Q. You started a very successful theater arts program in a school district. Why did you decide to do this?

A. We moved to a suburban community in New Jersey that had a strong tradition of academic excellence. Not surprisingly, the extracurricular emphasis was on sports. Little was available for students interested in theater arts beyond the high school musical. Kids in the community, like mine, who were interested in performing arts had to seek opportunities outside the school system. I knew firsthand what a positive impact theater arts could have -- I had spent many years as a choreographer, director, and producer and worked with thousands of kids.


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Q. What 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.

Q. What 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.

Q. What 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.

Q. How 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.

Q. Did 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.

Q. Doesn’t 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.

Q. A 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!

Q. So were you able to increase your budget from year to 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.

Q. Why 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 other’s company.

Q. Why 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.

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