Virtual virtuosos: Guest artists logging on to local theater kids

Catalina Cabello-Corona, 11, congratulated T.J. Newton for his ability to answer kids' questions so well on Friday.

HARLINGEN — Acting, singing or dancing?

Catalina Cabello-Corona, 11, wanted to know which was most important, and guest artist T.J. Newton had a great answer.

“I think if you really want to find success you have to be great at all three, but I will say that acting can save you from a lot,” said Newton, a New York City-based performer who spoke to Harlingen school district drama students Friday.

Newton was the first guest artist of the season to give a master class Friday afternoon to students of the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory. He started the day, however, by giving a 40-minutes class to students in the advance track of Gutierrez Middle School of Arts and Sciences.

Of course in the time of COVID-19, it was all done online, which actually helped make it happen.

“All these people — singers, dancers, actors, actresses, film — you know they need work,” said Lee Ann Ince, coordinator of fine arts for the Harlingen school district.

“So we kind of capitalized on that as a district,” Ince said. “We decided, ‘Well, it’s not realistic to fly in guest artists, but wow, we could get one every Friday virtually.’”

And that’s what they’re doing.

“This virtual world has been tough on everyone,” Ince said. “But there are some upsides in the fact that we can access so many amazing people and bring in even more. It’s more cost effective and the kids are going to get more training. So yeah that’s exciting.”

Newton appreciated the opportunity. He’s been out of work since the lockdown. He was touring the country with the theater show “Spamilton” — a spoof of the popular musical “Hamilton.” But that ended abruptly in March in reaction to the pandemic.

“I had a wonderful time this morning,” Newton said. “All the kids were so attentive and eager to ask about musical theater. I wasn’t expecting so many specific questions. They really know what is happening in the entertainment world.”

Like Ince, he also sees some advantages to the virtual situation.

“I’m based in New York, so I’m getting to talk to kids that are across the country that I wouldn’t necessarily get to talk to unless I was in their city on tour,” he said.

The kids thoroughly enjoyed their time with him as he took them through some dance steps and then spoke to them one on one, all from the comfort of his home in New York and theirs in the Valley.

“I feel in one word empowered because the dance made me feel so powerful,” said Adrianna Rodriguez, 13, an eighth-grader at GMS.

“I feel like it gave me a lot of serotonin,” she said. “I feel really happy right now. I’m very grateful for this right now. He’s an amazing teacher. I understood everything he said very clearly.”

Catalina, a sixth grader at GMS, sang Newton’s praises far and wide for passing her litmus test.

“Not a lot of adults, when I talk to them they don’t know how to talk to me very well,” she said. “But he’s great with kids. Yes, he’s great with children. He answered questions great. I understood him perfectly. Yeah! It was just amazing.”

More guest artists are planned for each Friday this fall.