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Milwaukee Arts Groups Fill the Gap in Arts Education

Sep. 5, 2017
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“The arts are a powerful, positive and universal force!” the children at the Holton Youth and Family Center chanted along with the cast of The Corps of Four and Ballerina Karina in “Space Case!”—the newest episode in Milwaukee Ballet’s ongoing superheroes series for kids created by Alyson Chavez, the company’s director of community engagement. The after-school performance was organized by Above the Clouds, an organization that provides free arts education to inner-city children. Milwaukee Ballet’s international pre-professional company gives many such performances annually in schools and community centers in neighborhoods across the city. 

In this accomplished, funny one-act ballet with spoken text, superheroes Ballerina Karina, Kickstar, Major Jump, Power Lift and The Pirouette Threat find themselves on Pluto in need of spaceship repairs. Pluto’s ruler, depressed by his world’s demotion from full planet status, has banned dancing. The superheroes use their dance skills, honed through devoted commitment to study and practice, not to bash or intimidate but to inspire positivity and love of learning; and, of course, to delight. Our heroes inspire the ruler to forsake his isolation and bring dance back, and the heartened Plutonians share their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math to repair the stalled spaceship. In the current educational lingo, adding art turns STEM into STEAM.

This program of original works, one of several Milwaukee Ballet in-school programs, is called Ballet in a Box because, as Chavez explains, “We bring the ballet to you. But we didn’t want to bring one act of Swan Lake or something. We have this unique opportunity to reach the youngest audiences who have not perhaps ever seen ballet and also might have some pretty strong stereotypes about it. We try to make it fun and relevant and athletic. We try to highlight the fact that boys do ballet as well. We incorporate some history and technical information. So the kids walk away saying ‘Oh, that was fun’ and ‘Boys are cool dancers’ and ‘Now I know who Louis XIV was.’ That’s a good day for us.

“Those of us who work in the arts believe that the arts are as necessary to our lives as food, as air, as water,” she continues. “The arts are being cut from schools in every neighborhood, and it’s our duty as a city organization to provide those opportunities. You cannot expect to have kids going through their entire elementary and high school years without access to the arts and think that they’re going to be the kind of citizens we want in this world. You need the arts to be a well-rounded human being, to be able to see the world. Right now, we need the arts to remind us that there is positivity and beauty and human connection and love and positive ways to express your emotions and to channel your sadness, your anger, your confusion.”


‘A Busy Bee’ of Literacy

SHARP Literacy is a well-respected Milwaukee service organization that builds reading comprehension, writing and research skills among a diverse urban student population, many in underperforming schools, through interactive art projects such as the creation of public murals and the professional publication of books written and illustrated by the children. The Florentine Opera has partnered with SHARP Literacy to turn one of those books, A Busy Bee, into an original one-act opera to be performed this season by the Florentine Opera’s professional artists for roughly 16,000 K-5 children in 70 schools and community centers.

A Busy Bee is made in Milwaukee by Milwaukeeans for Milwaukee children. Florentine staff accompanist Ruben Piirainen is the composer and librettist. According to Florentine Education Director John Stumpff, Piirainen drew musical inspiration from George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, along with “a kind of bee rap for getting the kids engaged and realizing, OK, this isn’t as stuffy as we thought.” The bees are costumed according to the SHARP children’s drawings and have familiar multicultural names, as they do in the book. At SHARP’s insistence, the opera includes bee science lessons.

“First the Queen introduces the hive,” Stumpff says, “and then we meet Bella, who doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do in life. Her friends say, well, why don’t you try this? She doesn’t do so well, but they’re like, OK, get back up and try this. If you keep trying, you’ll find your place and what you’re good at.”

For most of the past decade, the Florentine toured schools with the American composer John Davies’ children’s operas based on fairy tales, building their education programs and network. Piirainen toured as accompanist and learned what works for kids musically. Stumpff, an opera singer, visits each site with company manager Lizzy Cichowski three or four times before each performance day to chat with the children about music and opera and what they’re going to see. They teach the fourth or fifth graders a chorus to sing in the opera. The younger kids then look forward to the year they’ll get to sing. Each performance ends with a free-flowing Q&A for artists and kids.

For high schools, the Florentine gives residencies, master classes and small concerts. “But the biggest thing we do for high school students,” Stumpff says, “is called Get Opera. Schools bring classes to two mainstage shows per year on a pay-what-you-can-basis, like $5 a ticket.” Often the kids get a backstage tour and talk with the production manager, designers and even, if the show is new, with the composer.

The Florentine offers a teachers’ resource guide to help with in-class discussions before and after the visit to the Marcus Center. Suggested classroom activities are outlined. “We break it down by core curriculum that music can help with,” Stumpff says. “There are activities pertaining to science and math and to language skills, especially now with SHARP Literacy being our partner. We show how music is important in making you a better student overall.”


