EDGARTOWN, Mass — Lisa Danser had some advice for her chorus of young actors, the vast majority of them Latino, black and Asian American. “Your ‘mazel tov’ was not in the world of the play!” she explained, as she tried to coax a bit more Yiddish-ness out of a group of teenagers whose childhoods were as distant from “Fiddler on the Roof” as one could imagine.
But here the 27 high-schoolers stood, under Danser’s guidance, on bucolic Martha’s Vineyard — a resort setting also worlds apart from the one to which they were accustomed, in the Bronx and Queens and Upper Manhattan. Brought to the island by Rosie’s Theater Kids, they were practicing their singing and dance steps on this August afternoon for the benefit at which they would be performing “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler.” It was a benefit in the most personal sense for them, for it was taking place to help this unusual after-school program, which has been immersing them in the arts and, just as important, in the social skills they would need to get ahead, since they were in fifth grade.
With studies showing a steep decline across the nation in public school programs in the arts, particularly for pupils in poorer neighborhoods and districts, the task of transfusing into these children the nation’s cultural lifeblood — music and dance and drama — fall to groups such as Rosie’s Theater Kids to fill the gap. And as gap-fillers go, the Times Square-based group has proved, by virtue of its staying power and record of preparing participants for higher education, to be extraordinarily adept at inculcating the values that help disadvantaged young people succeed. The high school graduation rate for the enrollees is 100 percent, according to the program, with graduates receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships, to colleges such as Duke University, Bard College, Cornell University, New York University and the North Carolina School of the Arts.
Founded in 2003 by Rosie O’Donnell as one of the charitable offshoots of her lucrative years as a TV talk-show host, — Rosie’s Theater Kids has just started its 16th year of operation as a nonprofit highly sought after for inclusion by inner-city elementary and secondary schools. And it does so on a $2.5 million annual budget and little fanfare, focusing instead on finding and grooming students with a passion for the arts and aspirations to go into any field of their choosing, whether that is business or medicine or theater.
“Rosie said two things: ‘Give every kid a T-shirt and don’t get me sued,’ ” recalled artistic and executive director Lori Klinger, who worked as an artistic associate at Jacques d’Amboise’s National Dance Institute before founding Rosie’s Theater Kids with O’Donnell. She is widely credited with being the driving force behind the program’s mantra: “Rehearsing for life.”
The motto suggests the broader role arts education can play. “The arts are an ingredient, but the strategy is to give the students confidence, to help prepare them for life, to help prepare them for the real world,” said Marty Homlish, a longtime marketing executive and member of the organization’s 24-member board. “I look at these kids, and I say, I have confidence in the future if kids like this are going to be running this country.”
Rosie’s Theater Kids operates out of a handsomely restored building on West 45th Street, the Maravel Arts Center, that O’Donnell bought in the early 2000s for the program and named for a teacher of hers, Pat Maravel, in Commack, N.Y., who took her under her wing after her mother died. “She saw a kid in trouble and reached her heart out to her,” O’Donnell said.
It is to the dance studios and classrooms of the pristinely restored building that students arrive on weekends and after finishing their days at one of the 17 participating public schools, all federal Title I schools that qualify for financial assistance based on the number of children they enroll from low-income households. Rosie’s begins in fifth grade, with a 15-week introductory musical-theater program in the schools themselves for about 1,600 students, an arts exposure that includes attending a Broadway show — for many of these city kids, their first. “It’s like living in Hawaii and not going to the beach!” O’Donnell said. “One year we took them to [the musical] ‘Aida,’ ” she said in a phone interview, “and one of the kids walks into the theater and says, ‘Do I get to sit in the building?’ ‘No, no, buddy,’ I said, ‘this is your seat.’ ”
Out of each year’s fifth-graders, 70 students are chosen for the program, which will take them through senior year of high school, offering all sorts of practical training, whether it’s how to audition for one of the city’s specialized high schools or prepare for the SATs. The practicalities extend to nutrition, as the Rosie’s cafeteria offers healthy snacks. It’s not an academy for pre-professional actors, although some students have made appearances in TV shows such as “Smash” and at special events, such as the year in which they were invited to sing at a state dinner at the White House for the Obamas.
Rather, the rigorous building blocks of performing for other people are used to impart skills that can be applied to all avenues of experience. One of these is making these children understand that they can stand up for themselves. At Rosie’s Theater Kids, your shock eventually subsides at having gregarious teenagers walk up to you and tell you who they are.
“It’s like a second home,” said 14-year-old Alijah Hitt, a high school sophomore into martial arts and basketball who wants to be an engineer. He has no inhibitions about stopping a visiting reporter to say hello and later describe what Rosie’s has meant to him. “They want us to put academics first, so that in class, I’ll be more comfortable speaking out,” he said.
Tomeiry Mateo, 17 years old and from Manhattan, said her years in the program exposed her to aspects of the city’s culture of which she would otherwise barely have been aware. The experience has brought her out of her shell. “I was shy, very much to myself,” she said, during a break on 45th Street from a class rehearsal of “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.” “It forces you to come out of your comfort zone.”
“That’s what they mean by ‘rehearsing for life,’ ” observed the actor B.D. Wong, who joined Rosie’s board after attending a Christmas event put on by the organization, at which he got to see the students perform. “I was completely transported,” he added. “There’s a combination of innocence and polish that is really very powerful. It comes from the motivation of the organization not to groom baby performers, but people, who are learning a performance style that affects their skills as human beings.”
Wong was sitting in a common room of the Vineyard Arts Project, a Martha’s Vineyard group that offers residencies to artists and arts organizations. On this week in August, it was hosting Rosie’s as part of what has become an annual summer tradition, during which a group of the high-schoolers are bussed and ferried to the Vineyard for classes, the benefit performance, for which Wong was serving as emcee. The week was an experience that, according to Danser, the program’s associate artistic director, was for some students their first chance to get out of the city. “The freedom they have to be themselves. That’s what this is about,” she said.
The week includes a pool party on the rambling estate of Homlish, but the centerpiece is the evening on which the students dance and sing for an invited audience at the Vineyard Arts Project. This year, it was a night of musical numbers originally staged by Jerome Robbins — and choreographed for the students by none other than Robert LaFosse, the onetime New York City Ballet star. The selections included numbers from “On the Town,” “West Side Story” and “Fiddler,” the last of which required the kids to don Jewish prayer shawls or long dresses, and four of the young men to execute the famous dance in the wedding scene, with wine bottles balanced on their hats.
Their exuberance clearly moved the crowd, especially after the actor playing the bridegroom crushed a glass underneath his shoe and the cast broke out into a resounding — and thoroughly convincing — “Mazel tov!”