Training Future Stars

About 80 miles north of Manhattan, in the quaint New England town of New Milford, Connecticut, you can find the buzz of Broadway. Under the direction of husband-and-wife team Scott Wise and Elizabeth Parkinson, both former Broadway stars, FineLine Theatre Arts aims to provide students with a top-notch—yet accessible—performing arts education. Just two years old, the studio now boasts roughly 250 students and alumni who have gone on to dance at North Carolina School of the Arts, Point Park College, University of the Arts and Mercyhurst College, as well as with such companies as MOMIX, Donald Byrd/The Group and Spectrum Dance Theater.

“We believe that the performing arts are fundamental to human expression and should be part of lifelong learning, and that the arts play a life-affirming role in our lives,” explains Parkinson. “FineLine Theatre Arts invites the entire community to fully participate in the central joys of living: acting, singing and dancing.”

Drawing from Experience

The school is a reflection of the pair’s experiences as performers, says Parkinson, who started studying ballet at age 13 in Tampa, Florida. Spending five summers at Joffrey Ballet intensives paid off when she joined Joffrey II and then danced with the main company for eight years. She also danced with Eliot Feld and Donald Byrd/The Group before making the transition to musical theater. Parkinson took theater dance classes with Chet Walker at Broadway Dance Center as well as Fosse workshops, which helped her land a part in the national tour of Fosse.

Raised in Pocatello, Idaho, Wise trained in acrobatics, jazz and ballet, but eventually shifted his focus to musical theater as well. He performed with Ballet Memphis and the Joffrey Concert Group before earning his first Broadway role in A Chorus Line in 1981 and going on to appear in 13 other Broadway shows and the film version of Chicago. A decorated veteran of the stage, Wise won a 1989 Tony Award for his role in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and was nominated for State Fair and Fosse. He also received an Astaire Award for his performance in Damn Yankees.

The two met while rehearsing for Fosse and married in 1999. They later worked together as cast members in Movin’ Out, on which Wise doubled as Twyla Tharp’s assistant. Parkinson received a 2003 Tony award nomination and an Astaire Award for her role as Brenda.

Putting aside their illustrious performance careers to open FineLine was a big decision for the couple. Yet they had reached a point where they were satisfied with their accomplishments and were increasingly interested in moving with their now 4-year-old son, James, to a quieter setting outside of New York City. Parkinson recalls thinking, “I’m really ready to share the joy that I have from my career.” Wise adds that the structure and pace of studio life is rewarding, if challenging: “Having the same group of kids each week is different from teaching a workshop,” he says. “You really have to teach the kids to dance. It’s a huge responsibility.”

Sharing the Knowledge

FineLine operates in a 3,000-square-foot facility comprising two dance studios and one music studio, offering classes in ballet, jazz, tap, musical theater, drama, acrobatics, body alignment and Pilates. Adult/teen entry-level classes are available in each discipline. Performance opportunities include an acting and two dance ensembles.

Parkinson teaches ballet, Wise teaches tap, and they both teach jazz. Former colleagues from the theater dance world come in to hold special workshops. In addition, FineLine inherited a renowned ballet staff when it absorbed students and teachers from the former School of Performing Arts, directed by Arlene Begelman, who now also instructs at FineLine. Wise says the ballet and acting departments have emerged as the school’s strengths. “You have to take ballet and acting if you’re going to be a performer on any level,” he explains.

Versatility is indeed a main focus of the studio. “The people who thrive [in show business] are the ones who are open to experiencing a lot of different things,” says Parkinson. “I want students to have as many options as they can.” In particular, she hopes to give them more opportunities than she was given: “There I was at the Joffrey, and I didn’t even know about the world of Broadway,” Parkinson recalls. “I really wish I had been exposed to singing and acting at a younger age. I appreciate the path I took, but I think I would have liked to have had a broader spectrum.”

Wise and Parkinson pride themselves on catering to individual students’ interests and strengths and identifying their goals. “Each one is custom-guided,” Parkinson says. Mary MacLeod, a former Fosse dancer and New York–based Broadway performer and dance instructor who frequently teaches theater dance classes at FineLine, attests to the pair’s ability to help students discover their personalities: “Scott and Liz connect well to these young people,” she says. “They really understand their individual students, which is fantastic. They make them feel safe to try and to trust.”

Planning for the Future

In the meantime, Parkinson looks forward to starting a nonprofit youth performing dance company, in addition to community outreach programs in local schools. “Our main goal is to have more performing,” says Wise.

For now, an all-discipline production is planned for June 2009. “It’s a little ambitious, but we’re going to do Bohemian Rhapsody,” based on the Queen song, says Parkinson. She and Wise, who is in charge of staging the production, will audition a local band of youth musicians to play in it. “We’re really excited about it because we’ll be able to incorporate a lot,” she adds. “It’s a great teaching tool—combining all of the disciplines.”

This summer, the couple also held their first annual two-week Musical Theatre Laboratory on Martha’s Vineyard, designed to expose serious musical theater students to the reality of working in the industry through a learning process that mimics the professional world of Broadway. They auditioned teens, ages 14 to 18, for 25 coveted spots in the summer session. The curriculum was similar to that of FineLine’s regular program, but included additional instruction in musical theater history, musical theater repertory, monologue study, audition techniques and writing.

Even though both directors are demanding, they take pains to offer corrections in a positive, nurturing way. “You have to make sure there’s joy in it,” says Wise, “because if you beat it out of the students, then they’ve lost any love for dance at all.” Adds Parkinson, “To be a success in this business, you have to have a passion for it and a really solid determination. I try to make students realize that hard work can be fun.” DT

Allison Duke is a New Hampshire-based dancer, teacher and writer who contributes to Pointe, Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.

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