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Pas de deux: Mom, daughter work to instill confidence, success in performing arts students

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By Pamela Lawson

It’s difficult to picture Karen Tobey bent over a microscope engrossed in scientific research when you meet the energetic performing arts teacher, who co-owns the Colorado Children’s Theatre with her daughter Kerri Vickers.

Tobey’s goal as a high school student was to be a scientist, and she slipped into a white smock in college. It was only later that she realized there must be another, more vocal way to “make a difference in the world.”

Thus began a journey toward acquiring skills in the field of music — with studies in Germany, Japan and China. And, in the end, that all paved the way for an illustrious career in Los Angeles.

At one point, Tobey owned two schools in Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills, Calif., and taught 775 kids, many the children of famous actors and musicians. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 27, of “Third Rock From the Sun” fame, is but one of many actors she has tutored. Other students have become astrophysicists or CEOs of companies, but they later contacted her to describe the difference she made in their lives.

Vickers, who has studied several renowned acting methods — Linklater, Meisner and Stella Adler — was a performer for 10 years and had roles in a major motion picture and independent films, and she worked for Broadway companies and regional theater in Los Angeles. Still, she prefers the “immediate gratification” of theater best.

But these ladies don’t focus on those stories: They simply draw from the experiences to better educate their students.

“We don’t want to be a school where kids come to us because we make kids famous,” Vickers said. “We want kids to come and learn, to be schooled in these skills and then achieve this huge self-confidence. That is more important to us.”

Tobey exchanged the fast pace life in Los Angeles for the mountains about eight years ago to provide a different experience for her younger daughter Kayla. Vickers also moved to the Front Range and two years ago decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and teach.

“I always said I wanted to grow up and open a school,” Vickers said. “It just came about that when I wanted to open a school, she said, ‘I will do it with you.’ ”

The pair already teach roughly 75 students in three different companies based on age and skill sets. They work from their tiny theater on County Road 73 in a little storefront near The Bistro. Or they utilize local community centers or churches. They also teach at a local academy and offer private lessons.

Upcoming performances in 2008 include “Grease,” in March; “Annie,” in April; and “Annie Get Your Gun,” in May.

The eight performances of “Grease,” scheduled from March 1-16, will be in the theater at Platte Canyon High School. Certain performances will feature younger casts, others older casts, and the final performance will incorporate all age groups, Vickers said.

Tobey wanted to be a performer at age 3, Vickers at 4. Kayla, who is now 13, has the same enthusiasm — desiring, at the moment, to be a rock star.

Tobey tried to steer her children in different directions for broader experiences in life — doctor, lawyer or soccer player. Those would be fine, she told her daughters.

Vickers kept at it, though, despite her mother’s urgings to do otherwise, and she won her over.

“For my 7th birthday, she bought me a T-shirt that said, ‘Born on Broadway,’ and she never backed down in supporting me, ever,” Vickers remembers.

Tobey’s burning desire to inspire the singer and dancer in everyone took shape when she crossed paths with the head of the Vienna Boys Choir when she traveled to Germany during her college studies. Herr Grossman, 92, inspired her to “do things I didn’t know I could do,” she said.

“I came back to America saying, ‘I am going to revolutionize music in America.’ ”

In Germany, she witnessed a high quality of music performed at many community venues. She observed the respect and attention it drew from the people who attended or participated. She continued to study the music of other countries, the Far East and Africa.

“I learned that every child could sing,” she said. “Music is innate to every human being.”

That’s why it doesn’t matter if her children forge a career in the performing arts. The real draw for her and Vickers is the chance for their students to gain a level of confidence they might not have otherwise achieved.

“I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘I can’t believe that’s my kid up there singing and dancing,’ ” Vickers said. “All these wonderful parents who come up and say, ‘ ee My child was so shy ee (but) they are standing up so much straighter, speaking in public, they feel so much better about themselves.’ ”

The teachers work from a space of heightened awareness when it comes to the “professionalism” of performing arts. And their enthusiasm overlaps, at times, when directing casts through rehearsals, which is why they have worked to perfect their own performance as directors.

“We are very cool partners,” Tobey said. “We have very definite lines — if it’s voice, it’s me; if it’s dance, it’s her. Acting, we pretty much split.”

The women can be loud, quick to call out pointers or techniques to a student, and they are quick to praise.

“I have worked with a lot of talented people in LA, and I will match half of my kids against any in LA,” Tobey said. “They won’t have the confidence or savvy, but they have the talent and, honestly, that is what Hollywood wants.”

Matching wants with purpose, however, is a different matter, Tobey believes. She has seen plenty of kids who want to be actors and parents of kids who want the same for them, but she believes destiny plays a key role

“You can’t make your destiny,” she said. “I’ve seen mothers try, and every now and then their kids slip through the cracks and get (a gig), but it’s not sustainable.”

That which is sustainable are the obvious changes in the lives of children who learn to sing, dance and perform in front of their peers, friends and neighbors. (And parents are changed, too, for Tobey and Vickers have witnessed an extraordinary amount of enthusiasm in the parents who are building sets for “Grease.”)

Tobey stills manages three actors in LA and travels there frequently.

She still bumps into friends like Henry Winkler, who told her last year that he had her picture on his living room wall.

Tobey once spent an hour backstage with Michael Jackson when he won a Grammy for “Thriller”; members of the band REO Speedwagon are good friends; and screenwriter Lowell Ganz once marveled to her, ‘I have watched you crank out one star after another.’ ”

Those times were, indeed, thrilling.

“It was so magical that I got to do it, but I wouldn’t want to do that now, no,” she said, recalling a “more exhausting” time in her life.

For now she’s content to raise her youngest daughter in Pine and work side by side with her eldest doing what they both love most.

“It’s just who we are; it’s completely in our souls,” Vickers said.

For more information about the Colorado Children’s Theatre, visit www.coloradochildrenstheatre.com.