The average Arizona State University classroom is filled with the frantic clicking of laptop keyboards and the bright glow of projector screens showing slide after slide of important facts. Yet, for musical theater students in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, class time means something else entirely.
Thanks to a partnership between ASU Gammage and the Herberger Institute, professional cast members from almost every ASU Gammage touring Broadway musical teach students a variety of skills from audition techniques to dance numbers.
Cameron Burke, who plays a swing in the Tony Award-winning tour of "Matilda the Musical," recently taught a workshop for ASU students. Called Master Classes, these workshops are part of ASU Gammage’s Cultural Participation program, which help the organization achieve its goal of "Connecting Communities" through the arts.
“I feel like every single artist who comes in here and is willing to share with the school, their life experiences and what they’ve learned on their journey — that’s what I come in here for mostly,” said Jennie Rhiner, a senior musical theater performance student who has participated in several ASU Gammage Master Classes over the past four years.
After a quick warmup, Burke taught the students the same choreography used in the musical for the song "Revolting Children." Sharp movements and stomps characterized the dance’s powerful tone.
By the end of the hourlong class, Rhiner and her classmates were expertly following along to the dance Burke led. After the students had mastered the choreography, Burke invited the group to ask him questions about his career and advice for finding success in the industry.
Rhiner said experiences like this enrich her education at ASU, especially because each Master Class focuses on developing a different skill.
“It encourages you to participate and make sure you can communicate with the professional,” she added. “And it teaches you to step up, ask questions, get your name noticed — it helps you practice that because marketing, especially in this degree, is so important.”
Rhiner’s instructor, ASU School of Music lecturer Toby Yatso, agreed that ASU Gammage Master Classes provide an invaluable experience for his students — they build new skills while meeting new people in the industry.
“Every time we have one of these opportunities, we’re trying to elevate both of those experiences for the students,” Yatso explained. “They’re working on their body awareness, they’re working on technique, they’re working on style.”
Burke said he was happy to share his experience with the next generation of musical theater performers and show them that their dreams are attainable. Artists form a community with a long tradition of passing on knowledge, he said.
Working with ASU’s young performers, much like working with the child performers in "Matilda," is inspiring because young people have no restraint and incredible imagination, he said.
As a swing, Burke is responsible for knowing the lines, choreography, lyrics and blocking for all male ensemble roles and is on-call at all times. Sometimes he is called to fill-in for a role mid-performance.
“I have a great advantage to teaching the [Master Class] because as a swing, I get to see the show from all angles. I process a lot of things in a different way,” he explained.
ASU Gammage’s Cultural Participation Program Manager Melissa Vuletich said the importance of these types of programs exists in their innate ability to connect performing arts and artists to the communities that surround us.
“This is not something every university can offer, and therefore it puts ASU in a great position to reach out to prospective students to say look what being a Sun Devil could mean for you,” Vuletich explained. “You can begin creating your professional network right here — not only through our phenomenal faculty, but in addition the contacts provided by the arts presenter on campus.”
"Matilda the Musical" opened at ASU Gammage on Feb. 7 and ran through Feb. 12.
“The show is so relevant right now,” Burke said. “It’s important that it is shared.”