A local pilot program in Cincinnati, Ohio that helps fund and establish musical theatre programs in middle schools across the city is aiming to go nationwide.
Launched in 2015 as a joint partnership between the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) and the New York City-based Music Theatre International and iTheatrics, JumpStart Theatre provides training and support for educators working in underserved communities to stage student musicals in schools where theatre is not offered. Schools participating in the after-school program stage one musical per year.
The goal is for the school’s musical theatre program to reach a sustainable level by the time JumpStart Theatre funding and professional support end in three years.
The program is modeled after New York City’s hugely successful Broadway Junior Musical Theatre Program, which was founded in 2005.
Nine Cincinnati middle schools are currently participating in JumpStart Theatre, which is funded entirely through grants, a majority of which come from private funders within the state of Ohio, as well as Cincinnati-area funders and the Ohio Arts Council.
The program also receives a small portion of national funding, which EdTA plans to use to expand the program nationally.
Over the past three years, the Cincinnati-based EdTA has been piloting JumpStart Theatre with local schools in order to closely monitor the program’s effectiveness before expanding to other cities.
“We always viewed the local program as a kind of pilot project in which we used our own backyard as a sort of a lab environment that allowed us to manage in a real close and careful way,” says Jim Palmarini, EdTA’s director of education policy.
“The goal has always been to scale it up nationally because there are so many middle schools throughout the country that have no kind of theatre program, let alone arts presence at all,” he adds.
JumpStart Theatre Executive Director Julie Cohen Theobald says the plan is to introduce the program into one new geographic location each year.
“The key to success is going to be forming partnerships with theatres in other cities,” Theobald says. “What we’re looking for are professional regional theatres that have great educational departments to partner with us in these cities. They would provide the venue, the program mentor, and also develop a direct relationship with the school.”
Theobald says she is currently meeting with schools and respective theatre companies across the U.S. looking for the right fit as JumpStart Theatre gears up for its expansion.
Funded entirely through grants, the three-year program provides each school with financial support and materials (roughly $12,000 annually), in addition to training and mentoring for teachers—many of whom have never directed a play before, let alone, a musical.
JumpStart Theatre supports the teachers by providing a mentor on the local level, as well as workshops led by nationally recognized master teachers in theatre education.
“The mentor is another key to the program’s success,” Theobald says. “They visit with the school each week to work with the teachers, who are truly directing the show themselves. The mentor is there to be a problem-solver.” Mentors assist first-time directors with everything from scheduling and running an audition to creating a production budget and rehearsal schedules to daily challenges.
To streamline the process, JumpStart Theatre uses shows from MTI’s Broadway Junior collection, a series of 30–60 minute musicals adapted by iTheatrics to accommodate young performers and audiences. It includes such musicals as Annie, Fiddler on the Roof, Into the Woods, and Peter Pan, and popular Disney titles such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King.
For students, JumpStart Theatre is more than a chance to perform. The program requires their participation in all aspects of the production, from costumes, sets, and design.
“Not only have these students never participated in theatre, many of these students have never even been to a theatre,” Theobald explains.
The program’s reach stretches far beyond the edge of the footlights. Participation in theatre develops communication skills and imparts confidence with public speaking. It’s also a highly-collaborative process, which promotes teamwork, empathy, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills, while building bonds within the school community. (This is a case NBC’s new television series Rise will make when it debuts later this season.)
“It makes them feel special,” Theobald says. “Some of these kids come from really tough situations, and theatre puts students on a positive path, and shows them they can make positive choices.”
JumpStart Theatre is also changing school and community culture. “It’s managed to turn schools around,” Palmarini says. “Teachers have become more interested in getting involved, and parent volunteers keep growing.”
“The incredible thing is just the change from year to year,” Theobald observes. For schools that have little parent involvement and low turn-out for parent-teacher conferences and open-house events, the school musical offers a new point of entry.
“Giving the parents a positive reason to go to a school can be an unusual thing,” says Theobald. “Just the pride they share, and they are able to see their children in a whole new way, in terms of what they can accomplish.”
For more information, visit schooltheatre.org/programs/jumpstarttheatre.