“IT’S POSSIBLE” with the Magic of the Arts

The following article appeared in the January 9, 2012 edition of  The New Britain Herald. I wrote it as Executive Director of New Britain Youth Theater to highlight NBYT programs and promote upcoming auditions for Cinderella.

Our Christmas play last month, I’m Getting Nothin’ for Christmas, centered around a group of young friends visiting the North Pole where they met roughly three dozen elves, eight reindeer, and Santa himself. Programs for the coming summer will include the musical Seussical and the magical characters of Dr. Seuss, including Horton the Elephant, the Cat in the Hat, Gertrude McFuzz, the Whos of Whoville, and more. And the next NBYT production, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, is possibly the most magical fairy tale of all. (Both Cinderella and Seussical even have songs titled It’s Possible!)

As a story about a sad girl and her magical transformation, Cinderella exists in thousands of different versions and folktales around the world. (And the main character isn’t even a girl in all of them!) The story has been told by generations of families, written and rewritten, and adapted into plays, musicals, operas, ballets and films. The Cinderella legend is a story the world never grows tired of hearing.

But aside from a fairy tale, does Cinderella mean much to us anymore? Very few of us go to balls or ever have the chance to meet a prince or princess. And we don’t believe that a fairy godmother can magically appear and change our lives with the wave of a wand. But there certainly are things that can change our lives for the better. The arts are one of them—especially for children.

When researchers working with the nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts studied several different children’s programs and activities, they found that young people working in the arts during their out of school hours are four times more likely to have won school-wide attention for academic achievement; they are being elected to class office within their schools more than three times as often; they are three times more likely to win an award for school attendance; and they are over four times more likely to win an award for writing an essay or a poem (Americans for the Arts, 1998). By participating in artistic activities and programs outside of their education, children learn to become leaders and responsible members of their communities, of the organizations they take part in, and of their own families. They learn discipline, respect for themselves and others, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Participation in theater especially teaches children and young adults to be both creative decision-makers and team players working together to reach one goal. Another study found recently that students who participate in arts education programs are less likely to drop out of school than students who do not participate in the arts (The Center for Arts Education, 2009). By inspiring their creativity and giving them a way to express themselves, the arts reach the students who might otherwise become drop-out statistics. And if that’s not magical, I don’t know what is.

Promoting Past and Current Seasons

The following article appeared in the August 29, 2011 edition of  The New Britain Herald. I wrote it as Executive Director of New Britain Youth Theater to highlight past season accomplishments and promote the coming season.

Happy New Year!

No, I’m not four months early or eight months late. It is an odd month for New Year wishes, but for many performing arts organizations a new year is just beginning. Summer programs and performances are over, and a new season of events will soon be underway.

At New Britain Youth Theater, the new season coincides with the start of a new school year. NBYT in-school and after-school programs will be held at as many as five New Britain public schools this academic year—which is NBYT’s second season. Theater programs will return to Smith Elementary School, Jefferson Elementary School, and Smalley Academy. New programs are being planned for Gaffney Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School. American Savings Foundation has contributed partial funding for school programs, and additional funding is being sought to cover program costs.

Also in the new season, NBYT will add new programs and expand already successful programs. Performances will include the world premiere of a Christmas play, I’m Getting Nothin’ for Christmas;  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s magical musical, Cinderella; the whimsical world of Seussical; and Teen Company productions. The Greater Hartford Arts Council has provided partial funding for these performances. Drama classes will be offered on additional days and hours, preschool classes will be added, homeschool and after-school programs will explore new scripts and activities, and new school vacation week programs will be scheduled in February and April. Demand has also risen for outreach programs in new venues and towns.

Of course, any good New Year celebration includes a look back at the year ending too. In its first season, New Britain Youth Theater produced three plays at Trinity-on-Main—A Children’s Christmas Carol, Babe the Sheep-Pig, and I Know I Saw Gypsies (an NBYT Teen Company production)—for a total of nine performances. Year-long programs in three New Britain elementary schools ended with performances of scenes based on folk tales, fables, and legends. A two-month program at Roosevelt Middle School led to a staged reading of Romeo and Juliet. Back at Trinity-on-Main, eight-week Drama Classes and Homeschool Enrichment Programs also concluded with “Share Day” performances. Summer programs included five weeks at Jefferson Elementary School open to all children, five weeks at Smalley Academy for incoming students, and other outreach programs throughout Greater New Britain.

Over the past year, NBYT held a total of twenty-five performances and share days, directly served over 400 participating children and teens, and entertained over 1800 audience members. Children and teens in NBYT programs came from eighteen different towns in Greater New Britain, Greater Hartford, and throughout Connecticut. Much of the audience attended performances at Trinity-on-Main—bringing many new visitors to downtown New Britain.

As a new NBYT season begins, we’re also making New Year  resolutions. We promise to continue the mission of NBYT: “to enrich the lives of children and young adults by encouraging creative thinking, fostering self-confidence and self-esteem, and developing general life skills through involvement in low-cost programs in the performing arts.” How about you? Will you resolve to make the arts part of your or your child’s life in this new year too?

Back to School

Wow! Just wow! It’s been nearly two years since I’ve posted a new blog entry on this website.

I’d like to report that I’ve been on tour—maybe producing the complete works of William Shakespeare, or the complete works of Eugene O’Neill. Heck, even the complete works of Rodgers & Hammerstein. But even on tour I could have updated this blog, so that wouldn’t work. I could say that I’ve been in hiding or even witness protection, but that isn’t true either.

