Gavin Creel, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Nick Blaemire Talk Arts Education and Teaching With The Performing Arts Project

By Michael Gioia
December 18, 2013

Two-time Tony Award nominees Gavin Creel and Celia Keenan-Bolger and Godspell actor Nick Blaemire chat with Playbill.com about The Performing Arts Project, a new organization bringing arts education to the forefront and molding the next generation of young artists.



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"I learned — from a first-person point of view — the massive power of teaching, both the effect on the student and the effect on me," said actor-singer-songwriter Nick Blaemire following his return from The Performing Arts Project's second annual summer intensive, held on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. "[The students would] do something, and I'd realize, 'Oh my God, I do that as an actor, so I have to watch you now and make sure you put your objective at the forefront of your mind, because I forget that, too.' I get caught up in trying to 'be good' and trying to 'do stuff right,' but [TPAP artistic director] Jonathan [Bernstein]'s emphasis on process [is] about de-mystifying this art and trying to be a human."

Blaemire, a performer in Broadway's Godspell and Cry-Baby and the composer of Glory Days, is among the faculty at The Performing Arts Project, now entering its third year and gearing up for its annual auditions (held in January and February 2014), where roughly 1,000 high school and college-aged performers tryout for 100 spots in the yearly summer program.

The intensive, led by TPAP artistic director Jonathan Bernstein and associate artistic director Neil Patrick Stewart, is a 21-day program that trains the students in acting, dancing and singing, but also encourages the artists to create the art that they aim to be a part of.

In the audition room — aside from a one-minute monologue and a song — students are asked to prepare original material such as a movement piece, rap, painting, haiku, speech, impression, instrumental performance, original song or monologue.

Gavin Creel, Tony-nominated for his performances in Hair and Thoroughly Modern Millie, believes that TPAP "engages the performer in a way that other programs don't. It deals with — and teaches — technique building and appreciation for the art form, and, through direct example in the professionals working with the students, shows how a trust and belief in creating honest, spiritually connected work is the only way to become a great artist."

Gavin Creel
Photo by Robert Mannis
Blaemire, who was in attendance for the most recent summer intensive, and Creel, who took part in TPAP's inaugural summer workshop, are joined by a faculty that includes Hunter Bell, Laura Benanti, Susan Blackwell, Grady M. Bowman, Dave Clemmons, John Ellison Conlee, Josh Cookie, Billy Crudup, Nancy Dussalt, Eleisha Eagle, Kristina Fernandez, Christopher Gattelli, Alexander Gemignani, Nina Goldman, Juliet Gray, Tyler Hanes, Kailtin Hopkins, Ryan Kasprzak, Kelly King, Gary Kline, Lynzy Lab, Matt Loehr, Darren Lorenzo, Nina Maria Lucas, Michael Maresca, Leslie Meisel, Susan Misner, Andrew Palermo, Steven Pasquale, Rick Pessagno, Tammy Pessagno, Ron Piretti, Jim Price, Mark Price, Monica Raymund, Betty Schneider, Abigail Spencer, Sarah Stiles, Nikole Vallins, Mary Walkley and Celia Keenan-Bolger, among others.

Depending on the artists' schedules, TPAP enlists available faculty members to take part in workshops and classes throughout the year.

"These young people reminded me of why I got into performing in the first place. They were so open and eager, and their energy was really positive," said Keenan-Bolger, a Tony nominee for her performances in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Peter and the Starcatcher. "Intensives like this give a sense of belonging and an opportunity to be surrounded by other students with shared passions. I think, specifically, TPAP is striving to create whole artists. It's not a program designed to get students into a great college or to learn how to be a good auditioner. I think they're trying to do something bigger than that. They are nurturing creativity and trying to get these young people outside of their comfort zone to try and find what needs to be expressed. There is a lot of talk about supporting one another and creating an environment where there is real freedom of expression artistically. I think this sort of encouragement in high school gives these students a greater sense of self, which leads to confidence and an ability to be a more generous human."

"These kids were putting themselves out there in ways they never had before," explained Blaemire of the summer program. "And, we kept talking about how the 'potential embarrassment' is so much higher than 'actual embarrassment' if you don't do a good job… You just don't make that choice again. Do it a different way."

At The Performing Arts Project's recent benefit concert Let Me Try That Again, held this fall at Joe's Pub, performers such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Betsy Wolfe, Steven Pasquale, Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell shared their most embarrassing onstage moments (with home video) and attempted to redeem themselves by recreating their performance at Joe's — assuring audience members (and prospective TPAP students) that even professionals are prone to mistake.

"We are an insane and tenacious lot, and I believe we will never be made silent or disappear," added Creel, who — along with TPAP faculty, staff and creatives — see the importance in arts education. "In crises, in wars, in devastation, in social challenge, art is what rises up. The arts always remain the central heartbeat of societal movements — be it in song, in rally, in performance, it is even linked to the very fabric of the stars or the creation of our universe. We aren't going anywhere, and in the meantime, we will instruct and inspire the future artist game-changers through passionate education like The Performing Arts Project."

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For more on The Performing Arts Project, visit PerformingArtsProject.com.

To learn more about arts programs at colleges and universities across the country, visit PlaybillEDU.com.

Check out Playbill EDU videos with Chad Kimball, Brian d'Arcy James and Alice Ripley.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)