the most rewarding experience has been working with these amazing students. They blew me away.”

Many of the students have also expressed their share of admiration for the class, both this year’s class as well as a potential cycle of classes. Stephanie Hardy, a sophomore, said her favorite part was, “Singing my solo parts and growing more vocally. Learning how to use the operatic voice along with my belter’s voice. Mark [Calkins] and Carolyn [a fellow student] gave tips on how to do that.”

Another student, Nyghel Byrd, spoke highly of the program: “It gives you a whole new appreciation of what these guys go through when they produce a show. It gives you a whole new respect for the work they put into these things.”

All the class expressed similar sentiments, and the feeling of unity among the students could be felt as well as seen. Carolyn Romano said, “We spent so much time together on and off stage throughout the process, I felt it was a really beautiful example of what the play was pointing toward. We were a bunch of people who didn’t really know one another at the beginning but definitely found unity by the end.” One thing is certain: these students have had a journey and it is not likely one they will forget.

Calkins has set his goals for the music program quite high. He believes in the power of music. He spoke highly of the healing power of music in the wake of tragedy. In particular, he recalls how music healed so many after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

It is this emotional and evocative power that Calkins seeks to evoke from his students. His words to those students: “Broadway can be better, opera can be better. It will be in your hands. So, if I do my part right, we are going to have some musically powerful people running things in the future.”

In the end, that is what this program was all about. The goal was not just to produce an amazing show at breakneck speed but to educate a new generation of singer-performers who will change the world with their voices, and the lessons they’ve learned at Berea.

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Watch The Making of Ragtime: the musical…

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