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Setting the Stage for a Lifelong Passion of Performing

Karen Franson - St. Anne School, Laguna Niguel

It all started with “Great Balls of Fire”, a six-year-old girl wanting to play piano, and Sweet Adelines. For St. Anne School performing arts director and music teacher, Karen Franson, these are all true. However, what really started it all, is her determination and competitive nature. As a former soccer and racquetball player, Karen’s desire to compete and always improve is what makes her such an inspiration and influential mentor to the hundreds of students who have passed through her music room doors over the years.

Karen has been involved in music since she was a six-year-old girl living up to a promise she made to her uncle to take piano lessons so he would buy her a piano. She and her parents were involved in Barbershop Quartets and Sweet Adelines, a competitive performance choir, where she learned harmonizing and performance techniques. Her whole family plays soccer. She and her husband, Lou, played on an adult soccer team for years, while their three girls played club soccer. Karen also played racquetball, competing in a quarter-final game with two broken ribs. She’s that competitive.

From the first performance that Karen directed at St. Anne seventeen years ago, when her PreK students belted out “Great Balls of Fire”, delighting an audience of parents and staff members, she knew that teaching children to sing was her passion. Soon after that first performance, Karen decided to start an afterschool acting class, with many of her PreK students signing up right away. “It was hilarious,” she says belting out a laugh. “I was dying laughing half the time watching these little tiny kids acting. But it was all about getting them used to performing, and they all liked it, this core group.”

This core group she is talking about (Gabbi Heckler, Devynn Madrid, and Nina Nasr - pictured here) are all currently in college studying theater and music in New York City. They have kept in close contact with Karen through the years, and stop by to visit every chance they get. Even as she’s being interviewed, Karen’s phone buzzes. “Oops, sorry. That’s Eve. She wants me to come to a volleyball celebration at Chapman this week,” she says smiling proudly. Karen still gets texts, phone calls, and emails from her former students inviting her to watch them in a play, a game, or a celebration. She goes to as many as she can, and reaches out to them for help as well. Last summer when she needed help writing a script for this year’s show choir, a handful of former students home from college showed up at Board and Brew for a brainstorming session with Karen and Lou. She texts them and they show up for her every time.

It was this core group of students who inspired her to start a middle school show choir in the fall of 2008. Their first show choir competition was a learning experience, with St. Anne students wearing the “awful blue vests”, as NYU performing arts major, Gabbi Heckler, describes them. “I can’t believe you made us wear those!”, Gabbi says jokingly to Karen.  The choir did well in that first competition, but not good enough for Karen. At the competition she noticed that all of the schools were wearing very similar costumes, “I thought, well that’s really boring. I’m going to pick costumes that go with our package.”  Her Sweet Adelines experience told her to return to the competition the following year with flashy costumes and choreography that matched their songs, and they did, taking first place. Karen attacks show choir competitions like she attacks playing soccer and racquetball. Every year her show choir package gets more sophisticated. Since that first competition in 2009, the St. Anne School show choir has won several first-place prizes and even traveled to Rome to perform for the Pope.

In 2007 Karen also decided to take over the play productions at St. Anne School, and each year since she transforms the school gym into something magical, transporting audiences to another place and time. The first play was Huckleberry Finn. It was a two-hour drama and the only drama the school has ever done. After that, it was musicals and comedies. This past November’s production of Elf Jr. was a little bit of both. With excellent performances from students and staff alike, the audience was entertained by singing, dancing, and some good old-fashioned comedy schtick. Anyone who’s been to one of her plays can attest that the quality of the shows improves year after year. “I am always looking for something to take my program to the next step. Always. I never want to stay stagnant. I like to keep challenging the kids--challenging myself,” says Karen.

The next step for St. Anne School’s Performing Arts is the Musical Theater Competition of America (MTC), which they will be competing in for the first time this year. Students will compete individually with a scene from this year’s musical, Elf Jr.  Who knows, maybe one of them will take home a first-place trophy, but that’s not what it’s all about for Karen. What’s important to her is setting the stage for her students, as she did with her own children, to be ready for their next steps in life.

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