Aurora’s Paramount Theatre and its Paramount School of the Arts now offer a wide array of classes for people of all ages.
Aurora’s Paramount Theatre has become a destination for Chicago-area theater lovers, largely due to its Broadway Series, which delivers four musicals per year. In conjunction with more opportunities to experience Broadway musicals, the Paramount is now providing educational opportunities for those who wish to study musical theater.
“When [Paramount executive director] Tim Rater came here, he had two big ideas,” says Shannon Cameron, director of education and communication engagement for Paramount Theatre. “He wanted to bring in the Broadway Series and he wanted to create a school.”
The result is an arts destination nestled on Stolp Island, in the heart of downtown Aurora. It’s now a landmark that serves not only those who want to watch, but those who want to get involved. Opened this past June, the school hosts a wide array of classes that cater to an even wider audience.
“Part of our mission is to be a place for families and students to come and learn the arts,” Cameron says. “We wanted to offer more diversity in the arts, and we want it accessible to all. This is the gateway for those who don’t have that opportunity.”
Located in the John C. Dunham Aurora Arts Center, which formerly housed Waubonsee Community College’s downtown location, Paramount School of the Arts covers roughly 2,300 square feet next door to the theater. There are classrooms on the first level, with a central staircase that leads down to more. All told, there are 27 classrooms – 19 private – with a technical theater, art lab and studio theater.
The top two floors of the Dunham Center, which underwent a $35 million renovation this past year, are filled with affordable, loft-style apartments designated for working artists. Conveniently, visiting Paramount talent can lodge in private apartments located on site.
Following its June opening, the school offered several introductory “camps” that served all ages in all aspects of the arts. From 47 camps in the summer session to 94 classes in the fall, the school has introduced such topics as songwriting, improv, piano, strings, ukulele, vocal technique, rap and rhyming, ballet and hip hop, as well as private lessons and coaching sessions in musical instruments, vocal performance, theater and dance.
“We even have beginning sewing,” Cameron says. “You might not think of us doing something like that, and we might not have the interest right now for some of the classes we offer. But we want to offer what the community wants.
“This year is our experimental year,” she continues. “We’ll look at what people are most interested in during the fall and expand on the popular ones, and put the others on the back burner. We want to see how the interest grows.”
While summer sessions lasted one week at a time, fall classes now range from 8 to 16 weeks, with some going 3 to 4 hours per day and others lasting 6 to 7 hours. Classes are Monday through Saturday.
“In the summer, we were trying to give a taste of what we had to offer,” Cameron says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular classes have been theater offerings, including musical theater and dance.
“We also have a lot of vocal performance interest,” Cameron says, adding that the largest group of students so far has been middle school age. “I think there is less out there that caters to that age, so it has been our most popular.”
But the range of students is vast: from six months to seniors.
“Our Kindermusik caters to kids from birth to 7 years,” Cameron says. “Caregivers take the course with the child. There is music involved, and we use that to work on developing the children’s skills. They learn to play and sing. We even give them instruments to take home.
“For the younger ones, there’s a lot of playing on the ground,” Cameron continues. “We think it’s so important to develop a passion for music, and it’s such an important time to do it when a baby’s brain is developing.”
Cameron is particularly excited about Paramount’s Musical Theater Institute, which offers pre-professional training for high school students who plan to go on to perform professionally or study musical theater in college. It’s taught by some of the very people who are working next door.
Paul-Jordan Jansen, a Jeff Award winner who has played Sweeney Todd and the Cowardly Lion in Paramount productions, teaches acting at the Musical Theater Institute. Trent Stork, Paramount’s artistic associate and casting director, heads a class on audition techniques. And Jessica Palkovic, who has performed in “The Wizard of Oz” and “Cabaret,” teaches dance.
“We think our relationship with our actors is what sets us apart,” Cameron says. “We have professional people in the world who are working for us. We have people who have dedicated their lives to theater education.”
By working with qualified instructors as well as guest teachers – including members of the latest Paramount production – students get a valuable, real-world lesson in the arts.
“We schedule our people in advance,” Cameron says. “We ask if they want to spend some time helping teach, and I have yet to have anybody say no.”
To make it work, many theater classes start about a week before Paramount rehearsals.
“We have one instructor who oversees the classes, and they invite others to come in to teach with them,” Cameron says. “These guests include the director, choreographer and actors.”
All of these classes run before the show officially opens, and the students get free admission to opening night.
“The kids are so excited to see onstage what they worked on and learned about in the class,” Cameron says.
Signups begin in October for the spring classes, which begin in January. Classes range in price from $100 for eight weeks to up to $225 for 16, depending on the type of class. And various fees are included in those costs.
“We try not to nickel-and-dime our parents,” Cameron says, adding that scholarships are also available.
She also says students will be placed where the school’s teachings will be most effective.
“We try to find a place for every student,” Cameron says. “For instance, we have a dance placement day for teachers to evaluate dancers’ skills to decide where they fit. We also evaluate during the first week of class if somebody may have been placed in the wrong level. Some classes have age or grade requirements, too. And we offer a full refund if we have to cancel a class.”
All registration for classes, as well as other information, is on the school’s website at paramountaurora.com/school.