Graduating from college in the midst of a global pandemic that has shuttered much of the entertainment industry and severely impacted school music programs was not what Camas natives Ellie Cook and Sierra Aton envisioned when they finished their respective musical theater and music education degrees.
But that’s exactly where the two childhood friends and 2016 Camas High graduates, found themselves last spring during Aton’s college graduation party.
“It’s a weird time to be going into the arts,” said Aton, 22, who recently graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a music education degree. “A lot of (school) districts are just trying to not furlough (music) teachers.”
Cook, 22, who graduated from Central Washington University with a degree in musical theater in March, right before the pandemic hit, had hoped to start her career on the stage directly after college, but COVID-19 put a damper on those plans.
“With the state of the entertainment industry, I can’t pursue my passion at this moment in time,” Cook said.
Instead, Cook and Aton — friends since meeting in the first grade at Helen Baller Elementary School — have thrown themselves into a new project: teaching a musical theater class at Virtuosity Performing Arts Studio in Camas, the same place they first honed their dance skills.
“I think Sierra’s mom was the one who came up with the idea,” Cook said. “She said, with my dance and theater background and Sierra’s voice and music (background), we would have a really solid musical theater foundation.”
Candace Miller, general manager and co-owner of Virtuosity Performing Arts Studio, agreed.
“It’s a great story of our homegrown citizens and businesses uniting for the best,” Miller said of her former students bringing their skills back to Virtuosity to help teach the next generation of musical theater enthusiasts. “Broadway may be in Ellie’s future, but, for now, we’re so thankful to have her with us while we can.”
Cook and Aton spent most of the summer creating curriculum for the new class and kicked off the first sessions this week. With the classes half full, they said there is still time for students who would like to register for either the Monday-Wednesday class of the Tuesday-Thursday sessions. Both classes, which run from 4 to 7:30 p.m. twice a week, in-person at the Virtuosity studio in Camas, are geared toward students in grades six through 12 and can accommodate a wide range of musical theater abilities, from absolute beginners to those planning to move on to a musical theater career.
Cook will teach dance technique (including ballet, tap and jazz) and theater fundamentals classes, while Aton concentrates on teaching voice, music fundamentals and music theory classes. At the end of the 12-week class, which runs through the first week in December, students will perform to a limited (and socially distanced) audience of parents and family members.
Cook, the daughter of Becky and Chris Cook, of Camas; and Aton, whose family includes her husband, Ryan, parents, Cindy and Todd Hostetler, and younger brother, Alex, a senior at Camas High, said they are feeling optimistic about their futures despite the pandemic — and thanks to their new musical theater classes.
“I’m feeling very optimistic and that’s not a feeling I’ve had this entire time (during the COVID-19 shutdowns),” Cook said. “This gives me something to look forward to. I’m over-the-moon excited about it. And it’s giving Sierra and I the opportunity to do what we love to do and take what we’ve learned and put it into something really creative.”
Though the classes will be a bit different from what the women are used to — with mask requirements for all teachers and students, temperature and screening checks before each class and as much social distancing as possible — Cook and Aton are excited about the new program.
“In this situation that neither of us could have predicted being in after college, this gives us a chance to fulfill our passions and give back to the community. We’re making lemonade out of lemons,” Aton said. “I’m encouraged to see how many kids have signed up already. And to know that we have the support of (the Virtuosity owners) and the (arts) teachers at the local high school … it’s just very encouraging.”
To learn more about the new musical theater program at Virtuosity, visit facebook.com/vpastheatre.
To register for classes, visit virtuositypas.com/classes/musical-theater/musical-theater-landing.