After performing in the Cincinnati JumpStart Theatre Showcase in April, Kelton, a shy student from Pleasant Ridge Montessori, surprised his teachers — by speaking up. Before participating in theatre, Kelton hardly opened up to anyone at school. Throughout the school year, he became more confident in his classes and started making friends. It all culminated in this moment at the Showcase, when he shared about his experience: He’d been scared at the start, but because of theatre, this was one of his favorite years of school. He expressed his pride in the production and excitement for the next show.
At the Mountain City Center for the Arts, JumpStart Theatre helped another student battle a drug problem: The seventh grader remained sober for the entire year in order to participate in the school musical, giving a beautiful performance.
Because of JumpStart Theatre, these students and hundreds more middle schoolers around the country experienced the life-changing benefits of school theatre during the 2021-22 school year. The program operated through five active regional partners, with teacher training provided by iTheatrics and free shows licenses from Music Theatre International. To date, 39 schools across 10 states have participated (see a program overview).
Despite the pandemic’s continued effect on schools, all JumpStart Theatre schools were able to stage musicals in 2021-22 — thanks to the perseverance of partners and teachers to push through COVID-related delays and protocols.
Here are highlights of the program’s impact by region in 2021-22.
In Atlanta, the Alliance Theatre’s favorite 2021-22 accomplishment was expanding JumpStart Theatre to Brooks County, Ga., — roughly 250 miles and a four-hour drive from the city. “We were well-equipped to serve Brooks County Middle School through a hybrid model that included teachers’ in-person attendance at bootcamps, and a combination of virtual and in-person visits with their mentor,” said Liz Davis, Alliance’s head of secondary curriculum and partnerships.
The students and school district were equally enthusiastic to participate. “I have directed plays for almost 40 years, and I can truly say that I have never seen a cast come so far in such a short time,” said Janie Jones, fine arts and Title IV-A grants coordinator for Brooks County Schools. “I know that this opportunity will change some young lives.”
JumpStart Theatre was born in the Queen City — where the Educational Theatre Association and Foundation are based — in 2015, and The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati became the first regional partner to run the program locally. Seven years since its inception, the program is still going strong in its first home: Nine local schools have graduated, and The Children’s Theatre continues to fill the pipeline with new recruits.
A local highlight for the 2021-22 school year was the introduction of “boost grants” to help graduate schools sustain their nascent programs. Thanks to generous gifts from the Austin E. Knowlton Foundation and an anonymous donor, seven Cincinnati-area graduates got financial support to resume in-person productions.
The University of Michigan School of Musical Theatre and Dance (SMTD) is JumpStart Theatre’s newest regional partner. The partnership was established in Detroit in 2020 thanks to a generous gift from Hamilton producer and Detroit native Jeffrey Seller. Due to COVID, this is the first academic year where schools were able to fully participate.
The program provided opportunities for SMTD students to engage with Detroit arts teachers and students in new ways. The training provided through the bootcamps were a valuable extension to their curricular studies.
“I am so grateful to have worked with JumpStart Theatre and iTheatrics this semester,” said SMTD student mentor Margaret McFadden. “I gained an understanding of what it means to teach theater in a school setting. I enjoyed connecting with teachers and helping them through the rehearsal process. I enjoyed the iTheatrics workshops the most.”
Mountain City Center for the Arts delivers JumpStart Theatre to rural schools in Maryland and surrounding states — allowing it to reach a different type of underserved school than the program’s other regional partners but having a similar impact.
“Working with JumpStart Theatre has been so fun. Having a helping hand throughout the process felt like a security blanket,” said Salisbury-Elk Lick Middle School teacher Cosette Curtis. “I have loved the incorporation of positive theatre warmups, terms, and practices into our production. It will continue to benefit our musical program for many productions to come. Working with JumpStart Theatre has been an honor.”
From another teacher’s thank-you note: “The students gave statements about what each of them gained from their theater experience. Many students gained friends. My favorite statements were along the lines of ‘I am more confident. I am less shy. I learned that I could sing better than I thought. I can do more than I thought.’”
La Jolla, California
La Jolla Playhouse is in its third year of delivering JumpStart Theatre to San Diego schools — and saw its first class of schools to graduate in 2021-22.
“We are so proud of our partnership with the San Diego Unified School district and to truly be able to connect with schools where is a strong desire and need for arts programming,” said Bridget Cavaiola Stone, Playhouse director of learning. “To be able to graduate two of our schools this year and know that they are continuing with thriving theatre programs is extremely exciting and rewarding.”
“Getting to see students connect and collaborate brings a strong sense of joy and compassion into the work that I get to do,” said Wilfred Paloma, a local teaching artist supporting the program. “We never stop learning from these students and they never cease to amaze me.”