Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a sentimental 1934 novella by Robert Hilton (with radio, stage and film adaptations) about self effacing career teacher, Mr. Chipping. Nicknamed Mr. Chips by his students, the book’s hero spent his life in the profession and was much beloved.
When Corinna Sowers-Adler talks about her theater and voice students, she radiates enthusiasm with warm, even wattage. In the tradition of the Hilton book and Dead Poets Society, rookies from 10-19 learn considerably more than any curriculum. Methods are user-friendly. Technique, and in some cases, life solutions, are tailored to individuals. Sowers-Adler often finds herself acting as trusted mentor and/or confidante. “You’re nurturing the person, not just the performer.” The educator has found, as Joseph Campbell would say, her own palpable bliss.
Left: First place win-talent show age 9; Right: Senior Recital Schuylkill Haven Area High School age 16
Directly after graduating with a degree in Theater, Sowers-Adler began to teach voice at the community Conservatory based in her alma mater. The young woman passed on expertise honed from the age of 12 when she’d been introduced to the E. Herbert Caesari’s School of Bel Canto in a bespoke course of study that included opera, art songs, and musicals. “It’s like a tap dancer should take ballet because it gives you strength and core. Bel Canto lets you sing any style.” Its technique, she tells me, helps a vocalist find his/her own voice by approaching it as an instrument, making singing as effortless as speaking.
“I believe in the marriage of acting and singing…Whether I’m delivering a monologue or talking to you passionately about something, words come out naturally, but like rushes of wind. (She demonstrates in the telling.) Did you hear how much breath and diction emerged with the word passion?” she asks with a tone of encouragement and patience. “If I were singing that line, I’d need emphasis, the same kind of burst of breath. I want students to learn how to speak when they sing.”
Having resolved to be a performer at age 4, winning a talent contest at 9 with – wait for it, Whitney Houston’s version of “The Greatest Love of All” – Sowers-Adler then also toured locally with a children’s company. The following semester, she founded a preteen musical theater class at the Conservatory. “I was auditioning and performing, but I just fell in love with teaching. It never felt like something I would do until.”
There was method to her madness. The nascent instructor stuck close to Wilkes University waiting for the graduation of Nicholas Adler. Two years later, they wed and incorporated NiCori Studios & Productions – an amalgam of their names. At first, private students came to the house.
Early acting and directing programs
Sowers-Adler built up what became a full fledged program at the Conservatory using only student support staff. For 10 years, she taught virtually all classes: Acting for Young Performers, Theater and Imagination (Story-telling), Musical Theater… Annually, the kids would perform a full scale show. By the time she left, there were 7 different areas of study.
To say she rested on appreciable laurels would be a vast misnomer. Vast. A few years into the Conservatory program, she and her husband took over the Pocono Playhouse Children’s Theater (5 years) and, midway through that tenure, added Bucks County Playhouse Children’s Theater to their artistic direction and management roster (3 years), during which she directed 10 shows in 11 weeks. Think about that.
Now add her schedule at Wilkes, responsibilities as Director of Theater New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts (5 years) AND as Executive Director Gaslamp Academy of Performing Arts (3 years). NiCori closed during those summers. Were the venues in proximity of one another, I ask? (Beat) “No. I was in my car all the time, but we had a ball.” Clones? The word “overwhelmed” seems to have been omitted from Sowers-Adler’s lexicon.
The Wizard of Oz: Nicholas Adler, Kesley Stalter, Heidi Zimdahl, Kate Hoover, Mike Durkin, Nick Pearce
“You name a fairytale, I directed it. MTI (Music Theater International) has a junior version of a great many shows!” Sowers-Adler presented The Wizard of Oz 12 times. Older kids were given characters while the little ones played Munchkins. How do you help a young child to memorize something? I ask. “You don’t have them memorize, you have them learn it by making choices. Take a direction like Sally had a balloon and walked down the street. What color was the balloon? What street was she on and where was she going? The kid won’t forget the line because he/she has made it into a picture.”
Sowers-Adler also uses the system with older actors. “The stronger your choices are, the more vibrant and real a piece becomes to both you and your audience.” The same approach is applied to singing – deconstructing lyrics for meaning, building back stories for characters. Some of her students write pages and pages of history. “If we can get them to fall in love with the work, that’s the thing.” She beams.
