The exercise wasn't on the schedule, but Bill Brawley had learned to read the eyes of kids and improvise when the moment required it.
Monday morning in a rehearsal room at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 40 young vocalists were working on R. Kelly's ballad "I Believe I Can Fly," and Brawley abruptly turned the song into a group exercise. Or maybe therapy.
As pianist Jarod Sheahan played softly, Brawley, the director of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' annual Summer at the Center program, had each participant stand and utter a sentence that began with the words "I believe." None of the students, who came from alternative high schools and had assembled at Segerstrom for two weeks of musical theater training, had trouble coming up with one:
I believe in dreams.
I believe that everyone is beautiful in their own way.
I believe in giving someone a second chance.
It was about the mid-point of a hectic program: week two, day one. The students had spent the last week donning their green Summer at the Center T-shirts and practicing show tunes, pop songs and dance moves, and now they had two milestones ahead.
One was a CD of the rehearsal, which they would record that afternoon for each participant to take home. The other was the public performance in the Samueli Theater, which was coming up Saturday. On Wednesday, the group would leave its rehearsal space and try out the confines of the theater for the first time.
In the meantime, it was time to hone the tunes. With Sheahan's piano in the center of the spacious, wood-floored room, the singers ran through "Defying Gravity" from the musical "Wicked" and a medley of songs with mostly wordless choruses: "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye," "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" and more.
As the group members harmonized and sometimes took turns with solos, they sounded at least as capable as any high school choir. But Segerstrom Vice President of Education Talena Mara, sitting in the corner, said technical proficiency isn't the main point of the program.
"The arts and the creative process itself, all of the discipline involved, all of the sort of courage it takes, all of those great things, are really part of our lives and go with us from here into our jobs and into our lives ahead," she said. "So the process is much more important than the outcome."
I believe Jesus loves me.
I believe in my parents.
"They're really great kids," said Brawley, who also serves as artistic director for the music education group the Young Americans, during a break. "They just need to be heard."
Brawley, along with his fellow mentors at Segerstrom, has plenty to hear. The kids who join Summer at the Center run the gamut from teen parents to former gang members to veterans of the foster system. Sometimes, deep feelings well to the surface: During the "belief" session Monday, a few comments elicited tears, applause or hugs.
Summer at the Center, now in its 22nd year, is run in collaboration with the Orange County Department of Education. Students in ACCESS, the department's alternative education program, may apply every year, and about 100 entered the running for 2013.
Every participant's life story is different, but Segerstrom administrators surmise that the summer workshop is full of firsts for many: first time in a musical theater class, first time seeing a live Broadway show. (That will be "Sister Act," which the class will attend after the program.)
When applicants come in for an interview, they don't have to sing, although they can if they want. Mostly, it's desire and work ethic that results in a winning candidate.
I believe that even though I'm young, I can be the best dad for my daughter.
I believe in all of you.
Carina, who is 16 and lives in Anaheim, feels at home in the Segerstrom workshop. Her alternative school, she said, offers no music or theater, but she often sings or dances around the house.
Last year, at a teacher's urging, Carina applied for Summer at the Center and didn't get in. She thought about passing on it this year, but changed her mind and scored on her second try. Six days into the program, she was happy she'd made the effort.
"You're not kicked out because you're unique," said Carina, whose last name was withheld by Segerstrom officials. "You're celebrated because you're unique."
Emil, 17, of Tustin voiced the same feeling. He had some theater experience from his previous high school and said he sang during his interview. Not everyone in the program had his background, but he found that camaraderie came easily.
"It just feels like everybody comes together as a group," Emil said. "Everyone just becomes a solid family."
As lunchtime approached Monday, Sheahan kept playing and the tunes kept flowing: "Over the Rainbow," "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," and the "Gettin' Jiggy" medley. There was another stab at "I Believe I Can Fly," which seemed to be the workshop's theme song, at least in spirit.
I believe we live in an amazing world, with amazing people and amazing opportunities.
I believe the sky isn't the limit. Reach for the stars.
And finally, this offering from Brawley:
I believe you guys can fly.
If You Go
What: Summer at the Center performance
Where: Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 12:30, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Information: (714) 556-2121 or http://www.scfta.org