Palpable Excitement Surrounds Broadway Theatre Project In Tampa

Kelly Bolick, 21, "fell in love'' with the Broadway Theatre Project the first time she attended the summer program in 2006. The UNC junior had auditioned at her high school in North Carolina. Today, she is spending July in Tampa for her fifth summer, the program's 20th year.

"You can't go anywhere else and work with people like this, people who have worked in Broadway," she said. "You really can't find this anywhere else."

Working with the incredible faculty and participating with other students in the project has inspired her to plan to move to New York City after she graduates from college.
 
The project, started in 1990 by Debra McWaters, Ann Reinking and Mary Walkley, has come a long way from its first summer session. At the time, McWaters was a calculus teacher at Tampa Preparatory, where she also served as a choreographer. McWaters was looking for a way to extend the school year's theater and dance activities into the summer.
 
One day in 1990, while picking up her friend Reinking from the airport, McWaters pitched her idea of a program that would allow students to take theater classes during the summer.
 
Reinking, whose address book includes names such as Liza Minelli, told McWaters she would call her friends and find a faculty for the program. She did.
 
The Broadway Theatre Project
was born.
 
The next summer, 35 participants enrolled in the program at the Tampa Prep campus. By 2009, 180 had signed up and the project had expanded to the University of South Florida.
 
McWaters, who describes the BTP as a "mom and pop" organization, says the program fills an important void in schools around the nation in which arts programs continue to full victim to budget cuts.

BTP Comes To You

 
Each year, students from around the country audition to take classes that range from theater to voice lessons to jazz dance. "BTP Comes to You" is the project's traveling program that provides workshops and classes at various schools.
 
Students accepted into the program — most attend high schools or colleges though there is no age cap — participate in an intense three weeks of dancing, acting and singing classes. They are in class seven days a week, from 8:30 a.m. until well into the evening. 
 
CJ Celeiro, who attended the BTP for the first time when he was 16, says waking up early every day was the best and worst part of his time at the BTP. Celeiro, 18, attended the program in 2008 and 2009, and is heading to The University of the Arts in Philadelphia in the fall. He said that waking up early and working sometimes 12-hour days taught him discipline and instilled in him a sense of independence that he will take with him to college.
 
The classes are divided into pre-college (typically 16- to 18-year-olds) and pre-professional (everyone else). Some specific classes are further divided into beginner and advanced courses. Sometimes, McWaters said, the 16-year-olds are better at certain activities than the 28-year-olds.
 
In addition to approximately 50 faculty members, the BTP also brings in guest faculty members to teach the students. The guests are usually people who have made it in the business: famous actors, singers, and dancers who can offer tips to the students about what the "real world" is like. Guest faculty members have included Julie Andrews, Jeff Goldblum and Gregory Hines.
 
The project's success has undoubtedly come from the passion of its founders and those who keep it running. McWaters, who has served as assistant choreographer on Tony award-winning musicals like Chicago and Fosse, currently serves as artistic director of the BTP. As she talks about the origins of the BTP, she takes a break from the logistics to gush about the success of her former BTP students.

Giant Web Of Support

Among project participants of the past: American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee, actor/singer Ben Vereen, Broadway's Mary Poppins' Ashley Brown and So You Think You Can Dance's Ryan and Evan Kasprzak.
 
Celeiro, who graduated from Blake High School in Tampa in 2010, says he always felt like a small fish in a big pond in high school. And though he was in the school's performing arts magnet, he said the BTP gave him an entirely new sense of comfort.
 
"At the Broadway Theater Project," he says, "there are 200 kids who are just like you. In that atmosphere, everyone wants to do what you want to do."
 
That camaraderie created a giant web of support for him, something that kept him going even when he broke his leg one summer during the first day of dance class. Being at the BTP, he says, made him certain that he wanted to pursue his passion for theater as it does for so may others.

The project's summer program runs July 11 through August 1 at USF, 4202 E. Fowler Ave.

You can catch performances at the concluding three-day festival starting July 29. Tickets are available at the USF College of Arts Box Office at 813-974-2323 or online at Ticketmaster.

Michelle Stark, a freelance writer who is a newspaper/magazine junkie and a caffeine fiend, frequents Tampa's indie clubs/concerts and does Pilates. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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