So in my last blog, I discussed how there are some major obstacles that school theater programs are facing on a large-scale. You were probably left with a lot of questions. What can be done to help remedy the situation? How can I help? What can larger organizations do to help? What can directors do to help improve their programs? I’ve compiled some easy fix answers and thought up some crazy out of the box thoughts that may help improve musical theater education in schools.
“My Shot” (Musical Theater Foundations & Groups)
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past two years, you probably know about the “#EduHam” program. The program is an educational partnership between The Rockefeller Foundation, NYC Department of Education, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute. The initiative provided 20,000 NYC Title I public school students the chance to see Hamilton but also receive an education about the genesis of the show by Lin Miranda, and basis for the musical. The students learn about the people, events and founding documents that are the foundation of the show. The Lehrman Institute provides the teachers with materials that prepare the students for the experience while also learning through a variety of mediums. Even if you do not qualify for the Hamilton Education Program, the Lehrman Institute provides online materials for teachers to use (gilderlehrman.org) and you may even see on YouTube the students performing their projects based on what they’ve learned from Hamilton. This initiative is now taking place in Chicago and on the first tour and will occur in every city that has the show visiting it.
Now if we are to believe the media, Broadway is coming off a record year of $1.45 billion with attendance at just over 13 million patrons, even if we take into account shows that did not recoup or closed early those are astronomical numbers. We know that there are twenty or more musicals on tour nationally and regionally. So my proposal is that Broadway and the national tours take a page from Lin Manuel Miranda’s #EduHam and have each of the theatre groups find a way to work with educational programs take a day every few weeks and invite age-appropriate students to experience live musical theater and receive an education as well. There are shows like Aladdin, Finding Neverland, The King and I, Wicked, Fun Home, and Dear Evan Hansen (coming soon) that can really make an impact on children all over the United States. There are of course some obstacles such as actor contracts, production, and house management costs but like I said these are just ideas. The other part of this idea is that it is just not for New York City public schools.
Again, please continue doing what you do for New York City schools because they need it but there are also so many disadvantaged programs outside of the major cities that could also use the boost as well. If tours can’t afford to have those types of programs, could the creative and tour management contact theatre licensors about school programs in their area, or have some type of school program register with guidelines and specifics that would help choose well deserving programs who could benefit from some professional training. I realize that some of the theatre foundations or groups have educational directors or teaching artists but often times it is quite difficult for the most at need groups to raise enough money to come to New York City and do a workshop, show and make lunch arrangements. The goal is to help find ways to make the largest impact on student musical theater populations that need it in multiple locations, not just in the Broadway theater area, but also across America.
“Bring on the Monsters”
We live in pretty scary times that directly affect the children in theater programs across the country. Students live in fear of war, deportation, drugs, violence, bullying, identity, divorce, abuse, more than most of us had to live under as kids. Students who find their niche are lucky, and they are provided refuge from whatever they have to deal with. Unfortunately, not enough theater programs are able to do this because they are not surviving. The misconception is that if a school has a theater program, then it is funded and thriving. It simply isn’t true. Too many times the budgets do not exist, the support is only in word and not budget and (in extreme cases) treated like a joke.
Meanwhile, directors, educators are left scrambling to build or maintain their programs. The need for professional development for the educators, or directors is dire. Now I know that there are exceptional educational programs in New York City but overall in many cities, there is either not enough or those programs are not well advertised outside of their municipalities. The hope is that a dialogue is opened to expand educational grants for theater in schools. They will service all of the students who are a part of the program and possibly the school district. There is a tremendous need for that because many programs will tell you that they all have students who need to be inspired whether their hardship is financial, racial, gender or identity. We need to reach more of them and that is how we solve so many of our problems in theater and quite possibly society. Let that one sink in, we as a theatrical community from top to bottom must put our money where our mouth is and not once or twice a year because it is convenient, but when we can.
We live in some theatrical peril with the NEA and NEH in danger of being cut and that is a travesty. We are lucky to have the foundations and groups that help community groups but I believe education is lost in the shuffle. Let us have everyone start with one day, one act, one dollar and from there, let us attempt to make it two days the next month. Then again these could just be some crazy rambling of a musical theater educator and director who doesn’t know much more than what is presented in front of me. I hope I am wrong and I hope that there is a flood of resources and people who tell me that there is a list of resources, grants, and scholarships for elementary, middle and high school groups and I just don’t know how to search very well. The one thing I know is that the more we expose students to theater, the more they will be ready to take on the monsters, and the real world (Lightning Thief, brilliant musical, Rob Rokicki).
I would like to add special thanks to Marty Johnson (iTheatrics), Jason Cocovinis (Music Theatre International) and Abbie Van Nostrand (Samuel French) for their time and providing information and direction about some of the programs available.
Spencer Lau is a fourteen-year public school teacher, producer, music education advocate, clinician, writer and musical theater director. He can also be followed on Twitter (@njdlau)
Photo: Coeur d'Alene High School