Feature Article - April 2013
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Programming: Performing Arts

Break a Leg!
Put Your Best Foot Forward for Performing Arts Programming

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Must Haves

Despite the diversity found within the performing arts, there are some essential elements for any successful program. The first? Performances! Students need a chance to demonstrate what they've learned, and if they're pint-sized pupils, their parents and grandparents are likely dying to see them in action.

"Your shows are your showcase," Brackmann said. And while many programs have a single end-of-year recital, she's found that parents enjoy a holiday show as well. Warrenville Park District dance classes run in two sessions, so the fall-winter session culminates in a holiday show, and the winter-spring session ends in a spring dance finale. She also noted that the shows are not just for students, they're a way to attract new students. She keeps the cost to $5 a ticket, and she keeps a tight rein on her costume and scenery budget, which is offset by the fee students pay for their dance lessons (although she does believe "giving the audience more than they expect" in those departments can go a long way).

To further enhance the performance experience, Brackmann has the recitals professionally recorded and photographed, and DVDs and photo packages are available for purchase at a minimal cost. This eliminates crowds of parents standing in the aisles or watching the show through a lens, instead of just enjoying it.

YMCA of the USA's Baker agrees that having some sort of "culminating event" is very important. If you have performing arts offerings already, but don't have a final performance, adding one or making the one you have a more special occasion can be an easy way to improve your program, to the delight of students and parents alike.

Memmer said the Syracuse Y's music and dance programs do several recitals a year in a variety of locations, and they're always lots of fun. "You've got high school and middle school students doing great stuff, and 5-year-olds plinking out 'Twinkle, Twinkle,'" he said with a laugh.

And though it's a less formal performing art, spoken word has a periodic performance schedule in Amarillo. Teens have poetry slams and open mic nights, and everyone has an opportunity to share their work from time to time, Struble said.

A second must-have? Top-notch teachers. The experts who contributed to this story all encourage hiring professionals who are working artists and/or have degrees in the appropriate field of study. "You need someone who can do the art and excite others' passion for it," Baker said.

"I always checked credentials," added McCabe, "even of the most eager volunteers. Make sure they can teach what they say they can teach."

Memmer said having high-quality instructors is not only key to the success of your classes, but to the success of your program as a whole. YMCAs and park districts may be more commonly associated with outdoor activities and "arts-and-crafts-style" arts programming, rather than genuine arts education, he explained. "People think you're weaving bracelets or making dreamcatchers," he said. "But our mission is to provide education for the visual, literary and performing arts. Our unofficial slogan," he added, "is 'It's not macaroni art!' We're offering real techniques, materials and history for 3-year-olds and 93-year-olds."

In addition, no matter how accomplished they are professionally, be sure your instructors are prepared to work with kids (if necessary) and trained in the standards and techniques you'd like them to employ. Many grad students, artists and writers are excellent at what they do, but this doesn't mean they can come up with age-appropriate activities for their students.

Also be sure to orient instructors to the values of your organization, said the Amarillo Y's Struble. "Find out what they're comfortable with and [if needed] give them some help."