Children’s Performing Arts Center (CPA) in White Bear Lake is focused on providing equal opportunities for all children to get involved in the arts and creatively express themselves through performing. They offer a theater experience for any child in grades kindergarten through 12. CPA’s executive director Kari Bullion has a background in dance and community theater. She is personally invested in making sure creative outlets are a part of kids’ lives. “I love working in a place that feels like it’s part of a community, where I can help support the creative lives of students and ensure that family is at the forefront,” says Bullion. Bullion has been part of CPA’s staff since 2011, when she assumed the role of treasurer.
Bullion first became involved when she and her husband wanted to provide their own children with a theater education and enrolled them in CPA.
“We felt it was important to enrich our children’s education through the arts,” says Bullion. After a search for the right venue to provide an arts experience, they chose CPA.
“I wanted my children to learn how to confidently and effectively speak in front of people,” says Bullion.
Joshua Wollan as Jim Bauer from Runaway Learning Machine
Space to Grow
When CPA was founded in 2005, activities were held at the Forest Hills United Methodist Church. During that first year, there were 27 children in the program. In 2013, to accommodate continued growth, CPA moved to Hosanna Lutheran Church. Eventually, even more space was needed for classes, rehearsals and performing spaces, so during the 2016–2017 school year, CPA partnered with Forest Lake High School for use of space.
They also joined forces with Lakeshore Players Theatre and White Bear Lake’s Hanifl Performing Arts Center, where CPA has offices and classrooms.
Each year, CPA’s main performance is produced by its Legacy Program, which runs 22 weeks from September to February and culminates in a full week of performances. Productions have included Mulan, Alice in Wonderland and Frozen Jr.
Participants are divided by age, with Rising Stars for kids in K–2, Shooting Stars for grades 3-6 and kids from grades 7–12 grouped together. A group of junior directors in grades 7-12 help with costumes, sets, props, music, dance, and sound and light tech.
The evaluation process for assigning roles for plays takes from four to six weeks. During this time, the staff looks at acting, singing and dancing abilities, although every child will have a part to play, no matter their skill level, age or experience. The process takes place while the kids are studying and preparing for the play they will perform at the end of the program. Members must commit to rehearsals every Sunday afternoon. Skilled parent volunteers make costumes and create nearly eight different sets for each production.
Joaquin Battle as Orin Scrivello from Little Shop of Horrors
Theater for All
CPA prioritizes inclusivity. Each child enrolled in the program is given a role. Registration for any of the programs is straightforward and meant to be easy for families. Parents need to fill out registration forms and pay a yearly fee of $25 along with a program participation fee. Once those steps are completed, kids are ready to start acting.
“Every student is welcomed into our community, valued, supported, challenged and given opportunities to thrive,” says Bullion.
Olivya Chau as Baroness Schraeder from The Sound of Music
Parents and Professionals
CPA also focuses on getting participants’ family members involved with the programs, classes and performances. When CPA began, all teachers and directors were parents, grandparents and other family members who volunteered their time. Bullion was also once a parent volunteer, sharing her knowledge of dance. CPA now has a staff of artists recommended by parents, teachers and staff of the performing arts center, though family members still play important roles within the program.
“We go through a very thorough interview process and reference check. We also require everyone who volunteers or works with the students to have a background check,” says Bullion.
Sensory-friendly and Affordable
Along with creating an inclusive environment, CPA wants to make sure anyone who wants to can have access to the shows and feel comfortable and safe while viewing performances.
“We want our productions to be accessible to the entire community including seniors, patrons with disabilities and anyone unable to pay,” Bullion says.
They have developed a sensory-friendly experience for people with sensitivities to light and sound levels. They also offer a pay-what-you-can show during every production. This helps keep the theater enjoyable for everyone.
“CPA strives to provide an environment where everyone can enjoy live theater at their own comfort level, whether that is with house lights on, the ability to move around or make noise without worrying about disturbing other patrons, in an ADA-compliant building,” Bullion says.
Grappling with Social Issues
Through their Spotlight on a Cause program, every fall season students are cast in a production centered on an issue youths may experience. Through their performances, they bring awareness of problems within the community. Students learn about these issues through rehearsing and performing, and they are also further educated on the cause they are working on. They choose an organization connected to the issues and donate the funds to support that organization’s work.
“After each performance, students teach audiences via talkbacks what they’ve learned about the issue, how they are impacted by the issue and they expand awareness further into the community,” says Bullion.
Participating in theater can boost kids’ self-reliance and teach them how to speak confidently, communicate effectively and present themselves in front of other people, all of which are important life skills that will aid them as they mature and grow.
“The self-confidence built while learning how to act, sing and dance in front of an audience can carry into everything you do,” Bullion says.