Inside Track: Making theater more accessible
Associate director of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s school wants more children to enjoy main stage production.
In a time when the emphasis on art programs largely has been ignored in public schools across the country, Allyson Paris is determined to make theater relevant and easily accessible to people of all ages.
Since Paris became the associate director of the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre School of Theatre Arts in 2015, its student enrollment has increased 25 percent.
“My first year, we went through an extensive evaluation process of the program that was already there, which was already strong and robust,” Paris said. “We sent out a giant survey to anyone who had taken a class (or went to camp) within the last three years. We did four or five different focus groups with 10 to 15 different people each and then we did our own one-on-one with teachers, parents and students to get a sense of how we could better serve our community, our students and our parents.”
One of the most important things Paris took away from that entire evaluation process is parents wanted their children to have “high-quality performance opportunities” that would allow their children to perform on the main stage of the Civic Theatre.
Paris said she understood what that meant because she saw firsthand how difficult it was for children to get a role on the Civic Theatre’s main stage.
“It is really hard as a child to get onto the Civic main stage,” Paris said. “When we did ‘Annie,’ we had 120 to 150 girls audition for 13 roles. So, it is heartbreaking to me, as an educator, as a parent, as an artist, to have nowhere for those other 100-plus students to go.”
As a result, Paris changed the organization’s curriculum by adding new core classes and electives. Some of the new core classes now include technical theater, stage management, design, musical theater, an acting track and a formal dance program.
Paris also said Civic Theatre created a performance block to make it easier for students who want to get involved with the main stage production. However, before they can enroll in the performance block, students will have to take core classes, among other things.
“Students can either register for a 30-minute musical or a one-act play,” Paris said. “We rehearse it just like we would a main stage play, we sell tickets just like we would a main stage play. We do sets, props, costumes, lights and sound, just like we would a main stage play. We hire professional designers, directors, music directors and choreographers. So, the students get the main stage experience in a short amount of time, and it is guaranteed. You register, you get a role, that is how it works.”
Paris said her job as the associate director is everything she loves to do, from directing performances to fulfilling administrative duties. Her love for theater comes from different life experiences.
Paris, a native of Greenville, was exposed to the arts at an early age. Her hometown had multiple theater groups where she had the opportunity to perform. She sang in her church choir, performed in the orchestra at her school and also managed to find time to be a part of her school’s speech debate team.
Theater and speech debate were Paris’ two passions that led her to Bradley University in Illinois. Although she earned a scholarship to attend Bradley, Paris was mainly interested in joining the university’s speech debate team. However, she never joined the team because she “fell in love with the theater department.”
Even though Bradley had a small theater department, Paris said she was able to do a lot of acting, stage managing, directing and designing. But, Paris was not satisfied with just a theater degree; she double majored in theater and religious studies and minored in Asian studies.
“I took a lot of classes,” Paris said, laughing. “But I loved it, and when you love something, it doesn’t feel like work.”
Although those majors might seem unrelated, she said they are interconnected.
“I picked up religious studies because I was in love with Julie Taymor, who directed ‘The Lion King,’ because all her influences were Asian theater,” Paris said. “So much of the traditional Asian forms were religiously based, so to really understand why they did what they did, I needed to understand their religion and traditional faith. So, I studied traditional religions of China, Japan, Thailand and Indonesia because that is what I wanted to learn about and become more versed.”
After Paris graduated, she thought about continuing her studies by traveling to Asia, but that was a short-lived idea. Instead, she went to graduate school at the University of Hawaii, where she pursued a career as a director. The University of Hawaii allowed her to earn an MFA in Asian Theater Directing.
Paris said she decided she wanted to be a director while in her junior year at Bradley doing stage management.
“Stage managers get to really organize,” she said. “They are in charge of the production once it gets going and the logistics, but they don’t have real artistic control, and I knew I wanted to have more artistic input. I really love helping people reach their potential and as a director, you get to do that.
“As an actor, it is all about you — reaching your own potential, be the best you can be — but as a director, you get to bring all of these artists together and help them achieve something really great.”
While she was in graduate school, Paris sang at the Hawaii Opera Theatre, and during summer breaks, she returned home to teach kids at the Greenville Area Community Center.
After Paris graduated from the University of Hawaii, she was hired as an education coordinator at the Hawaii Opera Theatre. She helped direct the theater’s opera residency program, where she went to different schools to teach children opera. She also performed, directed and planned programs for the theater.
She stayed in Hawaii for three years, meeting her future husband, a U.S. Air Force officer. Paris later was forced to move to California because her husband was relocating to Travis Air Force Base.
The new move meant Paris had to start over again, forging new relationships and trying to find a new job in the theater industry.
“A director can make or break a production,” she said. “So, a producer or a company is unlikely to take a chance on someone they have never met, they’ve never seen their work, because the chances that it can go badly are so high. Theater is so much about who you know.”
Fortunately for Paris, the Solano Youth Theatre in California had an opening for a musical director position. She directed a few shows and helped with the theater’s summer camps.
Paris, in her free time, freelanced, helping to direct the Sacramento Opera and helped with its education program. She also was auditioning and landed a few roles of her own.
After having a baby, Paris and her husband packed their bags again, this time moving to Colorado. She was able to find an open position at the Colorado Springs Conservatory, where she was directing, teaching and helping with the theater’s administrative duties. Paris also worked at the Academy of Children’s Theatre, where she taught for three years.
In 2013, Paris and her family moved back to Michigan.
Staying true to her passion, Paris hit the stage again, this time auditioning for a role in the Civic Theatre’s “The Sound of Music,” landing the roles of The Baroness. Paris continued to build relationships with the people at the Civic Theatre. She eventually started teaching a few classes and directed a few shows.
The associate director position opened up after Penny Notter decided to retire. Paris applied for the position, and following a national search, she was hired as the associate director.
As the 2018-19 season begins, Paris is now working on the production of “The Little Mermaid,” which is set to premiere in November.