In truth, the President himself didn't call, but Kathy Fletcher, from the President's Committee on Arts and the Humanities and the National Director of Turnaround Arts did. Turnaround Arts uses the arts to increase student engagement and improve the culture and climate in the country's highest poverty schools. Each participating school is mentored by a high-profile artist, and the first cycle of the program was so successful that it is being expanded from eight schools to 35.
Our Presidential musical theatre mission was a two-parter: 1) To help prepare art mentor Sarah Jessica Parker and her girls from the Martin Luther King Junior School in Portland, OR, to perform "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile" from Annie Jr. and 2) To assist students from a school located on a Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, MT. Before Turnaround Arts, these kids didn't even have a music teacher, and now they were slated to perform a spoken word and percussion piece with their art mentor, the Silk Road Ensemble.
And where were these performances taking place? At a first-ever student talent show in the East Room of the White House hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. No pressure.
Sarah Jessica Parker is everything you'd want her to be — joyful, giggly, hardworking and a wonderful teaching artist. She offered the girls advice like, "being nervous allows you to do things you may not be able to otherwise do, like sing better, or smile bigger, or kick higher, so think of 'nervous' as a friend who's by your side on the journey."
It was good advice, as nerves were certainly present in the moments before our kids performed in the East Room of the White House. The girls were fine; me and my team? To quote Mr. Sondheim, we were "excited and scared."
The kids took the stage like pros. Their faces beamed brighter than the White House china with authentic smiles that trumpeted, "this is fun" and "I'm proud of what I'm doing!" The young performers earned a standing ovation led by the First Lady who spontaneously jumped onto the stage and hugged each one of them. Cue tears from all of us adults — streaming, ugly-cry tears of unabashed joy.
The afternoon was made even more gratifying when I heard the First Lady say, "We cannot rest until every child in this country has some kind of exposure to the arts in their lives."
And then the President of the United States stopped in to catch some of the performances. He congratulated the students and said, "The arts are central to who we are as a people, and they are central to the success of our kids. This is not an afterthought. This is not something you do because it's kinda nice to do. It is necessary for these young people to succeed. You've got to support the arts; it's a priority."
Come on America, the President and First Lady have a mission for us all! I'm raising my Les Misérables flag high and adding spirit fingers to my jazz hands. Let's make sure every young person has access to quality arts programs. Every. Single. One.
Timothy Allen McDonald is an award-winning playwright, Founder and CEO of iTheatrics, and a leading expert on creating sustainable educational musical theatre programs for young people.