When Michael M. Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was a child, his parents took him to see The Music Man. "Barbara Cook, as Marian the Librarian, sang 'Goodnight, My Someone,' and I knew that the arts were it for me," he says. "It's very important that, when a child is young, they're inoculated like that."
Indeed, with its new $125 million education initiative, the Kennedy Center aims to give the performing arts bug to more than 11 million people across the country. The center's expanded programming targets not only young, would-be art lovers but also art managers, aspiring dancers and musicians, and even board members at other cultural institutions. "We've always been strong in this department, but we wanted to up the ante," says Kaiser. "The Kennedy Center is large and national in scope. We should speak to a lot of people."
Since the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, "the need for arts education programming has only intensified," says Darrell Ayers, Vice President for Education. "In schools today, there's an emphasis on testing, so it's very easy for administrators to cut the arts out. But those of us who had experiences in school with dance or music know how those subjects helped us develop thinking skills and made us more rounded people."
With the new initiative, the Kennedy Center will bring culture to the classroom in innovative ways. High-tech tools that help both teachers and students will include a broadband distance learning program, infrared listening systems that can provide commentary during rehearsals, and a slew of informative, often interactive content on the Center's ArtsEdge Web site. On the site (artsedge.kennedy-center.org), students and teachers can read interviews with artists like jazz pianist Billy Taylor, listen to storm-inspired classical music, or "open" the locker of a fictional Martha Graham dancer to find performance notes, a journal, and video clips. A new jazz Web site will include graphics, sound files, on-line discussions, and even an interactive map of Harlem pinpointing significant sites in its musical history. "Technology becomes a mechanism to reach more people," says Ayers.
More traditional efforts also figure in the new education push. All teachers in the United States now receive a 15 percent discount when they buy tickets to Kennedy Center events (subject to availability). "We felt we had to put our money where our mouth is," says Kaiser. "If we want teachers to bring art into the classroom, they have to experience it themselves."
During the 2002 Sondheim Celebration, Washington-area schoolchildren were encouraged to add their own ideas to the fractured fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, Jr. That show's success inspired the Kennedy Center to team with Disney Theatrical Productions and Music Theatre International to create new musicals for children and to provide support for teachers who wish to mount those shows. In the summer of 2006, D.C.-area grade-school students will attend theater arts classes at the Kennedy Center in the morning, then spend afternoons crafting and rehearsing shows based on such Disney movies as Mulan or 101 Dalmatians. "The program isn't about creating the next Les Mis," says Ayers. "The idea is to get young people excited about musicals. They come up with their own concepts. For instance, with Into the Woods, Jr. the students had the Rapunzel character kept in the Washington Monument!"
When curious students become aspiring artists, the Kennedy Center also wants to help them learn and grow. The new funding enables international expansions to established programs such as Jazz Ahead, which allows young musicians to study with leading jazz pros, and the Summer Music Institute, which gives students opportunities to learn from National Symphony Orchestra members.
The center's dance education programs will also expand. In its 12th year, the Dance Theatre of Harlem Kennedy Center Pre-Professional Program will now focus on professional training for grade- through high-school students who are interested in dance. "Parents watch as their children are transformed by this program," says Dance Theatre of Harlem Executive Director Laveen Naidu. "Students who come through it, whether they become professional dancers or not, gain more confidence and pay more attention in school." Exploring Ballet with Suzanne Farrell, an annual training institute run by the famed ballerina (and Balanchine muse), will now become international and include young dancers from China and other countries. Often, these programs help turn aspiring artists into pros who later find themselves performing onstage at the Kennedy Center. Dance Theatre of Harlem program participants now belong to the company; Farrell's students have gone on to join the Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. "It's so interesting to see them develop as performers," says Ayers.
The Center's Vilar Institute for Arts Management, a pet project of Kaiser's, will also be expanded. The institute's current offerings include internships and a ten-month fellowship program. The latter hosts ten arts managers for classes that are taught by Kaiser and senior Kennedy Center executives, as well as for hands-on work opportunities. "And starting next year, we'll have a program to train board members for performing arts organizations," says Kaiser. A new Web site for arts managers is also planned. It will feature on-line discussions, case studies, and other elements.
The most visible element of the Kennedy Center's new commitment to education may be the new Family Theater. The 320-seat space replaces the Film Theater in December, opening with the world premiere of Alice, a Kennedy Center commission adapted from a children's book by Whoopi Goldberg. The new theater boasts good sight lines, fiber-optic capability for distance learning programs, wood-paneled walls, and a striking blue and gold color scheme. Having a space solely devoted to family productions means more performances and more kids in the audience. In the past, most young peoples' productions were staged in the Theater Lab, "which we had to share with other shows," says Ayers. "Every set had to be taken down in between shows! This new theater gives us a space specifically devoted to young people and families."
It's just another way that the Kennedy Center is hoping to get people, particularly young ones, fired up about dance, theater and music. "Our goal is to inspire as many children as we can," says Ayers. "We want to make the arts a part of all children's lives."
Jennifer Barger is a senior editor at WHERE Washington magazine
and a frequent contributor to the Washington Post and Playbill.