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.

Find Partners and Collaborate

Although you don't want to re-create something that's already being offered, that's not to say you can't connect with existing arts organizations and find ways to work together. Partnering with another arts group is a great way to collaborate, said Christin Baker, arts specialist with YMCA of the USA. The people in your Y or park district's community are a group potentially hungry for arts programming, and arts institutions in your area surely have professionals involved and perhaps even an educational outreach component of their mission, so everyone wins. Working together can "help elevate their name and brand and brings enrichment to the Y or park," she explained.

Practically speaking, Memmer said that funding for the arts is tight, and is likely growing tighter, "so it's crucial to find your place within the arts community and make connections and friends with other arts organizations." Particularly if you're just getting started with performing arts programming, you can benefit from talking to other organizations. "The partnership may not even involve programming," he said.

Perhaps you have some space an orchestra or theater group could use to rehearse in exchange for offering outdoor performances or concerts in your park during the summer. (Performing arts programming doesn't have to be strictly lessons-oriented. Offering arts-based entertainment for your community is another way to fill a need and perhaps gauge local interest in the arts before you begin a program of your own.) "Start small," Memmer said. "Talk to the theater group down the street and see what happens. See what their needs are, what your organizations have in common."

Warrenville Park District's dance program is certainly not the only one in the area, and in fact when they began, many of their instructors also worked at local dance studios. As their program has grown, they've brought their instructors in-house as staff, but they still keep in touch with local studios. "If we can't service a dancer, we refer them to a studio, and vice versa," Brackmann said. "It's worked really well for us." Their program also has a partnership with a nearby high school, so they're able to use the high school auditorium—as well as staff and high school theater tech students—for performances.

Though Vashon is a small island, a 15-minute ferry ride from Seattle, McCabe always had "lots to work with" and "lots of support to develop arts programming," she said. In fact, community members often approached her with ideas, "and all I had to do was say yes." Six years of Shakespeare in the Park that eventually evolved into the Island Ensemble was born when a local drama coach approached her. The park district covered their expenses and offered the director and technical crew a small stipend, but everyone else volunteered, "and the community loved it." The summer performances were free to the public and brought the park district a lot of attention and prestige.

Vashon Park District also collaborated with Vashon Allied Arts and Voice of Vashon, a local online radio station, to produce radio theater during the colder months (another case of the performing arts being a good indoor entertainment option!), and they provided performance space to a local ballet troupe and managed the schedule for the local high school's theater in exchange for having their programs there.

Reach out to university theater departments whose young students might be delighted to teach classes for kids, suggested McCabe. She also advised looking for seniors in the community who may be retired performing artists.

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."

How to Grow

Finally, whether you're starting from scratch or looking to expand your performing arts offerings, the following tips may come in handy:

Be sure to cover basic technique. Whether they're dancing, singing, playing an instrument or writing a play, be sure your students know the basic techniques and terms of their art. This will ground them for future success and prepare them to adapt their skills more and more creatively as they grow. "If they don't know basic ballet steps, they can't do hip hop or jazz," Brackmann said. "We focus on ballet with the youngest kids, and then the skills carry to other classes."

Consider all your audiences. Most performing arts programming is aimed at kids. "There's a sweet spot for kids because of after-school activities and summer camp," Baker explained. But don't miss the opportunity presented by adults. "I think as baby boomers retire, more Ys will have more arts offerings for older adults," she said. "Statistics indicate that [baby boomers] are a Peter Pan generation that wants continual learning."

Test the arts within existing programs. Ideally you'd like to see what sort of interest there might be in drama or dance before you've bothered to construct an entire program, so use your existing after-school program or summer day camp participants as a practice group. "Have a theme week working toward something specific at the end," Baker suggested. That could be a gallery show, a dance performance, or a skit. "Weave the arts into something you're already doing, but make it special." The Amarillo Y does this with their day camp each summer (one way they make the arts available to their lower-income constituents). "One day per week is completely arts-oriented," Struble explained. The campers take a field trip or see a performance and have assorted art classes, depending on the theme for the year. They've done musical theater, visual art and creative writing, and not only does this give students new skills, they have a blast performing for parents at the end of the session, she reported.

Highlight the strengths of what you offer. As these experts have noted, parks and YMCAs may be serving a different demographic than the ritziest dance academy or music conservatory in town, so there's no need to compete. Offering quality instruction at a lower price point will likely fill a valuable need in your community, and don't forget the added convenience, Memmer said. At the Y or a park, there's something for everyone to do. While one child takes dance and the other has a piano lesson, adults can swim or work out or play with younger children on the playground. It's all right there!

So get a sense of your community, reach out to the artists around you, and start having some fun. The show must go on!

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