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'It's All About the Want': Young Artists Transformed at Governor's School for the Arts

The Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts celebrates its 25th anniversary of free summer arts education Saturday at the Kentucky Center. The celebration includes an art show, an open mic, silent films from the new media program and a concert featuring Harry Pickens, Ben Sollee and jazz violinist (and GSA alum) Zach Brock.Two-hundred twenty-five students from 43 counties across Kentucky make up the GSA class of 2012. They spend three weeks on Transylvania University's campus immersed in the study of one of nine disciplines, from architecture to musical theater. They start with performances at morning assembly and go until curfew, creating ensemble pieces, solo work and interdisciplinary projects. Carrie Nath taught drama at GSA for three years before taking the reins as executive director last year. She’s taught in nearly every state in the country, and she says GSA is among the strongest arts programs she’s worked for.“To see the transformation you see in these students’ lives and in their learning in a three-week period is just astounding," says Nath. "That is because they are so well taken care of, they’re so well cared for and the strength of the curriculum is off the charts.”It's a typical afternoon at GSA, full of guest artist lectures and classes, individual studio rehearsal time and group collaborations. Emma Smith from Louisville is in solo rehearsal singing Schubert’s “La Pastorella” for her instructor, vocalist Eleanor McClellan. McClellan has performed around the world, and she’s typical of GSA faculty, who are all seasoned professional artists.Take Kelly Norman Ellis, who directs the creative writing department at Chicago State University. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and she’s been on the GSA creative writing faculty since 1996. She's looking on as guest artist David Flores, a photographer and filmmaker, leads her writing class in developing scenes for film. Ellis says the program is a litmus test for emerging artists.“This is boot camp," says Ellis. "You either know you want to be a writer when this is over, or you say no I don’t think I want to do this. It’s hard work.”Across campus, the string section’s taking a master class from pop cellist Ben Sollee. The guitar player is Nicholas Morgan. He’s from Marshall County, and he grew up playing in a bluegrass band. Nicholas took classical guitar lessons to improve his chances of getting into GSA. This year, 1,800 artists auditioned for 225 spots, so you need a competitive edge. But he didn’t stop stretching when he landed his spot.“I’ve never played jazz in my life," says Morgan. "Not only learning those new crazy chords, but soloing in specific, I’ve never done an improvised solo before. Even in bluegrass, I’m more of a rhythm guitar. Now I’ll be playing a guitar solo in final day performance.”That’s a common theme. Every student here is already talented, but in this environment, they’re encouraged to take risks. The acting students are developing commedia dell'arte (classic Italian clowning) scenes, working with faculty member Stephanie Roberts, who receieved her MFA from Dell'Arte International and teaches physical theater at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. It's not exactly your high school production of "Our Town."GSA is transformative for students like Frankie Dawahare, an actress from Pikeville. She’s learning how to stop being timid with her characters.“Our instructors have taught us to never say no, it’s always yes," says Dawahare. "Before I never had a clear understanding of how I should go about creating my character in a scene. It’s all about the want.”Learning how to develop a believable character or play an improvised jazz solo involves critical thinking skills that don’t stop at the edge of the stage. The National Endowment for the Arts released a report this year that draws a strong association between arts experiences for youth and higher grades, graduation rates, bachelors degrees, volunteerism and voting.“We’re constantly making the argument that this is a necessary process for students to learn," says Nath. "Those who have arts in their curriculum learn more deeply, they also, for some of them, it’s the only way to access the way they think. That gives back to any state, any nation and its economy.”State funding makes up only 47 percent of GSA’s budget. But the organization recently established an endowment fund, and Nath says the future of the program is in expansion: a second campus, a fourth week, more students served, more Kentucky arts careers launched. (Note: Erin Keane is also a graduate of GSA.)