I have been working though. Throughout my entire theatrical career, I’ve been a fan of programs that bring theater to children. Eventually, I worked for an organization with a great program that involved children in classes and productions. Just over two years, ago, I began an association with Connecticut’s oldest operating children’s theater, where I was later named part-time Executive Director. Earlier this year, I left that theater to respond to a call to help bring after-school theater programs to children in New Britain, Connecticut. New Britain Youth Theater is the result of that response. Along the way, I’ve also lead theater programs for preschoolers, daycare and school kids, and summer campers. As a producer, actor, stage manager, and student of directing, writing and design, it seems I’ve learned enough over the past couple of decades to fill some young minds with creativity. Plus I love working with kids.

This week, I officially went back to school and began co-teaching a weekly theater enrichment program for homeschooled four to seven year-olds. We’re putting American fairy tales, fables and folklore on stage—plus learning what it means to be on stage and put a show together. (Next term, we’ll do worldwide stories, and after that we’ll travel through time. NBYT also has other programs for kids 8 to 18.) Next month, if funding comes through, I’ll be starting after-school programs for elementary and middle school kids in the New Britain public school district.

Here on this blog, I’ll be writing about the work I’m doing, and I’ll add a few links to some stories, programs and events. Here’s one that’s pretty important: next week is National Arts in Education Week. I’ve already written some about the importance of arts in education. Here’s what you can do now: if you’re a teacher, school administrator, or public employee, let me know what your district is doing in arts education. If you’re a parent or have kids around, ask what arts they have in school. Don’t let the arts disappear from our classrooms! Speak up and ask!

Until next time, I’ll be back in school.

The World Is Their Stage

A blogger who recently learned that I work in theater asked me to write a post answering the question “Why is it important to introduce children to theater?” I thought that was pretty topical since kids recently returned to school.  It’s also topical since I recently started working with a children’s theater company.  Here’s the answer in a nutshell.

Someone once wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” He didn’t write “All the world’s a science lab” or “All the world’s a math club.” Nope, all the world is definitely a stage. There’s your answer right there. Theater is important.

Okay, so the guy who wrote that was Shakespeare. He may have been a little biased toward the stage. In fact, I think I once read that Shakespeare never even studied science or math in school. What he wrote is true though. Each of us, in everything we do, is living a story. In our actions. In our communications. In our emotions. In our just being. And the world is the stage on which this story plays out.

Like Shakespeare, I’m a guy who values the arts. I got involved in theater in high school, and got more involved in college where I also took several theater classes. After college, I completed a graduate program in Theater Management and Production at Columbia University School of the Arts. My training and experience includes both non-profit and commercial venues on Broadway, Off Broadway, in regional and community theaters in New York and Connecticut, and in theater service and advocacy organizations. Since high school, I’ve produced, stage managed, acted, directed and designed for theater.

When my daughter was just two years old, she began coming with me occasionally to a theater where I was then working full-time. She would have a ball there, and most everyone on staff and involved in productions knew her and loved seeing her around. When I’d bring her to production meetings or rehearsals, she loved looking at the lights, sets and costumes for each production. By the age of three, she was sitting through full productions and concerts. By the age of four, she had even made her stage debut in the children’s chorus of a production of Seussical. Since then, she’s seen shows in community theaters, regional theaters, and on Broadway. And she’s still only six. (Or six and three-quarters if you ask her.) So, for anyone wondering how and when to introduce their kids to the arts, my answer is start ‘em young. Not everyone works at a theater obviously and can bring their kids to see a stage and watch rehearsals, but most larger cities have some kind of theater for kids. Even a good story time at libraries can be an introduction. Start ‘em young and they’ll want more.

But what about the parents who aren’t so sure that theater is important at all? To them, I say, “Maybe you’re right.” Maybe your kids won’t like theater. Maybe they won’t be interested in art or music. But, maybe they will. And maybe they won’t be interested in math, science or sports. Kids should have the opportunity to explore as many subjects and activities as are available to them. On their own, they may discover—like I did—that the arts are pretty important to them.

In this age of “no child left behind” and teaching for testing, arts programs have been reduced or dropped altogether at many schools. In response, researchers have conducted studies to attempt to show the importance of the arts. Students who study the arts perform better in other subjects. Students who study the arts learn discipline, collaboration, participation, and empathy. Students who study the arts develop more self-esteem. But, by their very subjective nature, it’s pretty difficult to “prove” that the arts do anything. In my experience, the proof isn’t in any numbers or statistics, but in the children themselves.

My last full-time position in theater involved producing a few children’s performances during the school year. Five or six times a year, over 1500 students would come to the theater by bus. For some of them, it was their first time in a theater that didn’t face a movie screen. Seeing the eyes of just a few of them light up—knowing that they might be thinking, “Maybe I could be a part of this someday”—makes theater worth it. For a few of them, theater probably will be important in their lives. Most of them probably won’t grow up to be actors, directors or producers any more than they’ll grow up to be princesses, ballerinas, cowboys or astronauts. But theater may be important to them nonetheless.

In the long term though, theater and the arts aren’t important only to a few of us. A professor—and not a theater or arts professor—once asked a class I was in whether we thought the sciences or the arts and humanities were more important. There were arguments on both sides, but I’ll always remember one the most. The sciences heal us, feed us, shelter us, and keep us alive. But it’s the arts and humanities that we stay alive for. Across centuries, across borders, across all times and places, the arts endure and connect us as humans. The arts—and the ability to think and create—are what make us human and humane. And maybe, just maybe, the kids that you take to see Peter Rabbit or bring to story hour at the library will discover that too. At the very least, those kids will discover that all the world’s their stage. They’ll discover that they can be anyone and do anything. Is there anything more important than that?