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Theater Kids

Hillary Taylor, a junior at Henninger High School in Syracuse, has been surrounded by music all her life. But she didn’t think of music as a career until last year. That’s when she got involved with the Theater Experience Program, a partnership between the Redhouse Arts Center—a multifaceted performing arts and cultural education center in downtown Syracuse’s Armory Square—and the Work-Scholarship connection at Hillside Family of Agencies in Syracuse.

Hillside is a nonprofit that offers educational and social support to at-risk students in five Syracuse high schools and seven middle schools. Some students have difficult family situations that have hurt their school performance. Others have financial struggles that have prevented them from getting the academic support they need.

About a dozen Hillside participants—culled from each of the five city high schools served by Hillside—worked with Redhouse staff and professional and community actors last fall to stage The Wiz. The collaboration continues this year with a production of Hairspray. About 14 students from the Hillside program will work in the cast and behind the scenes.

While many participants have little experience in the performing arts, Taylor “has always been around music” and had opportunities “here and there” to sing, especially in her church choir. She found the first rehearsals for The Wiz difficult, and “the first performance was horrible,” she says.

But the experience gradually changed how she saw her own talents. While Taylor once thought of music as a part of her life she rarely shared with her peers, she now sees a future in it. 

Jessica Baratta, a youth advocate at Henninger High School who was lead adviser for the collaboration last year, explained that working with students from rival schools was a challenge for many of the teens. And it took some time for the professional actors to get comfortable with the relatively inexperienced students.

“At first, it was scary and weird,” says Lennicqua Williams, a junior at Central Technical High School in Syracuse, who also participated in the Theater Experience Program, and, like Taylor, will be involved again this year. Williams admitted that being open to collaboration with the professionals and with kids she did not know was difficult. But she and Taylor are both glad they stuck with it.

“After a while, it got better,” Taylor adds with a faint smile. “It is a little demanding.”

“We’ll have a better relationship this time: no arguing,” says Williams, who now envisions a future career in the performing or visual arts. Since most of the original participants will be returning, Williams expects fewer conflicts during production.

Stephen Svoboda, executive artistic director at the Redhouse, says since many of the Hillside students had not had previous experience with music or theater, they are given the opportunity to work for a few weeks with the director and choreographer before the start of rehearsals. This gives them a leg up before they begin working with the professional actors.

“It was amazing to watch the kids as they progressed each week,” says Beth Pratt, administrative director at the Redhouse. “Their confidence levels grew so much over the course of the production. We pushed them and stretched them as much as we could.”

Despite a few bumps in the road last fall, both organizations considered it an important learning experience and are optimistic about Hairspray. “You have professionals working with people who are doing this for fun, and then we have the students and their enthusiasm,” says Pratt. “We bridge the gaps in each production. Everyone is equal in these shows. The professionals get reinvigorated. And the kids are expected to bring their best.”

The preparations were demanding and the time commitment was significant. Yet not one student backed out. “They thrived in the workshops,” says Pratt. “Immediately, they wanted to know what was coming next. It’s different for these kids from Hillside than it is for perhaps other students who have worked with us, because they haven’t all been involved in high school theater or had exposure to the after-school programs that many other students do. They are taking a big risk.”

Pratt says the collaboration is an example of how the Redhouse wants to connect with the local community and get people thinking about how to make the arts part of their everyday lives.

Wayne O’Connor, director of Hillside, says the collaboration came at just the right time. “We wanted to have an enrichment program for our kids who were interested in the arts. So a couple of years ago, I reached out to the Redhouse. They not only had the artistic vision, but they were willing to work with us on the logistics.”

Hillside’s staffers recruited those students they felt would be most interested in participating last year, and most of those students will be involved in this year’s production. O’Connor says the participants are required to maintain good grades—passing all core classes, maintaining good school attendance and a record free of behavioral issues—to stay with the production.

While Redhouse staff come to Hillside, which occupies a three-building site on East Avenue in Syracuse, during preproduction workshops, the Hillside students are required to attend regular rehearsals with the rest of the cast at the Redhouse’s location on 201 West St., at the edge of Armory Square. For students with little access to private transportation, this is was no small hardship. Weekday rehearsals often went late into the evening, and Saturday rehearsals required a six-hour commitment.

Svoboda says the shows are specifically selected for their universal message and the need for a large cast.

“It’s about mentorship and internship,” he says. “And everyone is growing through this process. You don’t get many opportunities to do that in professional theater, and it’s so rewarding. The theme of the play we choose has to match the spirit of the process.”

Support for Hairspray is being provided by Wegmans and M&T Bank. Pratt says she is happy to be able to offer it to Hillside students for as long as possible. “With educational programs like this, it’s kind of like if you build it, they will come,” she says. “Schools are facing so many cuts to their arts programs these days, and we can to offer opportunities that students can take advantage of all year.”

When Hairspray hits the stage later this fall—from Nov. 29 to Dec. 15—other Hillside students will be showcasing their work. A photo exhibit will feature Hillside students’ pictures that evoke social themes such as civil rights. Pratt says this project, coordinated in conjunction with Syracuse University, is another extension of the Redhouse mission. “It’s a responsibility for us as a theater to program things that will make people think, make people talk.”

Pratt adds that the Redhouse staff gets just as much from collaborations like this as the students do. “We have learned that this is incredibly important. Are all of these kids going to go on to careers in the arts? Probably not. Will they leave here holding their heads a little bit higher? Yes. The ultimate goal here is not to make actors: It’s to build community.”

Two Corcoran High School students who participated in The Wiz last year have continued their work with the Redhouse as interns. Jamie Raines, a senior, works on costume design and fellow senior Shywone Davis works on production technology.

Svoboda says the only downside to a program like this is when the curtain closes after the final show. “We all get attached to each other,” he says. “There’s lots of crying on that last night.”

“It was like a family,” adds Baratta. She and the other student mentors attended every rehearsal with the students and supported them when they didn’t always feel like rehearsing or listening to the professionals. “We had our ups and downs, but everyone pulled together and supported each other.”

Baratta adds that some of those friendships continued after the show ended and have carried into the students’ interactions at Hillside.

For Svoboda, who came to the Redhouse nearly two years ago after a stint as a drama professor at the University of Miami, this collaboration has helped reconnect with his earliest artistic aspirations. “It’s the arts as a way of life,” he says. “One of the things I wanted to do when I came to the Redhouse was to connect back with the idea of art as a way of building community.”

Svoboda is already thinking about how the program can be expanded next year. He would like to see the Hillside performers collaborate with young people from Arc of Central New York, another organization that Redhouse is working with. “Whatever we do, we’re going to do it in the Redhouse kind of way,” he says. “That means making the arts vital to everyday life—for everyone.”

Pratt says the partnerships not only expand the range of talent on the stage and behind the scenes, they expand the audiences. “This has brought a new audience to us, many of whom had never seen a professional theater production before.”

The collaboration also extends the values Hillside encourages through all its programming. The goal of the Work-Scholarship Connection is to provide intense support to students who have been identified as having at least two risk factors that could prevent them from graduating. The program also helps the students connect with college scholarship information, or work opportunities—making plans beyond high school.

“There is nothing better than for a kid to be tested,” O’Connor says. “In the four years I’ve been at Hillside I’ve learned that if you have expectations for kids, they’ll not only meet them, they often exceed them.”                  

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.

Photo above: Michael Davis Photo


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