Are you uncomfortable in a group setting? Feel awkward at the office? Want to come out of your shell? These are some of the reasons people give for wanting to take an acting class at St. Louis Park’s Harmony Theatre Co. and School, says improv instructor Matt Saxe.
“Acting is a very powerful tool to discover who you are and to be able to build your social skills, your personal skills and your emotional health, too,” says Harmony Theatre founder and director Elena Khalitov. Khalitov was working as a psychologist when she decided to do acting exercises as therapy for a group of depressed patients. “That’s when I realized how powerful these exercises can be and [it’s] how I got interested in acting,” she explains So interested, in fact, that she opened her own company, Harmony Theatre Co. and School, in 2004 in St. Louis Park.
Khalitov partnered with local actors to teach everyone from adults to teens to young kids. “We developed a curriculum that focused on self-realization, concentration, creativity and empowerment,” says Khalitov.
The team started out just with classes, and then decided to produce their own shows. “Since 2004, we’ve done about 20 stage productions. We involve professional actors and students in theater and film productions,” says Khalitov.
Harmony Theatre tries to stay away from mainstream, pop-culture productions. One of their latest productions was Children’s Republic, a true story about a Jewish doctor who stayed with endangered orphans during World War II instead of escaping himself.
“Our next big project will be a play about Israel set in modern times,” says Khalitov. “We want to do a story that American people can relate to, instead of just the war and violence they see [about Israel].”
But working with children is closest to Khalitov’s heart.
Harmony Theatre teaches acting and filmmaking classes to children via Big Brother and Big Sisters, the Ronald McDonald House, Lutheran Social Services Housing and Family Services, and Agamin Classical Academy. They hope do even more work with schools and social service organizations, especially those who serve children at risk.
“We made a bunch of silent films with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters,” says Harmony Theatre film and video instructor Alex Weston. “Comedy, black and white, Charlie Chaplin style,” adds Khalitov.
“The kids generated the story ideas. We had a limited time, so they did not have to learn lines and we could direct kids while we were rolling,” said Weston. “I love seeing the lightbulbs go off as they start to understand a little bit about the process and how the shows they watch are made,” says Weston.
Rivkah Borg, a St. Louis Park mom of three, has put her kids (ages 16, 13 and 9) in numerous Harmony Theatre productions and classes. “The kids have blossomed, from being shy and introverted to being willing to try different things,” Borg says. “They have learned creative-thinking skills, problem solving, writing and public speaking, in addition to developing friendships and having fun.”
“We had a girl who was in one of the programs, and her mom said they were going through difficult times and just being part of our program was better than any therapy because she was so happy with what she was doing,” says Khalitov. “We want to reach out to more kids who need that.”