Pathway Impact: KIPP DC’s New Theatre Culture

Thespians from KIPP DC in their production of Chicago

Increasing theatre access for students, educators, schools, and communities around the country is a top priority for the Educational Theatre Foundation (ETF). The Pathway grant program helps makes it a reality, providing high school theatre programs with $10,000 to produce a play or musical rooted in racial equity, hire professionals of color to mentor students, and encourage conversations about race and inequality issues.

As part of the 2023-24 program, five schools were awarded the grant, including KIPP DC College Preparatory. ETF chatted with theatre director Elena Muzzi to learn how Pathway is affecting the school’s theatre program.

Keeping a Theatre Program Afloat

Now in its eighth year, the KIPP DC theatre program has seen growth and success, but it hasn’t been without its share of challenges. “Last year, our theatre director moved on. I wasn’t planning on taking this position, but I was very concerned that if the right person didn’t take over, it might not continue to thrive,” Muzzi says.

Instead, Muzzi stepped in, and after finding out about the Pathway program, applied. “It’s been really helpful having the grant because funding for the theatre program is limited compared to larger programs in the country.”

A theatre mentor working with KIPP DC Thespians in their rehearsals for Chicago.

The Impact of the Pathway Grant

The goal of the Pathway program is to provide schools with the funding needed to enhance the impact of theatre education. For KIPP, it’s enhanced the experience for students and staff as they prepare to open their production of Chicago: Teen Edition, whose rights were donated by Concord Theatricals.

Mentors, Coaching, and Inspiration

One of the first priorities for Muzzi was bringing in training for her students. This included vocal coaching, choreography training, which students used to create their own dance routines, and technical support, with many of these roles being filled by alumni.

“Since we were able to use some of the funding to hire someone to help with the jail cells, it’s also expanded what we can offer our students that help with tech,” says Muzzi. Without a formal woodshop program, set design and construction was often not an option. But with the guidance and support from an expert, “[students] have felt a lot more indispensable and a sense of accomplishment because they helped build the jail cells.”
That additional funding also reached the costuming department, where they often relied on what students had at home or what they could find on-hand. Now they have period-accurate costumes and shoes that have been a big hit with students.

“All those things make it feel like a real program, because we wouldn’t normally be able to get as many mentors and outside expertise,” Muzzi says. “The kids feel like they’re getting professional training, and it also makes it feel like a community or family when we can hire back student interns that were part of our shows in the past… [giving] them a way to jumpstart their lives and careers.”

Opening the Doors to Difficult Conversations

One of the goals of the Pathway program is for the selected show to serve as a catalyst for conversations on race or racial equality, which is why Muzzi and her team have leaned into Chicago’s themes.

“The big themes we talked about are bias and perception. It’s a comedy, but underneath is the irony that so much of ‘getting away with something’ is how things are said, promoted, or perceived in the media,” Muzzi says.

As part of their preparation for the show, students created a gallery walk with different headlines, discussing how they compared and who they tended to preference. It led to discussions on the charge words in newspapers and how even today, the results of the justice system are often influenced by the “razzle, dazzle” headlines we see and who has access to create those headlines based on their legal team and socioeconomic standing.

Thespians from KIPP DC in their production of Chicago

Building a New Theatre Culture

While the Pathway grant has helped resolve the immediate needs of KIPP DC and their show, it’s also created a lasting impact for students and their relationship with theatre. In addition to a rigorous rehearsal schedule that’s helped to keep kids from “getting involved in things they shouldn’t be,” academic and attendance requirements have also improved student performance.

“If you look at our theatre students’ attendance average versus the school’s attendance average, there is a noticeable difference,” Muzzi says.

The work with alumni and coaches has given students a new outlook on the possibilities in theatre. “We never had kids before starting [the Pathway program] that wanted to study musical theatre in college,” she says. “Whether they say it explicitly or not, it makes them feel like that’s an achievable dream or something they can study.”

Working Toward a Level Playing Field

For Muzzi and the students at KIPP, their production of Chicago and the access to professional coaching and resources have been a revelation but also highlighted challenges endemic to school theatre. As an example, Muzzi points to the Jimmy Awards.

“The kids that get nominated, win, and perform, are phenomenal – Broadway-ready. And the thing that strikes me is traditionally, all those kids are white, and when I read their bios, a lot of them are thanking the vocal coach they’ve worked with for years or their dance teacher they have outside of school.”

To Muzzi, there isn’t a difference in the level of passion or dedication from her students, but rather an access to resources. Yet that doesn’t stop her students from often feeling frustration or disappointment when comparing themselves.

“These kids are just as passionate about theatre and want to study it like those kids, but I also know what they’re competing against to get into those schools,” Muzzi says. “Anything that’s going to help close that gap, provide more training, or more access, only works in their favor and ensures they’re on the right trajectory to have the careers they want or to feel as successful and accomplished.” And for her KIPP students, the Pathway grant helped change their trajectory.