When Princeton’s McCarter Theater comes alive with the sights and sounds of “A Christmas Carol,” Trenton’s Sprout U School of the Arts will be there to help make it happen.
That includes the five students who appear in the community ensemble, a school representative working backstage, and a Sprout teacher appearing in a significant role in the Dickens classic, adapted by David Thompson and directed by Adam Immerwahr, on stage through December 29.
Sprout’s participation in the seasonal favorite is part of the school’s focus on providing opportunities for students to hone their acting skills, gain experience, and develop confidence and professionalism.
Seeing her students through auditions, callbacks, and casting is routine for Sprout director Danielle Miller-Winrow.
To Miller-Winrow, who is completely hands-on, down to driving the students back and forth to rehearsals, everything is a learning experience, and part of her role is she is to give Sprout students the opportunities. “When you help them succeed, you have to be there 365 days,” she says.
This past September she took 17 Sprout students to audition at McCarter, as she has taken a number of students since 2015. Ten excited students were called back and in addition to the five in the children’s ensemble and a ninth grader in the community ensemble, several are assigned named roles including Sprout teacher — and Miller-Winrow’s daughter — Chandler Alexis Miller as Christmas Present.
According to Chandler, 26, the opportunity to perform as one of the play’s ghosts came unexpectedly, especially since the role traditionally has been performed by an older individual.
“I am not certain what drew the attention of the McCarter Staff,” says Chandler. “I wasn’t aware there was a pre-set age for Christmas Present and went into the audition hoping for a chance to be in the community ensemble. During the audition, I became someone else. I tried to be the person that was asked of me. For my special talent, I spoke in basic Korean for it is the language that I have endeavored to be fluent in. I also talked about what I enjoy most, which is working with my students so they can be well rounded individuals with a world view perspective.”
She says she received a call at the school from McCarter and “could not believe that I was being offered the opportunity to participate in such a big part of the show.” She adds that she when she told her mother they were “almost in tears.”
It was a similar reaction to the students when they learned about being in the community ensemble. “They yelled, they screamed, there were some tears,” Miller-Winrow says.
Meanwhile, Chandler’s brother, Cameron, became “A Christmas Carol” rehearsal assistant, a position created last year by McCarter stage manager Cheryl Mintz as another way to engage community members in creating theater.
This is not a once-a-year seasonal event for Sprout, however. Throughout the year Sprout students are well-represented on additional local stages and beyond. Six were in the ensemble of Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” presented by the Yardley Players in November at Kelsey Theater on the campus of Mercer County Community College.
Students at the school, based in North Trenton, tread not only on area stages, but in the City of Trenton and the region itself. The concept of classrooms without walls extends to the Trenton Public Library and some programs at the College of New Jersey. “Experience is everything,” said Miller-Winrow. “We have to show students that other places exist, places they can get to on their own with public transportation. They are learning the world around them.” The tireless Miller-Winrow is always pursuing new opportunities.
Departing from the Trenton Transit Center, Sprout students traveled to the Juilliard School, a New York City performing arts conservatory, last spring. And thanks to an anonymous donor, 19 students flew to the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles and made it to the second round of a competitive K-pop (Korean pop) dance festival. Korean culture and language are taught at the school. Several students recently returned from a late September trip to an Annandale, Virginia, Korean festival.
“Some had never been out of Trenton,” says Miller-Winrow, recalling how some students were awed looking out the plane window on the way to Los Angeles.
While new performing arts experiences are part of Sprout’s mission, Sprout is bustling on a daily basis. Youngsters with the requisite yellow shirts and navy skirts or pants dot the hallways of the school building at East Paul Street. The youngest “students” are in day care at six weeks, and the oldest are in high school. Currently there are 100 students, 22 of them kindergartners.
Sprout uses a home school curriculum (“and the world”), which is academic, using “the strength of the arts to engage students,” Miller-Winrow says. Sprout has community partners, like Artworks, which sends in an artist to the lower grades. Middle school students spend time at Artworks itself. High schoolers learn art history there.
Dance is taught by Trenton dancer, choreographer, and teacher Nathaniel Turner. Miller-Winrow’s aunt, Sarah Dash, a singer and actress, conducts vocals. The school offers religious studies, math, science, French, Korean, and Latin. The school nurse teaches health and wellness. The curriculum follows the state common core standards, says Miller-Winrow.
The roots of Sprout go back to 1988 in Columbia, Maryland, where Miller-Winrow lived with her late husband, who was a nuclear engineer and entrepreneur. There she substituted for a daycare provider and earned a certification from a community college. She started her own day care with four children, and, typical of her “all in” personality, ended up with 40 infants and toddlers.
Later she ran a day care in Trenton, where her husband was able to take care of his parents. Her day care center, she says, was different because it had a curriculum. She began Sprout in 2008, and her husband was her biggest supporter, a best friend who “breathed and lived Sprout.” In 2014 she was widowed. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue the journey,” she recalls. “I still look for guidance from him.”
But with the support of other teachers, she continued. “I found solace in the classroom. I needed to be with children.”
The school became a private school in 2011, and in 2018 she and others began to more vigorously market Sprout. Many students are referred, and there is a good word of mouth in Trenton, she says.
Miller-Winrow, 53, grew up in Trenton and Lawrenceville, a graduate of Lawrence High School, where she worked behind the scenes in the theater program. Her mother, Diane, who works in the Sprout office, worked in finance, but wanted to be an educator and had worked in a pre-school. Her father was a businessman and an ordained pastor who directed a senior center in Baltimore, Maryland. She said he is planning to help with the school, possibly connecting youngsters with senior citizens.
This is the first year Sprout has what she refers to as a “hybrid high school,” where the students study partially online, partially in the classroom, and partially at area sites. They have learned history at the Old Barracks Museum and completed a gardening project at the governor’s mansion, Drumthwacket, in Princeton. Students also have worked with the Trenton Circus Squad for a performance of the musical “Tarzan” and used resources at the library and Mercer County Community College. Miller-Winrow is searching for more resources, as she dreams of having her own children’s theater and dormitories for students.
Sprout’s fees are on a sliding scale, at $5,780 a year and $110 a week. Other community partners help with program like a food drive for families.
“There is school choice between public and charter and private,” Miller-Winrow explains. “We don’t turn away anyone. I do everything from the heart.”
Miller-Winrow’s heart was in a recent Sprout U audition at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City. The group took a 4:57 a.m. train from Trenton, and their choreographer was in New York to get a spot in the audition line. They competed at night on October 9 and came very close but did not win.
“They are competitive, but experience trumps all,” she says. “I tell them, if it doesn’t happen, we are going to keep going. There will be other experiences.”
That is a theme echoed by Chandler. “My experience at McCarter has been magical,” she says. “The directors are very kind and give a lot of support to all actors. I have had the opportunity of getting to know new people, which has been an obstacle and a personal desire of mine. This experience is also been an educational one. When our school does productions, I act as the artist director, and being able to see professional actors and the expectations of professional directors has really impacted me positively. I have also learned time management and networked with others who have gone to South Korea, which I hope is a future venture. In all, I now have more confidence with my acting and will look to cast in even more productions in the future.”
A Christmas Carol, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through December 29. $25 to $80. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
Sprout U School of the Arts, 27 East Paul Avenue, Trenton. 609-989-0269 or www.sproutuschoolofthearts.org.