Over the past two decades, Anne Kessler has seen the positive impact musical theater can have on youth.
“Theater is an important art form,” said Kessler, the founder and owner of Mt. Laurel’s Curtain Call Performing Arts Center. “It really does teach kids a lot of skills that wouldn’t necessarily be taught in a traditional class situation.”
Kessler has dedicated much of her life to giving kids the tools to succeed on stage. But for four days earlier this summer, Kessler went from instructor to student as she got a chance to learn from some of the biggest names in theater.
Kessler got the opportunity of a lifetime when she was one of eight educators from across the country to participate in the 10th annual Freddie G Fellowship in New York City. Underwritten by Tony Honors winner Freddie Gershon and his wife, Myrna, this program featured four days of master classes and activities taught by numerous Tony Award winners and Broadway professionals.
Kessler has been teaching music to students for more than 20 years. She is currently the director of vocal music at Berlin Community School in Berlin Borough. In 2011, Kessler founded Curtain Call Performing Arts Center in Mt. Laurel. Since its founding, the center has grown from a summer camp to a year-round theater company performing out of Harrington Middle School.
Every year, Curtain Call travels to one of the biggest youth theater events in the country, the Junior Theater Festival. Educators attending the festival have the opportunity to apply for the Freddie G Fellowship. Dozens of educators apply annually, but only eight are selected.
Kessler had applied for the fellowship in the past, but wasn’t selected. This year, Curtain Call had two groups of students perform in the Junior Theater Festival. Kessler opted not to tell anyone she had applied again this year, so when her name was called as one of the eight recipients, it was a surprise to everyone.
“It was wild,” Kessler said in describing the moment her name was announced. “The first couple times I applied, I had told my students I did. This time, I didn’t. Nobody knew I was in the running for it.”
This year’s Freddie G Fellowship took place from July 10 through July 13 and featured no fewer than five Tony Honor or Tony Award winners among the many professionals who participated. A big focus of the program was how to host quality musical theater performances on a limited budget. In one class, Kessler talked about working with Tony Award-winning lighting designer Ken Billington, who showed the educators certain lighting techniques such as focus and choosing correct colors. Another highlight for Kessler was working with Broadway director Jeff Calhoun. The participants were asked to direct a scene with students in front of him and received feedback on how they did.
Kessler said the biggest lesson she took away from the program was how a theater program doesn’t need a ton of money to put on outstanding shows.
“Trust your instincts and that you can do more with less,” Kessler said about the most important lesson she learned. “You don’t need a big budget to impress people.”
Kessler added she didn’t feel nervous working with Broadway professionals. She noted although they may work on a larger stage, many of the fellowship instructors shared a lot in common with the educators.
“They’re big names, but they are just people who have a passion in theater like I do,” Kessler said.
Kessler’s favorite part about the experience was being able to network with the seven other educators who participated in the camp. The group of eight has continued to stay in touch in the weeks following the fellowship, bouncing ideas off one another and sharing exercises and games they can use with their own students.
Beyond the stage, giving back to the community is an important part of Curtain Call Performing Arts Center. Kessler said the organization has participated in fundraisers for juvenile diabetes awareness as well as Cozies 4 Chemo, a local organization providing handmade blankets for cancer patients.
Kessler also gives back to local schools and organizations unable to host their own, full-time theater program by providing theater camps and other activities. As part of being selected for the Freddie G Fellowship, Kessler received $5,000 to put toward her programs. Kessler plans to use the money to purchase a portable PA system to better the experience at her camps and programs.
Curtain Call is now preparing for its upcoming fall productions. Rehearsals will begin next month for Disney’s “Finding Nemo Kids” for elementary school students and “Frozen Jr.” for kids ages 12 to 18. Both shows will be performed in November. For more information on Curtain Call Performing Arts Center, visit www.curtaincallpac.com or visit the organization’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/curtaincallpacnj.