Theatre Arts Education Programs Create Innovative Thinkers and Workers (from The pARTnership Movement)

Posted by Bruce Whitacre, Aug 15, 2013 0 comments

Bruce Whitacre Bruce Whitacre

A little over a year ago, National Corporate Theatre Fund (NCTF) announced the launch of Impact Creativity, a three-year, $5 million effort to secure the funding of education programs at our 19 theatres. Together, these theatres serve over 500,000 K-12 children and youth, with the large number of students experiencing the student matinée programs. We were very grateful to Ernst and Young for their contribution in 2012 that got the ball rolling.

Now, we are focusing our efforts on the world of innovation and creativity going on at our theatres. Seattle Rep Theatre is helping teachers better utilize arts techniques to enliven the classroom. Actors Theatre of Louisville is engaging students in classrooms through a Living Newspaper playwriting program. The Goodman Theatre is teaching STEM skills through a study of theatre magic found in their production of A Christmas Carol. Altogether, we identified 19 innovative projects and began asking our funding partners to help theatres sustain this creative burst through what we call our Impact Creativity Innovation Program.

These include programs designed for an array of children with different and sometimes challenging circumstances: Trinity Rep Active Imagination Network (TRAIN) in Providence engages children in the autism spectrum; Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia engages kids with plays that address diversity, civil rights and bullying, among other subjects; and American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and Manhattan Theatre Club in New York are working with youth caught up in the criminal justice and school discipline systems. For a complete list of the programs, click here.

Happily, by the close of our fiscal year in June, several individuals, foundations and companies were as impressed with these programs as we were. Individual donors and family foundations joined us in sustaining these innovation programs. And the Hearst Foundations, one of the few national foundations active in the arts, provided a $100,000 grant for these programs. We have not met the full cost - total budgets for these projects in 2013-14 are nearly $1 million - but we are on our way.

As we continue to pursue support for these programs, a few things are becoming more and more clear. First, arts education supporters face unprecedented challenges. We have been around a long time and the field is very competitive. Years of advocacy can create a kind of fatigue around the issue. Schools and families, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, are more challenged than ever to engage. And that is not just for financial reasons. Rapidly changing school leadership, family instability and the challenge of sustaining the service to those who would most benefit from it affect arts education as they do all subjects. More problematic, research in the field is needed to document what is virtually universally known on an anecdotal basis: theatre education changes lives.

Finally, while companies are rallying around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), they have yet to fully grasp where the arts contribute to educating the workforce we truly need: creative, collaborative, compassionate, aware, AS WELL AS technically proficient. They seem more interested in a robotic, short-term tech worker than they are in the Steve Jobs or Sean Parker social visionary who can make our products truly improve lives and our companies worth working for. This is critical because as we see in other social change issues, such as gay marriage, corporate leadership is critical if this complex, multi-party field is to achieve true change. If companies don't really step into this field as they have in STEM, we simply will not see the focused investment needed to secure a future engaged, creative America.

The Impact Creativity Innovation Program is about creating better lives for our kids today and for our country in the future. Theatres, like so many cultural institutions, are providing more than entertainment or community bragging rights. As we see with these programs, they are fostering improvements, making connections, providing services that will pay back in tangible and intangible ways for generations. How lucky we are to even witness this vitality and engagement. Even more fortunately, our partners understand the importance of this work and are rolling up their sleeves to help all across the country.

(This post, originally published on, is one in a weekly series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage. Visit our website to find out how both businesses and local arts agencies can get involved!)

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