He adds a touch of Broadway at P.K. Yonge
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 2:36 a.m.
The advanced acting class looks out of place in the band room across the hall from P.K. Yonge's gleaming $6.5 million Performing Arts Center. Toiling amid locked-up band instruments and sheet music, 17 acting students are clumped in the middle of a room big enough for an entire marching band.
But when P.K. alumnus T.O. Sterrett leads these students in acting exercises, all the space is put to good use.
Sterrett, a composer/orchestrator/conductor/keyboard player used to Broadway theaters and Carnegie Hall, teaches acting these days at P.K. Yonge. A graduate of P.K.'s Class of 1971, Sterrett ventured back to Gainesville and to his alma mater this year to work part-time, helping to mold and guide a budding arts program with the hopes of influencing P.K. Yonge, the University of Florida and the city as a whole.
Sterrett is what those at P.K. call a "Lifer." "He started here in kindergarten and graduated from high school here," says P.K. Yonge director Fran Vandiver.
After an animated and energetic class discussion regarding the UF drama department's recent production of "Hamlet," it becomes easy to see why the 17 students are in such a big room.
12 years on Broadway
Luring someone with the credentials and experience of Sterrett is a big boost for P.K.'s performing arts program, which has taken off since the school's performing arts center opened in December 2003.
Sterrett's resume is impressive: After graduating magna cum laude from Duke, Sterrett jumped right into the performing arts, directing musical theater and playing cabaret rooms up and down the East Coast. He settled in New York City, where he worked in theater and as a composer for television and documentary films.
He has worked with such personalities as actor Mos Def ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") and actress S. Epatha Merkerson ("Law & Order"). He also has worked on four Emmy-nominated films and worked for 12 years on Broadway, where he played piano for the musical "Cats." Sterrett has performed in Carnegie Hall on several occasions.
"It was a very good proving ground for me," Sterrett says. "It was a confidence-builder and led to a lot of other connections."
So why come back to Gainesville, much less to a high school?
Vandiver looks back at how the relationship blossomed: "We spoke with him about getting involved in the grand opening (of the performing arts center), which he accepted," Vandiver recalls. "We also put together an advisory board, which included him. As the program evolved, the needs evolved. He and I were talking and all the pieces just fell together.
"He has brought a level of expertise in the performing arts that is not usually found in a public-school setting."
P.K. Yonge's gem
Sterrett says P.K. Yonge's commitment to an excellent program caught his eye.
"The team of people impressed me very much," Sterrett says. "And I love teaching. I love working with people, but it sure doesn't hurt when you have great facilities."
Indeed, while a high school having a talent of Sterrett's stature is unusual, so is P.K.'s performing arts center - a state-of-the-art 537-seat facility.
Offering a tour of P.K. Yonge's gem, Sterrett points out things a person unfamiliar with theater would not notice. At one point, Sterrett bangs his foot on the floor of the theater, offering a lesson on acoustics.
"See how it has just enough reverb in it," Sterrett says. "There's a certain clarity. It stays very natural."
Sterrett also points out something about his large classroom: "Even UCLA, which has amazing facilities, doesn't have acting classes this big. They don't have the space or the nice carpeting we get to use," Sterrett says.
The program starts with the facilities, but it will ultimately be defined by what Sterrett and the other staff can do inside and outside the school, he says.
Since he took part-time residence in Gainesville during the late summer, Sterrett says he makes the trip back to New York about once a month. Speaking from his cell phone, Sterrett explains that, on this trip, he will play piano for the Broadway show "Wicked" a couple times, but he also will try to do some things to spread the word about P.K. Yonge's performing arts program and its impressive facilities.
"There's a lot of talent around, but sometimes talent can't find opportunity," Sterrett says.
Sterrett is trying to put together what he calls a "unified audition," in which producers and directors from Florida, New York and beyond would come to P.K. Yonge to check out talent in the Florida area.
"You'd come and audition once for a large room of talent scouts," Sterrett explains.
Sterrett says he is also trying to set up P.K. as a venue for poetry readings in Florida.
"Basically, I'm just helping to try and get this on the map," he says.
Back in the band room, Sterrett begins class exercises, which seem to utilize the students' pent-up energy. The students get into groups of four or five, are given two paragraphs that recount Roger Bannister's historic four-minute mile in 1954. The students are then told to read the paragraphs to the class while at the same time trying to act out a person who Sterrett identifies in a whisper. They spread out in the room and get five minutes to create their act. The class then tries to guess who or what the group is imitating.
Acting out people ranging from ballerinas to robots to melodramatic talk-show hosts, the students vent their artistic energy, and fellow students respond with laughter and giggles. These exercises help teach and mold a student, Sterrett says.
For example, the day's class discussion on "Hamlet" ends with one point being made: If one aspect of a theater production goes wrong, the entire audience can lose its belief in the performance. In the groups, if one student fails to do his or her part, the class will have a tougher time guessing who or what the group is acting out.
Nina Waters is a 12th-grader in her third year in the performing arts program. She appreciates the opportunity Sterrett provides.
"At first it was intimidating, because he's worked with professionals for so long. But it's helpful because he knows what it takes in the world of performing arts," Waters says.
Sterrett mixes his classes with lectures, class discussions and more, but it's the acting exercises that really make the students respond, he says.
"I think breathing and relaxation techniques before performing help a lot," says Waters. "Also, his critiques of us help me understand what I can do to help myself get better."
A singing family
Sterrett's experience in the performing arts dates all the way back to his youth, as he was growing up in Gainesville.
Since even before his days at P.K., Sterrett has gone by T.O., which his parents began calling him soon after he was born.
"Tio is Spanish for uncle," Sterrett explains. "My parents thought it would be funny to have a little kid with the name uncle."
Sterrett's first name is Tyler, but he declines to tell what the O stands for. "It sounds too funny," Sterrett says.
His mother, Jane, taught private singing lessons, and his father, Del, was a music professor at UF, arriving here in 1948 and helping to guide and build UF's new music department. Both have since passed on.
Along with his parents and older brother and sister, Jamie and Vickie, the Sterrett family used to perform around Florida as the "Singing Sterretts." Focusing on folk and religious songs, they'd play at churches, retirement homes, for service clubs.
"I learned the basics at a very young age," Sterrett says. "If it's a sad song, act sad."
The family act had ended by the time Sterrett turned 16. By then, he was already entrenched in the performing arts through his experiences at P.K.
"I think the variety of performing arts available back then was influential," he says. "Back then it was very respectable to break a sweat. The generation now, it looks cool to not break a sweat or look like you've tried hard."
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