Even during summer vacation, the bells inside Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School still ring. With the bell at 3:15 PM, rehearsal begins for a group of eight fourth grade girls.
"There's been a change to the script," director Brandon Victor Dixon informs them.
"Wait, you're changing the lines? We memorized the lines," says one actor.
The fourth graders are staging the new play, Run This Town in cafeteria. At the opening, protesters march against outside a local supermarket. They're picketing against the inaccessibility of healthy foods in the neighborhood. A reporter is also on the scene.
The new work was written by its cast, participants from the Children's Aid Society, which serves children in need and their families across all five boroughs in New York, in collaboration with volunteering Broadway stars from the service organization Broadway Serves.
Kimberly Marable is a founding member of Broadway Serves, which began in Spring 2012, along with co-founders Dana Marie Ingraham and Dionne Figgins. Marable was performing in Sister Act then. The performers were inspired after they and other theatre and Broadway professionals took part in the Million Hoodie March in New York's Union Square, in between a matinee and evening performance. The march was in response to death of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
Marable and her co-founders wanted to bring the Broadway community together to not only talk about issues important to them, but also to take action through community service.
Marable's said the goal for Broadway serves was to do more than fundraise: "The hope was to have us get our hands dirty."
Since 2012, Broadway Serves, an affiliate of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, has participated in the NYC AIDS Walk, the Children's Museum of Manhattan's program with Homes for the Homeless and City Harvest's Mobile Market. The organization also has a "To Go" program, to facilitate community service opportunities for touring companies around the country and across the world. Volunteers from London also began their own branch, West End Serves, in 2014.
As public figures, Marable says, Broadway performers are responsible to give back to the community. It's about caring about more than just rehearsals and auditions and callbacks.
Dixon (The Color Purple) says actors are firmly embedded in their community, which is why service is so important. "If you empathize with your fellow humans on stage, you can't help but do so offstage as well." While Dixon says finding volunteer opportunities that fit an actor's schedule can be challenging, for actors not working, or who are in between shows, volunteers gives them a sense of purpose, Marable says. "You can have an impact whether you're working or not."
Dixon, who recently played Black in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party at Encores! Off-Center, is directing the fourth grade girls' play, Run This Town. Dixon will star in Shuffle Along on Broadway in 2016.
For its newest program, Broadway Serves has teamed up with Children's Aid Society, to create their Summer Theater Intensive. The fourth and fifth grade CAS campers work alongside theatre professionals like Dixon to produce and perform original short plays about this year's CAS social justice theme of community wide health and nutrition.
Broadway Serves also worked with CAS in the spring with Kindergarten through third graders on a program about the theme of homelessness. Broadway Serves held a toiletry drive with volunteers from the Broadway musical, Kinky Boots.
Simone Domenick, a fifth grader from the Bronx, says she learned about positioning herself onstage in order to not put her back to audience, and what motions to perform while saying lines. Domenick is not sure if she wants to pursue a career onstage, but she says she signed up for the intensive because she wanted to learn how to be a better actor.
Each of the fourth and fifth grade boys and girls groups wrote scenes about making healthier choices. The plays were written by Amy and NSangou based on ideas the students came up with during their writing classes.
Along with Run This Town, the fourth grade boys created the play, Classic Men about two crews, the Classic Kings and Classic Kids. The Classic Kings value eating a healthy, well balanced diet, while the "Classic Kids" like junk food. But when they come together as Classic Men, they all live healthier lives.
In another play by the fifth grade girls, Stewart and the Asteroid, a group of girls help Stewart, an alien from outer space, to blast an asteroid made of vegetables, before it crashes into earth and turns into compost.
"We have to blast it, or it will melt the earth. The kids and the alien, Stewart, have to work together," Domenick says.
Acting, writing and movement teachers worked with the students over four weeks. Movement workshops focused on exercise and making healthy choices for their bodies. Acting coaches taught the students such skills as voice projection on stage, but the Summer Theater Intensive not only teaches theatre skills but also about health in the community.
The goal is to help the students from an artistic standpoint to understand that, even as kids, they can make a difference in their community, whether it's being more conscious about homelessness or encouraging their parents to buy vegetables and cook a meal, rather than eat fast food, Marable says.
Making healthy decisions also means feeding yourself and others with positive thoughts and affirmations, Dixon tells the campers. "Healthy body, light spirit, right mind."
But like any summer stock production, time is in short supply. Meeting only twice a week for a few hours at a time, consistent attendance has been an issue. Parents have different levels of obligations, Dixon explains, but the founders stress the families' enthusiasm. The counselors and volunteers have learned to adapt - a skill necessary for any actor.
"When you mess up, what are you going to do? Just keep going. And speak loudly," Dixon tells the young actors.
"Like in The Lion King?" one young actor asks.
"Yes. And I was in The Lion King. I should know, " Dixon says.
Many of the students were unfamiliar with Broadway and theatre before the intensive, Marable says. The economics of Broadway, often cost prohibitive, are such that Dixon says, when he looks out into an audience, he sees a fairly narrow demographic. This intensive was an opportunity to bring theatre to a different audience.
The Summer Theater Intensive also helps to enforce arts education, Dixon says, recalling his own school's strong theatre program, in which three musicals and even multiple Shakespeare plays performed each year. Art teaches critical thinking, how to work in groups and multitasking: "I don't think in a box. I think in a sphere."
And Dixon understands the importance of mentors to teach these skills. For him, his upcoming Shuffle Along, castmate Brian Stokes Mitchell played that role.
Exposing these youth to the art, Marable says is "new, creative and fun, emphasis on the new."
To learn more about Broadway Serves visit their website, broadwayserves.org.