For every successful stage performer in New York City, there might be a thousand school children with Broadway aspirations. For many of them, however, theatrical training is financially out of reach. James Donahower recently visited a place in New York where children can find affordable performing arts education, with important fringe benefits.
Rehearsal at the City Lights Youth Theater is a raucous occasion. The performing arts school's afternoon and weekend classes are filled with students ages five to 19, preparing for seasonal performance festivals, music theater review classes, junior musicals, and special summer projects.
The young people are, in large part, from economically-challenged minority groups. City Lights' Artistic Director Warren Baumgart says the school thrives on these students.
"We are one of the few organizations that has a large amount of scholarships," he said. "Over 50 percent of our students are on some form of financial aid. For every kid that comes in and pays a tuition, we have got a kid who normally would not be able to take a class here or be in a show because he would not be able to afford it. But they can do it here, and that is what makes our student group so diverse."
Popular show tunes figure heavily into the theater's repertoire, but Mr. Baumgart points out that material the children work on is usually issue-oriented.
"Often, when we commission a piece, we ask the composer to add stuff about kids, and the things in their life that they deal with. We try to stick to something that's a little heavier, a little more edgy than the typical musical," he explained.
In fact, notes Mr. Baumgart, unlike other performing arts schools in the New York, City Lights is focused on something other than stardom.
"We do not claim to prepare kids for professions in the field," he said. "We do not get agents coming to shows, we do not provide headshots (professional photographs). Most of our kids just love coming here and doing the work. The importance is their experience here, the friends they make," he said.
Broadway singer and dancer Paula Mayer is directing City Lights' current revue, called Lights On Broadway. She points out that young people develop both professional and social skills from the program.
"Some of them are incredibly focused. This is their life," she said. "For others, this is giving them the tools to become more focused, more grounded."
Thirteen year-old singer Kelly Contreres says City Lights saves her from the mundane after-school life her friends seem to lead.
"They do not really do anything," she says. "They go home, they do their homework, they go to sleep. They talk on the phone or chat online. I feel like that is wasting my time. I want to do something that is productive. I want to help myself, and my future."
While the children are hard at work sharpening their skills, a battle to keep the school going rages on behind the scenes. City Lights receives at least 25 percent of its funding from New York City, which is in the middle of a dramatic economic downturn. Executive Director Michelle Audet, a 25-year veteran of arts education, says making ends meet has never been harder.
"Tuition never covers the expenses of running the organization, and the expenses of running a place like this in New York seem to go up year by year," she said. "In terms of arts education in schools, there is always a battle with the mayor's office and the school board as to whether or not the arts are in or out in any particular year. After 25 years of watching, it can be very tiresome and frustrating because it seems we are always trying to prove how important the arts are to a child's education."
Ms. Audet adds that ample proof exists that training in the performing arts can play an important role in a student's development.
"The more neural pathways children build from left brain to right brain, the more exercise they have in memorization or listening to music, or repeating music in terms of song or poetry, all of these physical, mental, and emotional skills coming together through the performance of some art form, actually builds better brains. It is really kind of simple," said Ms. Audet.
Fortunately, the children at City Lights Youth Theater are oblivious to the financial problems battering school officials. They just get to sing and dance.