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Kennedy Center Adds A Theater For the Kids

Arts Education Gains Emphasis, Funding

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page C01

In December the Kennedy Center will open its sixth theater, a renovated space that will be dedicated to performances for children and teenagers. With the addition of this 320-seat family theater, the center will bring its long-established education programs out into the open.

Over the next five years, the center announced yesterday, it will spend $125 million on performing arts education. That figure adds a total of $40 million to the current education budget, which has grown to $17 million a year. The amount dwarfs all other American arts organizations' spending in this category.

The programs are intended both to send performances aimed at children into communities across the United States and to create more performances at the Kennedy Center for children.

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser said the expansion represents the amplification of some existing programs, the trimming of a few minor efforts and the creation of programs that, among other things, would give nonprofessional child performers a chance to try musical theater.

"The commitment is critical for several reasons. The arts allow children to think in different ways and allow them to think about a number of subjects creatively," he said in an interview yesterday. "If children are not introduced to the arts early, they will not come back as adults."

In addition to the Kennedy Center's efforts, Discovery Theater at the Smithsonian Institution and Imagination Stage in Bethesda also mount a variety of works for young people.

The expansions at the center will be financed with both public and private funds. The family theater will be in the old American Film Institute location, with 120 additional seats, a new lobby and dressing rooms. The federal government is underwriting the $10 million project by architects Richter Cornbrooks Gribble of Baltimore.

Private funds will underwrite a new venture with Disney Theatrical Productions and Music Theater International. This program, which will start in Washington in 2006, will have children performing in musicals, many of them familiar Disney material, said Kaiser. After first being produced at the Kennedy Center, "the shows will be performed in the schools and then the educators will study the effect of performing music theater on the student-performers' learning," said Kaiser. If successful, the project will add other cities.

Starting April 1, the center will offer a 15 percent discount for teachers attending Kennedy Center-produced programs. "We shouldn't be telling teachers to emphasize the arts if they don't have access to the arts themselves," said Kaiser.

Under the umbrella Imagination Celebration, the center has commissioned dramatic and musical works for young audiences. Last year, three plays from this series were staged in 129 cities. The artists included dancer Jacques d'Amboise, choreographer Debbie Allen, playwright Ken Ludwig, country music songwriter Don Schlitz, and performers Arturo Sandoval and James Ingram.

The old AFI space has been used recently by African Continuum Theater Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. By May, both troupes plan to be in new spaces of their own.

Right now the Kennedy Center each year presents 112 public performances and 128 school performances of its Imagination Celebration productions, and the number of presentations is expected to increase in the new theater, said Kaiser. The new initiative, he said, "gives all the programs a focal point."

Other new programs include a Web site dedicated to jazz, with histories, performances and interviews. It is expected to launch in two years. Another electronic project, expected to be completed in three years, is a history of performing arts, with performances and backstage information.

Already in progress is the participation of young dancers from China and other nations in ballerina Suzanne Farrell's three-week master program, and a new focus with Dance Theatre of Harlem to identify students who will be groomed for professional auditions.

Kaiser said he views the new efforts as a way to solidify the center's role as a national leader. "Arts education is the biggest way we can serve the nation, more than what we put here on the stage," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company