Academy for the Arts offers arts education to community

Auditions for Matilda the Musical and Shrek Jr. are just weeks away, and 13-year-old Riley Moore still needs to choose a musical number and practice her comedic monologue.

It’s the reason she and the 10 other teens gathered in a second-floor classroom at Fairmont State University’s Wallman Hall signed up for The Perfect Package!, a class that promises to give their audition packages a professional polish.

The class is one of many Moore has taken through Fairmont State’s Academy for the Arts. The academy began more than two decades ago as a place for community members to take private music lessons and has since morphed into an all-encompassing, all-ages program that offers lessons in acting, dance, music, musical theater, visual arts and voice, all right on Fairmont State’s campus.

The culminating event each year is a musical. This year, the academy will stage two: Shrek Jr. in May and Matilda, co-produced with Fairmont State’s Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, in June.

If Moore is cast in one of the productions, which she’s counting on, it will be her third.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t even know I had this passion without this place,” Moore said.

It’s a refrain that Academy for the Arts Director Leigh Ann Bolyard has heard many times. While local in-school programs and after-school lessons teach the basics, none of them are able to provide the professional instruction, wide range of offerings and access to university facilities that the academy provides.

“We’re filling a gap,” Bolyard said. “We see a real need for this in our community.”

“We have such a wealth of talent here with our kids and instructors,” said Jessica Ford, whose daughter, Cate, is currently enrolled in a dance class. “It’s a hidden gem.”

In a typical 10-week term, 125 to 170 students from Marion and neighboring counties register for group classes and private lessons, a number that has grown over the past several years. So many of those students return to audition for the musical that there often aren’t enough parts to go around.

It’s one of the reasons the academy is producing two shows this year, hoping all who want to are able to participate.

But all of this growth requires money, which the academy hopes to raise with the help of the Fairmont State Foundation. Academy programming has traditionally been self-funded, with tuition dollars paying for instruction and production costs. But more participation means more shows, and more shows require additional sets, staff and costumes, which tuition alone cannot cover.

In addition to raising money for Matilda and Shrek Jr., Bolyard would also like to expand the academy’s existing scholarship fund, which offers need and merit-based assistance to deserving students.

“We never want someone not to sign up for a class or private lessons because of finances,” she said. “The bigger we build our scholarship fund, the more we can offer. And we really believe in the importance of the arts to children and teens. Many studies have shown it and we’ve seen it firsthand — the arts build confidence.”