Program teaches at-risk kids the fine arts

Teens from Orange County and staff members rehearse a theme song from the film "The Sound of Music" during a Summer at the Center program on Wednesday in the Samueli Theatre at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

The teenage students were about to step onto a stage to perform for the first time in their lives. Before walking under the spotlight, Artistic Director Bill Brawley needed to tell them one thing.

“No show is perfect,” he said. “Things can go wrong but just smile. That’s what people will remember.”

The 24th annual Summer at the Center program brought together 44 students for two weeks of learning to sing, dance and perform for a show.

Each year, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts hosts the program and invites at-risk youth who are in the Orange County Department of Education’s Access program to apply for a spot.

Students, like Carlos, had never attended a music or dance class. For him, the exposure to the arts brings up new emotions.

“I learn the steps and feel joy,” Carlos said. “Even if you’re not on the right track, the people here are cheering you on and that will make you want to keep going.”

Students in Access are referred from districts all over Orange County because they are struggling in school. Access offers individualized learning for them to catch up on their schooling, the department’s Director of Alternative Education Rick Martin said.

The students in Summer at the Center, ages 14 to 17, applied a month in advance. The center received more than 60 applications this year.

“These are kids who have been struggling but are serious in looking for change and transformation,” Vice President of Education at the Center Talena Mara said. “Some of these students may even be enemies on the street. But they come here to work together and forge a new path forward.”

By the end of the two weeks, the performers will premiere their show, “Let’s Go to the Movies.” For the variety show, the students learned songs, dances and acting scenes from more than 70 movies.

“We’ll show nearly everything,” Brawley said. “From ‘Jurassic Park’ to ‘Harry Potter.’ From ‘Forrest Gump’ to ‘The Sound of Music.’”

Having little to no exposure to the performing arts, students were just learning about some of the classic musicals that many take for granted.

“Not one student had seen [‘The Sound of Music’], but the music still does something,” Brawley said. “The lyrics tell them to climb every mountain until you find your dream. It’s teaching them that anything is possible.”

Brawley, who has directed the Summer at the Center show each year, brings in independent artists from his own professional network to instruct the students.

During the first week of the program, the students performed in front of mirrors at the center, keeping close watch of their dance moves and singing faces. For students like Edgar, learning so much choreography was “really tiring” but he said he still looked forward to picking up the steps each day.

“I’ll dance at family parties and things like that,” Edgar said. “But learning here, it’s something that’s bigger than yourself. You have to really practice and pay attention.”

By the middle of the second week, they had moved to the Samueli Theater in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. As they all stepped onto the stage that Wednesday, they each practiced their own “solos” for the show’s introduction.

All 44 performers went up to a mic at the front of that stage. Projecting loudly and clearly, they spoke their name, favorite movie and why the movie inspires them.

“We’re all born to do great things,” Carlos said. “We’ve learned to move forward with life and to better ourselves.”

The cast will hold private performances on Friday for their other Access classmates and for members at the center. Shows will be open to the public at 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Admission is free.