Stage, Storytelling and ‘Shrek’…So Much at Wiremill Academy
In the theater world, “tech week”–the final week of rehearsal–notoriously breeds chaos and stress. Yet for the Wiremill Academy actors, that could not be farther from the truth. Twenty-seven beaming, colorful, and excited young actors bounce in the wings in their new costumes, thrilled to take on their roles this weekend in the swamp of Shrek the Musical Jr in front of the large theater. Standing confident, assured, and talented, they eagerly wait to transform into their characters, ready for the cue.
Tucked in at the intersection of Wilton, Weston, and Redding, Wiremill Academy for the Performing Arts bustles with music, the thumping of a well practiced dance, and the laughter of eager students. The rehearsal space is filled with positive energy and tingling with talent, clearly a second home for so many of the passionate and excited actors.
Founders Rick Hilsabeck, Sarah Pfisterer, and Mary Jo Duffy opened Wiremill Academy for the Performing Arts in 2011, after building successful musical, dance and theater careers of their own. As teachers, directors, choreographers, coaches, and vocalists, they do whatever they can to best enrich their students’ experience, taking on whatever role is needed as a team.
The three are no strangers to the theater world. Duffy “grew up with music” as the oldest of eight kids. Every week her dad would take a day and instruct her and her siblings to fill the house with song. They would “line up like in the Sound of Music” and each would perform. It was never a question for Duffy that this industry was where she belonged.
Hilsabeck and Pfisterer similarly grew up around music, pursuing degrees in Acting and Vocals, respectively, in college. Pfisterer had been on a Pre-Med track, and says the leap from science to art is not at all rare: “If I had a nickel for every time I heard from another actor that they were pre-med, I would be rich” she adds, something she attributes to the “special” impact the arts have on informing peoples lives.
Eventually both Hilsabeck and Pfisterer wound up on Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera stage side by side, playing the two leads together in 1989. They are now married, and both continue to “perform due to greed and luck,” according to Rick, in addition to maintaining Wiremill.
Wiremill was formed after the trio began to settle down into families of their own, to fill a niche they saw in the community. “We all had kids and we felt like something was missing in the area in terms of schools for the performing arts, and so we started talking,” Pfisterer remarks.
Acknowledging the opportunities to perform in the area, and the role important teachers had in furthering their own careers, they envision Wiremill as a comprehensive instructional resource for kids who are interested in theater as a profession,”or even just for continuing it on in high school,” Pfisterer states.
They see the main part of their job as not necessarily to put on the best show, but to educate and inspire–and to pass on their passion.
“Teaching is something that informs your own performing as priorities just change in your life as you get older … we made the decision to put the energy of what we have been trained to do into this,” Hilsabeck adds.
An estimated 100 students a year, from 1st to 12th grade participate in Wiremill programs. During the year, they run 14-week semesters, plus three camps each summer–two that stage plays and one that specific focuses on Improv. Each semester, Wiremill offers private lessons, workshops, and a play, where rehearsals meet once a week to accommodate scheduling conflicts. “We think it’s awesome they want to do all that,” Pfisterer remarks, “As Parents, we felt that that [flexibility] was our responsibility.”
Wiremill also offers a course to guide high school students hoping to pursue theater or music in college through the long audition process.
One of Wiremill’s main tools is to give students ‘permission’ to take risks, as the three of them put it. They provide support and encouragement to allow kids to try out their own ideas and make a character, piece, or movement their own. “It’s really a beautiful thing to watch a child who suddenly has an epiphany or creates something with their mind and their bodies in a scene, or a piece of music, or a play,” Duffy reflects.
Many of their plays are selected for the message they teach the kids. “Take Shrek,” Hilsabeck says, the spring semester play coming to the Wilton High School Little Theater this Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1. “It’s about all these different kinds of people, curious about one another.”
Two of their summer plays, The Journey of the Noble Gnarble and Giants in the Sky, encapsulate those messages.”The plays all have these themes of kindness, helping one another, and being inclusive, and we love that for kids. It’s so important today” Duffy echoes.
For them, the impact of this passion for theater translates far beyond the stage. Discovering “the power of creative expression,” they believe, allows their students to communicate creatively and effectively, as well as become more confident. Hilsabeck remarks that taking any specific tools you need for a profession and “matching it with creative expression, [is essential] in being able to communicate well and with a sense of authenticity.”
Regardless of career interests, Pfisterer insists that an education in the arts is fundamental, because “it teaches you persistence, tenacity, confidence, [produces] an open mind and an open heart, a more accepting nature, and a love of learning.”
Tickets for “Shrek the Musical Jr” are available at the door Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1, at 6:30 p.m.–admission is $12 and cash is always appreciated, though personal checks are accepted. To learn more about Wiremill’s classes and summer programs, call 203.544.9494 or visit their website.