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Orpheum's Halloran Centre Gives Home to Arts Education

Lance Wiedower  
The Daily News

When the Orpheum Theatre reopened in 1984 it signaled a new life for the city’s performing arts community.

Now, the adjacent two-story, 39,000-square-foot Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education presents new possibilities for advancing theater in the Memphis area.

The $14.5 million Halloran Centre opened last week on the south side of the Orpheum Theatre at 225 S. Main St. The center will serve the Memphis community by providing more classroom space for youth and adult programming, a 3,658-square-foot multi-use rehearsal hall and a 21st century audio-video lab.

Pat Halloran, president and CEO of the Orpheum, said the center has been “a big dream” of his for five years. The theater’s arts education programs have grown exponentially since they first launched 15 years ago, going from 450 kids per year to 66,000 kids per year, according to Halloran. The Orpheum’s busy calendar, combined with a lack of space, made the new center necessary.

“With that kind of growth, it was apparent to us we needed more space and more time,” he said.

Halloran said the opening of the education building is “one of the three most exciting times for me personally over the last 35 years.”

The first, of course, was the total renovation and restoration of the theater. The second was knocking out the back wall to extend the stage in 1996, making it possible to accommodate bigger shows such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon.”

As the theater began housing bigger productions, thoughts shifted toward stepping in to provide arts education to young people.

“I was seeing what was going on in other cities in terms of providing arts education,” Halloran said. “Most of us in the industry realize that if we’re to prepare the next generation of patrons and supporters of performing arts we need to start the process while people are very young.”

At the time, Halloran said, he and his staff weren’t thinking about building a new education center. They wanted to bring young people to the Orpheum, and give them a chance to see the building and gain a performing-arts appreciation.

Enter Alice Roberts, who joined the Orpheum staff in 2000 and today is the vice president of education and community programs. As she was leaving a career in professional theater, an education position opened at the Orpheum.

“I never thought this was something I’d do with my life but I’m so passionate about it,” she said. “This is about creating community and access. Whether it’s kids from Millington or students from rural Arkansas and Mississippi and they’re building relationships with students from Hutchinson. … We’re trying to meet people where they are and make everyone feel represented in what we are performing.”

Halloran said arts education increasingly falls to theaters and performing arts entities as schools across the country struggle with funding. But it’s more than just picking up where schools leave off.

“What we’re opening and offering is what the community has said it needs from us.”

Orpheum’s vice president of education and community programs
“We need to make sure what we provide is at a higher level than what the schools could produce,” he said. “An example is when we do a master class teaching people how to become creative thinkers like writers, choreographers or conductors, we need to expose these kids to the opportunity to be an inventor of the art.”

Even for schools that have state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, the students or teachers don’t always know how to operate it correctly. Roberts said the new center will bring that technical training to the forefront.

“What we’re trying to do is fill the gaps,” she said. “We look for where the need is and try to focus the attention on that. We focus on what the community wants. What we’re opening and offering is what the community has said it needs from us, and that’s a powerful thing in my opinion.”

The center won’t duplicate programs. For example, Playhouse on the Square offers acting classes, so Roberts said there will be partnerships rather than developing competing programs. Summer programs will be about educating students and parents about the upcoming Broadway season, with a built-in opportunity to be around Broadway professionals who serve as instructors when in town.

“How do you direct 28 people running around the stage and how do you make sense of that,” Halloran said. “What do you do to prepare for a career in the performing arts? That will always be better than what the schools can produce even if you have the money because we’re bringing in professionals at the top level of performing arts.”

But that doesn’t mean the total focus of the education program is just on having students interact with actors and musicians on tour. In fact, an important element is teacher development.

Roberts said 275 teachers a year are served, many of whom participate more than 40 hours a year. The teachers learn to implement critical thinking in their lessons, including how to use dance.

“If students are learning about the solar system they can teach it through dance,” Roberts said. “They can teach rotation of the planets through dance. Our programs aren’t just about children, they’re about teachers. We’re totally focused on changing the way education works.”