By Doug Hill

For The Transcript

“My mommy is 40 years old,” a shy girl recently announced to room full of strangers.

It was a brilliant ice-breaker.

“She is?” her classmate asked with breathless amazement.

It was a cameo of impromptu comedy starting Broadway Babies, a musical theater class for ages 5-7 sponsored by The Studio of the Sooner Theater.

Director Robin Huston, one of The Studio’s staff of six instructors, a former high-powered Wall Street corporate recruiter, looked more like a soccer mom this day. Dressed casually, Huston gathered her diverse group of 23 boys and girls in a circle on the floor of the mirrored room at the Whittier Community Center for new class introductions.

Speaking loudly and clearly enough for everyone to hear was the fundamental she advanced first. Katie, Olivia, Tommy, Jonathan, Paris, et al, soon got to know each other.

Executive Director of the Sooner Theatre Jennifer Heavner Baker said the selection of instructors was key to starting the year-round studio classes.

“We waited to start The Studio’s classes until we had the perfect fit of instructors. I don’t believe in just having warm bodies teaching a bunch of eager beavers. It’s a calling, especially when dealing with artistic children. It takes the perfect person to lead classes like these,” Baker said. “You have to have someone to help children as young as the Broadway Babies get past the stage fright.

“It’s been a long time coming, but we’ve finally assembled the perfect group. They’re all professionals in the field and they’ve been out working in this business, in addition to holding the academic credentials. For instance, Tommy Cunningham who teaches Acting One and Two just wrapped the film ‘Soul’s Midnight.’”

The six instructors, evenly divided between men and women, represent years of experience in a broad range of work that includes film, TV and stage acting, production and stand-up comedy.

“It’s important to me that The Studio’s curriculum must complement the fine arts that are being taught here in the Norman Public Schools,” Baker said. “It’s a supplement to the very strong fine arts programs in our Norman schools which our educators can be proud of. We’re fortunate here. We still have choir, dance speech and debate and they’re not just extracurricular activities. We intend to teach technique and have fun at the same time, along with a flashy showcase at the end of the production classes.

Baker said the studio has had incredible input from Tom Huston and some at the university’s musical theater department.

“We’re helping prepare some of these 18-year-olds who really do want to go into this business and pursue it in college as well.”

The class subjects are impressive, including how to audition for film/TV, the art of humorous on-air spontaneity (“Improv!”) and musical theater production based on a rehearsal discipline.

Baker spoke to the diversity of the kids enrolled in Studio classes.

“We have all backgrounds. Some just want to sing and dance all the time, but we have some who are athletes, trying another area. We’re an alternative for kids who may not excel in sports. We’ve had summer camps since 2003.”

Students don’t have to audition for The Studio classes as they do with the summer camps.

“Our kids get the opportunity to work in a real theater. But besides the hands-on work, this training makes it easier for them to get up and speak in front of a class or other groups of people. It gives them self-confidence and a sense of being comfortable with themselves.”

One of the Camp Broadway kids was elected student council president at her school.

“It’s exciting being part of their lives as they go on to be successful in so many different ways. I have terrible stage fright and just tremble when I have to get up and give a curtain speech at the Sooner Theatre. I’m already nervous about a show I’m supposed to be in next February at the theatre. The fear may never go away completely and maybe it shouldn’t, it keeps you humble,” she said.

The Studio experience provides other opportunities in the community. Some students were involved in the recent Centennial Follies at Lloyd Noble Center. Some will be involved in the opening and closing of the big Oklahoma City Centennial parade which will be televised on OETA. They’ll also perform at Opening Night on New Year’s Eve.

“We have some real acting talent here in Norman. I’ve worked with students here who I think could go all the way. It’s just a matter for some if they have the drive and are willing to stick with it.

“You have to learn to accept rejection because you might not always land that job, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t talented. This summer we had a visit from some cast members of ‘Wicked’ when they were in town and worked with our children. One of the guys had been in ‘Cats’ and taught them a routine and did ‘Cats’ makeup on someone. These Broadway professionals were amazed at the high caliber talent some of our kids have,” Baker said.

“I have a 6-year-old in the Broadway Babies class. She loves singing and dancing. Do I think she’ll go on and do that forever? Who knows, but she loves it. She may just want to play golf the rest of her life,” Baker said.

For more information, visit www.soonertheatre.com or call 321-9600.

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