Theater of Learning

At the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, education and community engagement programming are tied to the work on its stages. This means that these departments are intimately involved in season planning. It also means that, as the Rep’s Education Director Jenny Toutant says, “We don’t dust any curriculum off and reuse it year after year; we create it each year based on one or two shows from that season.”

The Rep’s Reading Residency Program, entering its seventh year, serves middle school students and has three goals: reading comprehension, social and emotional learning and theater appreciation. The children start by reading the play. They discuss it with the Rep’s teaching artists guided by the model for social and emotional learning championed by MPS, Milwaukee Succeeds and other community groups devoted to improving educational outcomes for every child in every school by employing the arts to foster self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. 

Next, the children attend a Rep Immersion Day—a full day at the theater where they learn how the piece of literature they’ve studied is brought to life. They see demonstrations by the production team, have lunch and conversations with the full staff and attend a matinee performance and talk-back with the actors. A week later, one of the actors visits the classroom for a Q&A follow-up. This season, 40 classrooms will participate. The goal is to make the program district-wide in five years.

In addition, the Rep runs a multidisciplinary after-school program for high school students. “It connects the themes of the work onstage to the students’ lives and the lives of their specific neighborhood,” Toutant says. “They learn about the production and see the show. We help identify visual artists and spoken word artists so the students study either photography or collage art, spoken word poetry and theatre and playwriting. Then they create their own work, connecting the themes of our production to their community, and they perform it for each other in our Stackner Cabaret. We also do that program focused on storytelling; for example, with Grounded last season, the students interviewed veterans and retold their stories in spoken word or theatre monologues and invited the vets to the performance.”

More than 20,000 students from 240-plus schools attend the student matinées. The Rep employs two high school students part-time as youth leaders. They assist the teaching artists in the classroom and meet once a week at the theater to study leadership and planning skills; they lead a teen council that advises on teen programming; and they work in the Rep’s cutting-edge community engagement projects, which have become a national model.

“We’re also partnering with First Stage to develop teacher training programs,” Toutant adds. “Dr. [Darienne] Driver [superintendent of MPS] is really dedicated to putting arts education back into the curriculum, but because they cut the arts so many years ago, there are no certified arts teachers left. It’s a crisis in Milwaukee.”


From Playwriting to Acting and Tap Dancing

Theater education for children is First Stage’s raison d’être. Its programs combine play attendance with pre- and post-show classroom workshops that expand the experience. The Classroom Literacy Plus Program workshops include reading fiction and non-fiction books related to the play’s themes. The Classroom Partnership Program workshops explore standard curriculum through roleplay, improvisation, movement and pantomime. The Character Education Program advances skills in critical thinking, problem solving, leadership and collaboration. This summer, MPS and First Stage co-produced the first, full-scale, citywide production of a musical.

Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap Program has brought 550,000 hours of dance instruction to 25,000 fourth through sixth graders in primarily urban schools over the past 11 years, integrating these dance forms into the regular curriculum. The Danceworks Generations Program builds relationships between students and older adults in assisted living and adult day programs through dance and visual art instruction. The company also partners with schools and community organizations in customized residencies with diverse goals.

Next Actors, a summer theater for teens, is Next Act Theatre’s main education program. A multicultural group of area teens works with professional artists to create a musical play from their experiences and concerns and gives free performances to community centers and youth organizations. Next Act also presents one deeply discounted student matinée of each of its main stage productions. Pre- or post-show classroom visits with performers are possible. A major student project, Across the Viaduct, about the history of Milwaukee race relations, is planned for April 2018.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre teaches playwriting through its Young Playwrights Festival, a three-year cycle that includes high school playwriting residencies; a competition in which finalists are chosen by area theater professionals; and six cash award winners, staged readings and full productions for the top three playwrights. 

In partnership with PEARLS for Teen Girls, Renaissance Theaterworks is starting a critical writing program this season for teenage women to foster a new and more diverse group of local theater critics. Students will attend performances, discuss themes and production strategies with directors and write short reviews for website publication. Mentors include educators, poets, journalists and theater critics, including the Shepherd Express’ Selena Milewski.

Skylight Music Theatre reaches more than 13,000 elementary, middle and high school students in 100-plus schools annually with eight programs that focus on creative thinking, musical storytelling, music analysis, theater appreciation, musical theater writing and performance in standard musical theater repertoire.

In Tandem Theatre Company offers student matinée performances and talk-backs for school groups and is working toward a student summer theater program.

In addition to those mentioned above, many other community organizations and arts groups are dedicated to providing arts education to school children in the Greater Milwaukee area, among them Cre8te MKE, Arts at Large, Waukesha Civic Theatre, Artists Working in Education and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory’s Instrument Drive, to be held Sept. 22-24, encourages Milwaukeeans to donate used musical instruments and equipment. Following the drive, donated instruments will be cleaned and repaired and put into the hands of under-served youth who cannot afford them throughout Southeastern Wisconsin.


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