Many summer aspirants were those she was training elsewhere. A boy who started with her at 12 just graduated from Yale with a degree in directing. The oldest are in their mid-20s. Tight knit relationships are formed. Some groups become lifelong friends. Seasonal theaters are not run for educational purposes, though Sowers-Adler seems to work outside the box. Young people learn in the doing. “If a kid is right for something, I don’t care whether they’re 13 or 19.” The environment is professional.
Stage Mothers and Fathers come with the territory. My subject once received a “Who do you think you are?!” registered letter from a parent whose offspring had been promised a role by the departing director. Because 400 (!) kids tried out, Sowers-Adler made “Yes”, “No” and “Maybe” piles. Wisely, she videotaped auditions to reference back. It was apparently very clear why the woman’s daughter landed in “No.” The girl’s video and scorecard were sent to her mom by return mail. There was no response. “Another mother followed me home. It was like, Oh My God!”
NiCori Studios & Productions has been housed in the Oakeside Bloomfield Cultural Center since 2008 when the couple moved to Bloomfield, New Jersey (from Pennsylvania). Youth performers/students paying semester based tuition range from 12-19. In February, acting for ages 9-11 will be added. “I get them both raw and having had lessons. Sometimes I have to unteach, which is more of a challenge.” It’s not necessary to audition to take classes, only for a role in the yearly musical.
What’s the difference in teaching a 10 year old and an 18 year old? I ask. A 10 year old, she tells me, is still naïve. There’s opportunity to give them a really good start. The craft emerges a bit more like play. With teens, Sowers-Adler often becomes a confidante and mentor.
Apparently a number of these kids are “outcasts” at their schools. “When I grew up, if there was bullying, you’d leave it when you went home. Now it can follow you no matter where you are.” Competition and pressures increase as her students get ready for college. NiCori thinks of itself as a safe haven. “I put pressure on them to be the best they can be, but there are no consequences.”
Corinna with Kevin Bergen
Kevin, who is gay and an outspoken theater devotee, had such a tough time in school he dropped out and finished with a GED. Sometimes he’d telephone Sowers-Adler in the evening or on weekends. Now he’s a straight-A college student. “If anything happens to me, I want this kid to take over. I’ve had him almost 10 years. He’s like family.”
“…Corinna taught me basically everything I know about the art of theater. As the years went by, I witnessed her true artistry…Words I will always remember in regard to both performing and true life are Don’t act, just be, the key to true art…At the age of 18, I realize I have an interest in directing because of the way she showed me to look at how life is presented on stage… I often say I would’ve ended up one of those troubled teens who never found their way without her. She made a home for kids like me. I can’t thank her enough.” Kevin Bergen
Elizabeth Nucci as Catherine in Pippin
Elizabeth Nucci who started with Sowers-Adler at 8 and is now a high school freshman, was so consistently hard on herself, she dropped out for a year with anxiety issues despite Nicori’s encouragement and her parents’ emotional support. When she returned, cast in a musical, the young actress had difficulty hitting a pivotal note. “She’d cry, I just can’t do it! which you’re not allowed to say in my studio. You have to put a quarter in a jar if you do.”
Sowers-Adler worked hard with the girl who stayed the course and nailed it in the show. “The other night, we had our voice recital and she sang Victor Herbert’s The Prima Donna Song, high D flats and everything. It was awesome.” (She effortlessly demonstrates.) While self doubt doesn’t disappear overnight, those moments remain valuable reminders.
Corinna and her students onstage – Something Beautiful – The Appel Room – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
Part of the vocal program at NiCori centers on Cabaret. Sowers-Adler, who is a professional vocalist, has appeared in New York and New Jersey since 2010, at clubs, NiCori-produced Music at The Mansion (in the solarium of the cultural center), and Lincoln Center. Fall 2016, a handful of her students joined with the artist on stage at the Appel Room in Something Beautiful. “I love teaching and directing musical theater, but I love to PERFORM Cabaret. It’s the idea of having a musical conversation and of being vulnerable.”
