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Dublin High Sophomore Ryan McRee on the California State Summer School of the Arts

September 8, 2010

Only one in three high school students are accepted into the prestigious California State Summer School of the Arts program held at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) each summer.  Dublin High School sophomore Ryan McRee was one of those students and he writes about the experience of a lifetime.

by Ryan McRee (Dublin High Class of 2013 sophomore)

“Theatre has nothing to do with ‘self’. It has to do with relationships. Theater is not about discovering who you are, but it is about discovering your relationship to the audience, the people around you, and the universe.”

These are the words of Michael Fields, the head of the theatre program at the California State Summer School of the Arts (or “CSSSA”, as my fellow students and I came to know it). The school was made a permanent program in California in 1985, with the goal of attracting young artists from all over the state of California to be educated in their field and go on to have success in their careers. For the summer of 2010, the program was held at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, the first degree-granting university specifically for the visual and performing arts in the United States established through the vision and generosity of Walt Disney in 1961.

In order to audition for CSSSA, I was asked to make a brief video with my name, why I wanted to enter the program, and a short monologue from a play. Towards the end of May I got my packet with all the information I would need for the program. [Editor’s note: acceptance into the CSSSA program is very competitive – on average only one in three candidates is accepted.]

On my first day at the CalArts campus, I was rushed through the process of registering, receiving my photo ID tag, and being given my room assignment. I was assigned to a three-person dorm with two students from the creative writing department. The school consists of seven departments: Theatre, Creative Writing, Film, Visual Arts, Music, Animation, and Dance. During my time at CSSSA, I met all different types of people and learned to appreciate and understand various art forms I had never taken any interest in before. Outside of classes, CSSSA offered optional evening and afternoon activities for all of the students to enjoy, from movie screenings to art shows to even a class about chocolate. Each student had required classes and events to attend to Mondays through Saturdays, but outside of that they were free to attend any event they wanted as long as they didn’t have scheduling conflicts. Each week when I got my class schedule, I would look at the events calendar and plan out everything I would do each week and be sure to squeeze in at least one extra-curricular activity, and some days I had up to five! I found my time at CSSSA imitating college life; I had different classes and a different schedule every day.

Being a theatre student, my classes consisted of Physical Comedy, Contact Improvisation, Movement, Tai-Chi, Voice, Stage Combat, and a daily Acting class, as well as optional electives such as Musical Theatre, Acting For Camera, Clown, Mask, and Shakespeare. In addition to these regular classes there were one-time classes, ranging from a Master Musical Theatre class taught by Jason Alexander (best known as “George” from Seinfeld), a class in the African dance of capoeira, and class on “the business” where a casting director came and talked to us about the casting process of plays and movies. Many of my regular classes focused primarily on breathing and relaxation exercises, highlighting the importance of being physically strong and connecting the body to the mind. I learned many relaxation techniques and muscle workouts that I have developed into a daily routine to get myself prepared for the day.

Aside from the classes, the best part of the CSSSA program is being surrounded by artists of all kinds. I went to several classes based around other majors, such as visitations by published writers who came to talk to the creative writing department, sculptors showing pictures of and discussing the process of their art, and independent filmmakers that screened their work and discussed the background elements behind it. I built upon old knowledge within my practice, but it was being around other artists that really changed me as a person and broadened my perspective on the world. Two of my friends, one my roommate and one from next door, included me in their work. I got to watch myself on screen in a film student’s project ad I got to act in front of the Creative Writing department with one of my new theater friends, saying lines that my roommate had written.

Once it was time to say goodbye, I wasn’t nearly as homesick as I thought I would be. I had spent four weeks of my summer in Southern California and I still wanted more. CSSSA had become a part of me in my time there, and everything I have learned, technically and spiritually, I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I have learned things to incorporate into the Dublin High Drama Department and I have learned things that I will be reminded of when I look at a sculpture or listen to a piece of music. The goal of the program was to prepare me for an uncertain future and help me make the most of it, and I feel it has succeeded. But most of all, I know that in twenty years when I look back on my leap into the world of art, I will remember the California State Summer School of the Arts as the place where it all began.

For information on the program, go to www.csssa.org.

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