were your first steps?
A. I developed a concept
for a program that would involve students learning
about all facets of theater arts, from performance
to stagecraft. I had come to understand that
participation in theater arts enhanced every
aspect of a student’s life -- it heightened
their interest in learning and brought kids
from all areas of the social spectrum together.
Fortunately, the principal at our middle school
was enthusiastic and wonderfully supportive.
Thus the “Drama Club” was born.
was the interest level of the students at first?
A. To be honest, I
expected 20 to 25 students to show up for the
first meeting. When 200 students poured into
the All Purpose Room I thought perhaps multiple
clubs were assigned to meet there simultaneously.
I asked for those students who were here for
the Drama Club to raise their hands, and I
was astounded when 200 hands went up. My belief
was confirmed that there exists a strong interest
in theater arts among students.
did the Drama Club do?
A. Our plan for the
first year was to devote the fall semester to
learning about the history of theater, engage
in improvisation and theater games, and learn
the basics of stage movement. The semester culminated
in the performance of short student-directed
skits. The spring semester was devoted to the
production of a full-scale musical.
did you manage a club with 200 students?
A. It was important
to segment the students into smaller groups for
the fall semester in which we focused on learning
the principles of theater arts. Since the level
of interest was so high, I saw the spring musical
as an opportunity to involve parents, faculty
and other members of the community in various
ways. For example, a woman who gave piano lessons
and also sang semi-professionally became our
musical director. She donated one hour a week
to rehearsing the music. Another community resident
loved to build and he volunteered some time to
make sure the cardboard scenery could stand and
be moved. A local artist worked with the kids
to design and paint the scenery. Some of the
moms of the students got together and made or
collected costumes. Some of the local stores
donated clothes (bridal stores were particularly
happy to unload old samples) and various props.
Another parent made a program and another videotaped
and made copies for us to sell after as a fundraiser.
What it comes down to is that there is a wealth
of interest and talent in the community and among
parents – but it’s important to mobilize
these resources in an enthusiastic atmosphere.
Over the years I’ve learned techniques
to organize this kind of support.
all 200 students perform in the musical?
A. Yes and no. We set
a limit of 60 performers based on safety concerns
and what would be feasible from a production
standpoint. We held auditions to cast the show.
The students who did not receive a part were
offered the opportunity to contribute their skills
and talents as part of the production team or
to help with advertising and fundraising, and
in a host of other areas.
that make for a pretty competitive atmosphere?
A. It’s very
important that every student -- right from
the start -- sees him or herself as an integral
part of the project. It’s almost sounds
cliché to say that every job is important,
but the fact is each person is vital to the
project no matter how small their role seems
to be. And there are some incredibly helpful
strategies I’ve adopted to help foster
that notion. Of course, any time you have students
vying for the same thing, there is the potential
for some stress or jealousy or animosity. But
we had almost none of that. I found that students
are far more willing to subjugate their personal
interests for the sake of the group effort
when the right atmosphere is created.
full scale production must have been expensive
to produce. Where did the money come from?
This is a question I hear all the time, and there is a real misconception
out there about money. This should never be the reason for a school to
avoid developing a theater arts program. It can be done effectively without
the school incurring an expense. In fact -- and I should mention that
this was not our motive or intent -- we actually brought in enough revenue
through ticket sales and other sources to expand the program. And have
a great cast and crew pizza party at the end!
were you able to increase your budget from year
A. We were fortunate
to have increased resources as time went on to
produce more elaborate productions. But I can’t
overstate this: whether our budget was $100 or
$5,000, the value and benefits to all who participated
was the same.
is your focus on theater arts as opposed to the
other art forms usually taught in schools?
A. Certainly, exposure
to any art form is very beneficial to a person’s
development. But theater arts are unique in that
they can integrate and incorporate all the art
forms into one experience. Theater arts transcend
differentiation and bring together all art forms.
Accordingly, students who participate in theater
arts programs are exposed to all the art forms – literature,
visual arts, music, movement -- and work together
toward a common goal. Also, there are very powerful
academic and social benefits. As a result of
participating in theater arts programs, students
gain confidence with their presentation skills.
This tends to translate into increased self-esteem
and stronger academic performance. I continuously
get feedback from my students that they feel
more comfortable in the classroom and their interest
in learning has increased. And there’s
something else, and maybe a bit of an intangible.
When the program is done well, it creates something
of a level playing field. I’m always touched
to see the most popular kids in school working
side by side with the socially isolated and shy
kids, sharing an experience and enjoying each
did you start Arts Across America?
A. Through the years
I’ve met so many principals, teachers and
parents who told me they wished their schools
had a program similar to ours, and didn’t
know how to go about it or believed it took far
too much time and money to do. I’ve also
met many who had programs in place but felt they
were ineffective. One principal mentioned that
the focus was so much on the end product -- that
the quality of the show was made more important
than the quality of the experience for the students
-- that the wrong lessons were being learned
along the way. I started Arts Across America
because I have seen the proven value of arts
education in students’ development. Students
should come away from this experience feeling
good about themselves and more eager to learn,
more positively connected to the school and its
goals. This should be the outcome, and over the
years I’ve developed a host of strategies
to achieve that goal. Arts Across America is
available as a resource to any school who wishes
to learn from my experience.