“At 17, I was introduced to NYC Cabaret by Corinna and I’ve been hooked ever since. I was very nervous for my first solo show, Corinna told me to treat it as if you are entertaining in your living room. That way it is both comfortable and you are surrounded by loved ones… I love Cabaret because it can be anything you want it to be. I’m very thankful.” Gerry Mastrolia
Gerry Mastrolia hosting NiCori’s Winter Gala
Do the kids understand that kind of openness and exposure? “Yes. Some can get to it and others can’t. Even the ones who hate it know it’s good for them…” Sowers-Adler persuades them the audience is on their side and that unique perspective on a lyric/song is what makes it beautiful. “If they look at the floor or ceiling while performing, I often tell them the floor doesn’t care!” Storytelling is an art. A couple of get-your-feet-wet shows are performed in New Jersey, culminating each Spring in a New Works Cabaret Showcase at New York’s Don’t Tell Mama.
“Corinna has helped me to grow from a kid who loved to sing into a real performer! Every time I step out of the studio I feel more confident and better about my singing as well as any problems that were bothering me that day. Singing at NiCori has given me opportunities that I’m grateful for and exposed me to all music and theater that I love!” 12 year-old Zoe Gelman who appeared at the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual Cabaret Convention in October 2016
Zoe Gelman and Corinna – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
Each summer, NiCori offers a 5 week, 5 day-a-week Theatre Camp concluding in a musical produced at The Westminster Arts Center. Twenty to 30 youngsters participate. Into the Woods is planned for 2017. Show auditions preface the season. Attendees immediately start to learn group numbers.
Classes, skewed towards the needs of that year’s chosen musical, sometimes begin with what Sowers-Adler calls a “no tension”= freeform dance to loosen up. There are focus exercises like rhythmically passing around a ball of energy while calling out the alphabet. The creative instructor uses a lot of visuals. When the soft palate needs to lift, kids are asked to imagine a balloon at the back of the throat. Connecting to the next phrase might conjure a train hurtling down the track. Breathing and stretching are employed to dissipate tension.
Like Sally walking down a street, the group discusses what the character wants, obstacles, risks, even archetypes. At what age, I wonder, do kids understand the nature of archetypes? Sowers-Adler sometimes starts with these. “They’re so recognizable. How do people perceive me, how do I perceive myself? You’re often cast according to this. I always tell them, don’t spend your life trying to be Cinderella if you’re the Fairy Godmother. Be the best Fairy Godmother you can be.” A NiCori student knows the difference between character actors and ingénues, but Sowers-Adler eschews those terms.
Both NiCori and its camp include what many experience as first rejection. Maybe you want to be the witch and you’re not. Sowers-Adler says this is a matter of either “a preparation thing” or “the person is just not right for it.” She never leaves a young actor hanging, making sure to inform each on what her decision was based. “I tell them they won’t often be told. But this is about education.”
Teaching at Oakside
What about kids who simply don’t have the talent? Sowers-Adler reminds parents, this is a business. “My own husband is a great example. He started as a child actor in theater, but on the way discovered theater management.” Nicholas Adler is currently House Manager at Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as Executive Director of NiCori Studios and Productions. “If you really love this world, you’ll find your part in it. If you’re only looking for your name in lights, you’ll be disappointed.”
NiCori offers a full roster of courses with more on the horizon. Every year it produces a full length musical as well as Music at the Mansion, and New York club showcases. Sowers-Adler currently coaches 31 private voice students and is looking forward to working on the CD of her own recent show, High Standards.
Nicolas Adler and Corinna Sowers-Adler
Starting bare bones, the organization now has two stage managers, choreographer, a musical director, and designers for sets, light and sound. (Freelance.) This December, in hopes of both expansion and the ability to offer scholarships, NiCori presented its first Fundraising Gala.
“It must be tremendously interesting to be a schoolmaster, to watch students grow up and help them along; to see their characters develop and what they become when they leave school and the world gets hold of them. I don’t see how you could ever get old in a world that’s always young.” Goodbye Mr. Chips* by James Hilton
Corinna in Performance
Corinna Sowers-Adler has been illuminating students for 18 years. She’s a happy woman. And incredibly busy.
* Dead Poets Society is a 1989 film about inspirational teacher John Keating at a Vermont boarding school
Opening: Corinna Sowers-Adler and her students
Photos courtesy of Corinna Sowers Adler and NiCori unless otherwise credited
For more information, go to the website for NiCori Studios and Productions.