Even though the house was set to be dark on the night of May 16, a crowd waited impatiently at the doors of Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre. The audience wasn’t waiting to see the Tony-nominated revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Instead, this group awaited access for the moment 150 high school students would make their Broadway debut in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Student Theatre Arts Festival.
For 19 years, the Education at Roundabout branch has worked with ten schools in the five boroughs—and more across the country—to integrate theatre into the curricula. With partners like The Department of Education and IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), Roundabout has sponsored learning programs for students, teachers and pre-professionals.
Six years ago, Education at Roundabout added the Student Theatre Arts Festival—now its crown jewel. The Festival is the culmination of students’ work at their own schools throughout the school year and Roundabout’s special after-school program, Student Production Workshop (SPW). Altogether, the initiative promotes academic success, welcomes the next generation into the theatre community and fosters new talent.
“We reach about 20,000 people annually,” Roundabout’s director of education Jennifer DiBella reports. “One of the groups that is going to be performing at the festival is our Student Production Workshop, which is an afterschool program that we created at Roundabout where students from all of our partner schools around the city come to Roundabout and are selected to participate in this larger ensemble… Since we’ve started that program about ten years ago, 100 percent of those students graduated high school.”
DiBella, says that the Festival was a natural consolidation of previous smaller programs. What began as a smattering of playwriting showcases grew into the festival, which includes opportunities for high-schoolers to perform established plays and musicals or devise new work with a team of student artists and mentors.
During the day-long festival, student actors, designers, directors and writers gathered to compete in theatre games and meet professionals in the field. In preparation for the festival’s evening showcase, the students teched their performances with Roundabout staff, who donated their time to the project. That night the students made their Broadway debuts before friends and family. This year’s festival featured ten performances by the students, a mix of established and original theatre pieces, plus the gallery walk.
Each gallery display depicted the process behind a particular performance. One student ambassador stood next to a marred mannequin head explaining the effects lead poisoning in Flynt, Michigan. The crisis inspired the students of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School to create an original piece, The Worth of Water.
This year, Hanako Montgomery’s original work, She was as Beautiful as the Moon, debuted at the Festival and was selected by SPW for a summer production in Roundabout’s Black Box Theatre.
Director Kayla Arvelo, a junior at Repertory Company High School, and Montgomery, a graduating senior from The Baccalaureate School for Global Education, collaborated in SPW to bring the show to the Festival stage.
Energetic and friendly, Arvelo spoke with the authority of a Roundabout veteran. “I have been working with Roundabout since my freshman year,” Kayla explains, “but this is my first time directing a piece. I am excited for it because I’ve been wanting to experience something new, a different aspect of theatre.”
If Arvelo is the electricity igniting She was as Beautiful as the Moon, Montgomery is the grounding pin. Thoughtful and measured, the young woman considered herself a poet, not a playwright. “I’ve always written poetry, but I’ve never really got into playwriting until the SPW program at Roundabout,” says Montgomery. She was surprised that Roundabout chose her play for a full production. When asked if she would consider a theatre career now, she smiled, “I’m definitely considering it.”
Back in the theatre, the lobby swirled with the audience’s anticipation. It was nothing compared to the energy in an upstairs holding room where students’ voices rang with the sounds of last minute rehearsals, good luck phone calls and excited chatter about the night’s host Zachary Levi.
“There are few things that are more important than kids,” Levi explains minutes before greeting the 150 stars of the evening. “To have a private organization like the Roundabout be able to help … give these kids opportunities that they may not have otherwise, is not just enriching in their own lives, but if they go on to do great things, that’s enriching the world. That’s some cool ripple effect.”