Impassioned New York City Students Find Home Away From Home at Rosie's Theater Kids

Rosie O'Donnell received the 2014 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her work with Rosie's Theater Kids, the Manhattan arts education organization dedicated to enriching the lives of children through the arts. Playbill.com stopped by the Maravel Arts Center, home to RTKids, to check out the children's work.

Lori Klinger
Lori Klinger

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With a couple of claps from artistic and executive director (and mentor) Lori Klinger, the Rosie's Theater Kids stop what they're doing, mirror her sound, quiet down and prepare to work. After all, they've come from all over New York City to focus their creative energies, explore through artistic expression and educate themselves through the arts.

Klinger explained, "I always say it was developed around her kitchen table, talking." She refers, of course, to Rosie O'Donnell, who was awarded the 2014 Tony Award for her work with the arts education program and co-founded RTKids alongside Klinger. The program began over a decade ago in 2003 and has grown from 40 to over 1,700 students.

The students call Maravel Arts Center their home — the residence of RTKids, located on 45th Street in Hell's Kitchen. The summer program went into full swing at the beginning of July, and students can be found in the dance studios, singing by a piano or in the RTKids study room, where performance takes a seat and education stands center stage.

"I really like that [Rosie's Theater Kids is] not only artistic, but it's also academic because I'm not really sure where I'd be right now if I didn't have the academic support," explained 14-year-old student and volunteer Noelya Richardson, who is going into her fifth year at RTKids. "They really stay on top of your grades — they're always checking in to see how your grades are doing. Lara [Paquette], our tutor, helps us with our homework or a test coming up. We have Regents [Examination] prep, and the juniors have SAT prep, so I really like that." The school-aged children also prepare for auditions. On July 10, 13-year-old, middle-school students Noah Ford and Johnny Vega were practicing "I Can't Be Bothered Now" from Crazy for You, "Consider Yourself" from Oliver! and "Shine" from Billy Elliot: The Musical with director of vocal studies Lisa Danser.

"We were singing 'Shine,' and it's one of my favorite songs that we have in the entire packet," explained Vega, who was given artistic freedom by Danser to explore the song and feel safe in the room.

Ford added, "It's one of our audition songs that we could perform for Professional Performing Arts School or LaGuardia or Talent Unlimited [high schools]." At Rosie's the students are prepared with the proper tools for auditions, a life at theatre school or a career in the arts.

Richardson, who attends NYC's Talent Unlimited High School, said, "There's definitely lessons outside of just a drama class — professionalism — and, if you want to get a job, if you want to audition for something, [you're taught] the proper way to do it. It's not only a drama class or a dance class, but [a lesson in] proper etiquette."

In an earlier interview with Playbill magazine, Tony Award recipient O'Donnell explained, "It's a safe haven for these kids, and they get treated as whole people, not just performers, so whatever it is that they need in their life, they know that there's a safety net there that is called Rosie's Theater Kids — that they will be caught and somebody will pay attention to what their needs are, no matter what they are. Those teachers have accomplished some pretty phenomenal things for these children…"

The staff includes Klinger (artistic and executive director), Danser (director of vocal studies), Thecla Harris (artistic director, PS Broadway), Steven Jamail (musical director and supervisor), Toni Noblett (artistic director, Tap & Spotlight on Fitness), Jeff Statile (artistic director, Drama & PPAS at RTKids), Timothy Johnson (artistic associate) and Kyle Pleasant (resident choreographer), among many other noted artists who pass in and out of the halls of Rosie's.

"I want to be a dancer," said 15-year-old RTKid Dauan Chappel, "so I feel like the dance classes really help because Kyle Pleasant, the dance teacher here — he doesn't focus on making you look good, but more on how to notice the corrections yourself…"

He added that he's made multiple new friends at RTKids — people who he considers "family." Chappel said, "In middle school, I had one friend [who] also joined Rosie's, and then she started helping out a lot more and taking classes…[and] I've made a lot more friends within being in Rosie's. I have a nice good group of friends who I go to school with and go home with. We all live really close together, so we do a lot of traveling… I love them. That's my family — my friend family."

At Rosie's, while one group is dancing, another group is practicing vocals and others are rehearsing scene work, students inhabit the hallways — chatting amongst their friends, getting homework help and preparing for their next time on stage.

"You have to look into the eyes of these kids, and they have to connect with you in a way that makes them believe in themselves because they see that you believe in them. And, that's really what ultimately saved me — this teacher in the theatre department at my school," admitted O'Donnell. "I wanted to give back." (Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)