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

Performing arts such as dance, drama, music and spoken word are excellent means of building confidence, learning to work together, and expressing emotion, as well as enhancing skills from coordination to literacy to communication. And these sorts of programs—whether dance classes, music lessons or a theater troupe—are also great ways to utilize general purpose space you already have while you fill a need for arts activities in your community.

While the creativity inherent in the arts means no two programs or performances are ever quite the same (especially if the participants are under age 5!), there are some general programming principles that can help ensure success. So whether you'd like to bring a new element of the arts to your current roster of programs or you're looking for ways to add oomph to existing performing arts offerings, the expert insights that follow should have you on your way to best practices and standing-ovation success in no time.

Consider Your Community

Like most other aspects of being a community-based organization, the place to begin when you're brainstorming is with the community. "Match what you're offering with who's out there," said Susan McCabe, program director emerita of Vashon Park District in Washington. "Listen to them." The thriving arts community in Vashon has provided many ideas and opportunities for that park district to get involved in the performing arts. (More on that below!)

Jenna Hodges Struble, executive director of the Amarillo Family YMCA, North Branch, in Texas said they began formulating their performing arts programming with a community assessment and a member assessment. "We asked what was already around and what they wanted to learn," she explained. Rap came back as one of the top areas of interest, and it just so happens that Struble is a spoken word competitor and performer—"There's a bit of a scene for that in Amarillo," she explained—so their spoken word programming for kids and teens was born. Now the program has grown so much that Struble can't manage all the classes herself, so they've applied for additional grant funding to employ some local grad students as instructors.

Another big factor in Amarillo's planning for arts programming is demographics. "We chose not to do theater because there's a lot of it in town, but we've discovered that the classes only reach a certain segment who can afford them," Struble said. She noted that 70 percent of kids in town qualify for free or reduced price lunches at school, so their families cannot likely afford existing programs. "We're looking to solve that issue so kids can be part of a program even if they can't afford it—they can be in a play, learn some dance and music. Our programs are for that demographic."

More to follow on how they're achieving that goal, but suffice to say that looking at what's already available for your constituents and how many of them are able to afford it will be helpful as you determine the performing arts niche you can fill. The performing arts programs at the Arts Branch of the YMCA of Greater Syracuse in New York started because "an organization down the block that offered reasonably priced art and music lessons had just gone out of business," said Philip Memmer, executive director. There was an immediate and obvious need, so the Y decided to focus their efforts there. Their music lessons program began with a few of the displaced teachers from down the block, who brought along their students, and it has since flourished (they're up to 175 students at four different locations), as has the dance program they created.

"Understand what's already in place in your community and fill the gaps," Memmer said. If there's already a thriving drama program or children's theater, you don't need to start another one. And "if there's a music school on Main Street, you probably don't need a music program. Maybe try drama or visual arts instead."

Once you've determined what to offer, it's also helpful to keep close tabs on your community as you plan your schedule and decide when to offer your classes. "The key ingredient for us is a wide variety of programming for a wide variety of ages," said Ruth Brackmann, recreation supervisor at Warrenville Park District in Illinois. She oversees a diverse and highly successful dance program for children and adults alike. They examine the schedule for local schools and preschools before scheduling their classes, and she has her staff talk extensively with parents "to see what they need."

Where adult classes are concerned, she said it's even more challenging to get a program off the ground. "It depends a lot on the instructor and their following, as well as how you're advertising." But she's found that classes for adults are more popular in the winter, when indoor activities are most appealing, so she offers more time slots for adults in the cold months, and she makes sure the different options don't compete with one another so people can participate in as many classes as they want to.