Inside a black box theater on the fourth floor of California Institute of the Arts’ (CalArts) campus, two students stumble upon a seemingly lifeless body on the ground during their physical comedy class.
To the smiles and chuckles of their classmates, the students act surprised as they move the body’s arms and scream as a leg slowly moves upright on its own.
“You can manipulate the body… You have a template, you put it together and you invent,” said Michael Fields, director of the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) and teacher of the physical comedy class. “Isn’t it interesting that comedy is really serious? The more serious it is, the more it makes us laugh.”
The physical comedy lesson is part of the Theater program at the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA), a four-week, pre-professional program for talented and motivated high school students from California.
From July 8 to Aug. 4, gifted students in the visual, literary, performing and media arts from across California—and from around the world—live and study at the CalArts campus to enhance their artistic skills and develop as individuals.
“It’s more widely known now, for a while CSSSA was like a state secret,” said Fields, who has been with CSSSA for more than 27 years. “There are very few programs like this where you live here; it’s really a pre-professional program.”
Currently in its 31st summer session, CSSSA invites students in grades 9 to 12 to apply to participate in one of seven departments: Animation, Creative Writing, Dance, Film, Music, Theater and Visual Arts.
The acceptance process is a selective one, with one in five applicants being invited to participate in the summer program based on their talent, creativity and individual recommendations, according to Fields.
“We have panels and the panels are comprised of the chair of the department and one faculty person and then they [the applications] are scored,” Fields said. “We don’t look at anything but the work and that’s the primary determinant.”
The student body is “representative of the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the state.” This year’s class of 520 includes students from about 48 of California’s 58 counties and 20 students from out of the state or the country.
Santa Clarita resident and Saugus High School senior Robert Miller realized how difficult it was to get into CSSSA when he received his acceptance letter to CSSSA’s Theater program this May.
“My mom set up a camera in the car after school one day and filmed my reaction opening it,” Miller said. “I understood how hard it is to get in and how low the acceptance rate is, so I was very grateful that I was accepted.”
According to Fields, no student is denied acceptance to CSSSA based on their financial status. All students are able to apply for scholarships to pay for the tuition of $1,785 for California residents and $5,500 for non-residents.
“I love CSSSA’s policy about now no kid will be turned away because of their financial situation,” Miller said. “There are wealthy families and there are poor families and it’s just all about the passion and the willingness to get better at one’s craft.”
Each day, students in CSSSA’s seven programs follow different daily schedules that run from morning into night.
During the day, students study theories and techniques, receive training from teachers and guests lecturers, learn lessons in studio classes and forums, and attend concerts, screenings and workshops.
For example, for CSSSA’s 90 Theater students classes begin at 9 a.m. as students break into groups to study physical comedy, tai chi or dance for actors.
“Then they have a break for 15 minutes and go into voice classes, contact improve, movement,” Fields said. “In the afternoon there’s acting studios and electives like musical theater or acting for camera.”
Visual Arts students follow a different schedule and take studio classes like painting, drawing, ceramics and printmaking.
In printmaking class, students learn how to create techniques like linocuts, drypoint, monoprints and design.
“At the end they complete a collaborative work with someone they’ve never worked with before or talked to before,” said Printmaking Teacher Donna Brown who was a student at CalArts and has worked with CSSSA for eight years. “I hope they learn to take what they learn here and never use it again or use it in their own art practice or develop their own sense of self.”
In the evenings, all of the students attend workshops presented by international guest artists.
“At night in every department there’s events or screenings or showings with professional artists from all over the world,” Fields said. “Last week we had artists from Zimbabwe, the Republic of Georgia, Puerto Rico and India so they get exposed to things that they would not ordinarily ever see.”
Students also have the opportunity to attend plays at the CalArts Theater and concerts at places like the Hollywood Bowl.
“I’ve seen more plays in my time here then I have this entire year and it’s a different kind of play than I’m used to,” Miller said.
When students complete CSSSA, they leave as “California Arts Scholars” with access to new skills, techniques, ideas and training they did not have before.
As a theater performer, Miller said his two weeks at CSSSA have already taught him about the physicality of acting and the importance of working as an ensemble on stage.
“I did not realize how one has to be in tune with every part of your body in order to be successful in a scene or in this business,” he said. “The success of a production and a scene relies on the energy of the performers.”
Miller—who first delved into the musical theater world during his freshman year of high school—said the program is helping him “make up for lost time” and preparing him for college auditions and the professional acting world.
For many students, CSSSA creates an artistic environment where they feel comfortable taking risks, thinking critically and exploring new disciplines.
“It’s an environment that’s very special to be a part of. Every single student wants to get better and that’s their overall goal: how do I get better at my craft?” Miller said. “It’s so invigorating to be surrounded by that passion, it fuels me and I feel great about fueling others as well. The instructors do a fantastic job at creating this place.”
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_