What’s in a name?
For Dina Perez, a junior at the Chicago High School of the Arts, quite a lot—especially when that name is Andrew Lloyd Webber and it is attached to a scholarship that is helping her realize a dream to be in musical theatre.
“Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name in the title of the scholarship is a reminder to me how much a person is capable of with the right resources,” says Perez, a beneficiary of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative administered by the American Theatre Wing. “I hope one day to touch audiences the way he does.”
Empowering young people was what Andrew Lloyd Webber had in mind in 2016 when he proposed the initiative to the Wing. “I feel strongly that one is obliged to put back something into a profession that has been so good to me,” says the composer.
Heather Hitchens, President and CEO of the Wing, was impressed with Lloyd Webber’s passion for arts education. “He genuinely and deeply believes in it as a path to a better society. This intense desire to spread the word about how the arts can change lives is at the heart of his musical School of Rock.”
Lloyd Webber’s belief in paying it forward comes in the form of support for financially beleaguered schools and students. The need is acute. Some of the beneficiaries, like Calumet New Tech High School in Gary, Indiana, had theatre equipment in serious disrepair. Direct grants from the Initiative allow K-12 public schools to revitalize theatre programs that have suffered from years of funding cuts. Additionally, many of the recipients of scholarships, both for high school and college, come from poor and single-parent families. They are often experiencing difficult emotional circumstances leavened only by the arts.
“Theatre became my sanctuary,” says 16-year-old Collette Caspari, the recipient of a training scholarship that allowed her to attend Nexus Musical Theatre Summer Camp in San Marcos, Texas. Another beneficiary, Daelin Elzie, also saw theatre as “a haven.” Funding from the Initiative allowed him to escape the limited options of the inner-city for Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars. That training scholarship was followed up with four years of funding to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“We all know that music transcends barriers of class, race, money, whatever you like,” Lloyd Webber says. “And it’s much harder for people who don’t have the financial resources to get into the theatre. I thought it was something the American Theatre Wing was uniquely able to advise on.”
Indeed, the Wing has long had “boots on the ground” that help identify not only the need but, more importantly, the potential for excellence among underserved populations. Its expansive tool kit includes a national network of teachers honed through the Tony Awards’ annual Excellence in Theatre Education Award (co-presented with Carnegie Mellon University); the National Theatre Company Grants, which honor exceptional and diverse companies throughout the country; and influential contacts both at the university and professional levels that can offer expert counsel and mentorship to the recipients.
“Given the crisis in higher education, it is essential to help these kids get into college competitively if you want to get them in the pipeline,” says Hitchens, referring to the training scholarships awarded to promising students from sixth to eleventh grades. “If you don’t have advanced training at that stage, they won’t even have the chance to get into places like Carnegie Mellon.”
The Initiative’s training and university scholarships are extended to a variety of disciplines, including acting, music, direction, dance, design, and stage management. A scholarship made it possible for 16-year-old Quinn Chisenhall of Virginia, an aspiring lighting designer, to spend a summer at Emerson College’s Stage Design Studio Program in Boston. Carli Cooper of Winter Garden, Florida, was able to attend the University of Michigan in order to pursue her chosen career in arts administration.
For Lloyd Webber, who once described British theatre as “hideously white,” diversity is a key part of the mandate given to the Initiative’s panel of judges. They are drawn from a wide net of professionals, including the likes of casting director Bernie Telsey, Tony-winning actor Cynthia Erivo, and this season’s Summer: The Donna Summer Musical choreographer Sergio Trujillo. Hitchens says the hardest part of their job is saying “no,” since talent and need invariably outstrips resources. “That makes the judges willing to go to the mat for their choices,” she says.
Says Hitchens, “It is so meaningful to see the growth in our students and how it rallies people in our industry. We hear from those helped by the Initiative, ‘You’ve created a pathway to our future.’ We do what we can. Then they have to deliver.”