- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

At 10 minutes to showtime, the studio at Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Va., is a cacophony of sound and movement as students and technicians make last-minute adjustments to the video cameras and control panels.

Actors Randle Mell (TV’s “24” and “Law and Order”) and Richard Thomas (TV’s “The Waltons”) sit on a couch in talk-show format cater-corner to Caleen Sinnette Jennings, American University professor of theater and a playwright and performer.

Ms. Jennings is moderating the cast members’ discussion of “Twelve Angry Men,” a play about a divided jury in a murder trial. She practices reading from a teleprompter as Mr. Mell and Mr. Thomas look out at the studio audience of about 30 theater students from Cecil D. Hylton and Woodbridge high schools.

Four Hylton High students record what Ms. Jennings says as they operate video cameras. They are part of a crew of students and broadcast technicians working in the high school’s studio, control room and call-in center.

“The facility is absolutely state of the art,” says Mr. Mell, who lives in Los Angeles and has been an actor for 30 years. “This is amazing for a high school.”

Promptly at 11 a.m., the Prince William Network — part of Prince William County Public Schools — and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts begin broadcasting a one-hour program accessible through satellite and Web transmission.

“The whole purpose is to share the artistic resources of the Kennedy Center with people who aren’t able to come to the Kennedy Center,” says R. Virginia Rogers, director of the Distance Learning Initiatives for the Kennedy Center’s education department.

Since 1993, the Kennedy Center, in cooperation with the Prince William Network, has presented the Kennedy Center Performing Arts Series of music, dance, theater and literary arts. The Prince William Network furnishes the studio space and an auditorium for larger performances, along with the broadcast equipment; the Kennedy Center offers the artistic resources and programs.

The performing arts series is broadcast via educational cable stations, PBS affiliates, school system networks and regional media centers in 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. A satellite truck, provided by an outside vendor, is parked outside the school to provide a satellite connection for transmission.

Students in Hylton High’s three-year television production program help broadcast each show in the series. Professional technicians train the students on how to produce live television programming and work as part of a crew.

“The fact you’re in a live situation is a good opportunity for students to get a taste of what it’s like in the real world of broadcasting,” Ms. Rogers says. “It’s more than textbooks. It’s the real thing.”

Students work as camera operators, floor directors, audio assistants, engineer assistants, technical directors and teleprompters.

“They’re working at a level that is professional,” says Ben Swecker, director of the Prince William Network and supervisor of media production services for Prince William County Public Schools. “They’re using professional equipment. When they go out in the field, they’ll know how to use it.”

Seventeen-year-old Andrew Haskell, an engineer assistant in the television production program, plans on attending film school and owning a production company after he graduates from Hylton.

“I instantly loved it,” Andrew says about taking his first television class four years ago. “I like being able to make something out of nothing. I like being able to take ideas from my head and put them on TV.”

Students such as Andrew are getting a head start for college, says Philip Yunger, lighting director for the Kennedy Center’s education department.

“They’re getting a major-league experience before they get there,” Mr. Yunger says.

Musicians, dancers, actors and writers come to Hylton High School to put together a one-hour program that can include performances, demonstrations and discussions. The last 10 to 15 minutes of each program is open to call-in, e-mail and audience questions.

“It gives [students] a renewed appreciation for theater because the actors talk firsthand about what it takes for them to play a part,” says Bettie Stegall, English and photojournalism teacher at Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. “They learn that directors and actors have a great deal of liberty when interpreting parts.”

Ms. Stegall takes students from her Advanced Placement classes to see performances in the series. Before they go, she gives them research, creative writing and other assignments related to the program they will be seeing.

“Learning doesn’t have to be a painful act. We try to make it fun. We try to make it something they enjoy,” says Billy Taylor, a professional piano player since 1944 and leader of his own trio as well as artistic adviser for jazz for the Kennedy Center. He has performed a few times for the performing arts series with the Billy Taylor Trio.

“It’s an opportunity to talk about an American kind of music and explain this is what we do and how we do it,” Mr. Taylor says.

Teachers and educators can tape the programs in the series or access them on the Internet for free, Ms. Rogers says, adding that the Kennedy Center asks that those interested in the programs register online. So far, 1,400 school systems, individual schools, regional media centers and television stations have registered, she says.

The Kennedy Center provides a study guide to the schools that are registered. The guides contain information on the artists and content of the programs along with instructional activities connected to the National Standards for Arts Education.

“It’s not all performance. We like to have a variety for an exciting series,” Mr. Swecker says.

The Kennedy Center Performing Arts Series lasts each year from October to May, and a total of 75 programs have been broadcast so far. The series is available on the Kennedy Center’s Distance Learning home page at www.kennedy-center.org/pwtv.

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