Hidden high in California’s picturesque, pine-forested San Jacinto Mountains, is a place that Hannah Wakelin has come to call home. The stunning location, sprawling over 205 acres, is the famed Idyllwild Arts Academy. Known for its strong academic focus, it’s the go-to place for those passionate about the arts, with expert tutors teaching dance, theatre, music, creative writing and song writing. We caught up with Hannah on a recent visit home.
Basically, it’s like living inside the movie, Fame, or Glee, and the Ashburton born-and-bred student is having a blast after two years on campus. “Some days you go to the dining hall in tights – you would never do that at home – and there’s people walking around carrying guitars,” she says, of the experience. “People are really accepting. We’re responsible for ourselves and there’s so many cultures and a lot of different people and personalities.”
The journey to study in America was a surprise for the now 16-year-old, who returned on August 22 after a visit home during the summer break.
Hannah had been Highland Dancing with Julie Hawke since the age of three, and studied Jazz and Ballet with Charmaine Quaid Charmaine Quaid at Dance Worx Dance Worxs from 11.She was also involved in Mid Canterbury Children’s Theatre for four years while attending Wakanui School and Ashburton Intermediate.
But, it was 18 months into studying at Ashburton College that she spotted an advertisement online for the World Championships for Performing Arts. She was accepted as part of the New Zealand team, and in 2014 they all jetted off to LA. Hannah was delighted to be offered a scholarship to a performing arts school in the US, but it sadly fell over weeks before they left. Thankfully, a selector on the board of Idyllwild Arts Academy had been present during the interview process and suggested she apply. “It was gutting at the time, but it all worked out,” she said.
Delightfully modest, Hannah is reluctant to admit it, but selectors noticed something unique and special about the young performer. They quickly noted her potential, stage presence and sparkle and she was accepted.
For the whole family, it was an exciting and scary time with mum Joanne, dad Craig and brother Ben, all involved in the process. Craig, who is able to work offsite, travelled with Hannah, and with the scholarship subject to her living off campus, they rented a little house in town. “Craig was able to see it all,” explains Joanne. “He was there for six months and then she stayed at a friend’s house after he left. It was a whole family commitment. We treated it as an adventure.”
Idyllwild is a small mountain town at 6000ft, three hours out of LA, surrounded by Palm Springs and San Diego. The school is made up of idyllic little cabins dotted around campus.
“On the first day in class, everyone kept saying about my accent,” recalls Hannah. “They would say, ‘excuse me, I’m really sorry to interrupt, but I love your accent’.”
Being from another culture is not unusual at Idyllwild, with overseas students travelling from 29 different countries alongside domestic attendees. Keeping up grades is highly important, with academic classes in the morning and arts majors in the afternoon. Between 2.30pm and 6.30pm three different time slots are allocated for ballet, jazz, modern, yoga or dance history.
Hannah’s first lectures start at 8am and often rehearsals go until 9.30pm at night. Then there’s homework to complete. Saturdays are reserved for yoga and tap classes. “The tutors are really understanding,” says Hannah. “Especially, if you go into production, and there’s a lot of work to do. If you’re not busy, you know there’s something you should be doing.”
Recently, Hannah was chosen as part of a group to perform at the Pasadena Dance Festival, and for a student showcase in Beverly Hills to raise money for the scholarship programme.
“We’re all friends and all super supportive of each other,” she says of the school’s collaborative environment. “We all might want the parts, but outside we are all giving each other tips and stretching…”
They are also used to visits from alumni who return to inspire, take masterclasses and talk about different avenues within the industry. Actress and writer, Mara Wilson, who appeared in the film, Matilda, was one such student who returned with a message to; “be true to yourself”.
For the second year, the school upped Hannah’s scholarship and she now lives on campus. With two more years to go, she’s now thinking about her future and what she’ll do with her qualifications. “In terms of dance, it will be a modern company or Broadway, but I could still come back home and do academics,” she mulls. “If I did health science, I will still dance somehow and teach.”
When she returns home, she loves helping out with little dancers at Dance Worx and also has part-time jobs with EuroAgri, Sport Canterbury’s programme, the Ashburton Art Gallery and babysitting to keep her busy.
But, while she admits to being homesick at times, when she’s away from the intensive programme for too long, she quickly notices changes in her performance. “We dance every day, but when I was here it was about four-hours-a-week,” she explains. “I realised at my placement audition this year, compared to the first year, I thought, ‘I can do this now’. I’m so much stronger, but you lose flexibility so quickly.”
Allowing Hannah to move overseas has been tough on her parents, but they know the skills she’s learning at Idyllwild are priceless. “The opportunities are here, but this is just on a much bigger scale,” says Joanne. “We looked at every option in New Zealand and Australia and they said, ‘if you’ve been offered that opportunity, take it. There’s nothing else on that scale’.”
She’s also been overwhelmed at the generous support from people who have helped back home and sponsorship by The Inspire Foundation and The Cookie Time Charitable Trust.
“It’s been amazing. Family and friends and people we don’t even know….It’s made it possible for it all to work.
“And, when she comes back, her friends support her and she slots back into life.” She will return to school as a prefect, and was last year awarded top scholar for sophomore grade, and made the Dean’s Honor’s Roll.
Hannah’s now reached the half-way mark of her exciting study with impressive credentials to match.
And, while she relished her break at home, she’s eager to get return for year three. “Everyone understands you and I feel like I’ve grown up quite a lot,” she says. “Now, I look up to anyone making a living out of doing something they love.”