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Theatre for a New Audience
by Genese Lefkowitz

God bless Washington Mutual. Last fall they started the ball rolling on what I hope will become a wonderful trend - the appreciation of the overworked, underpaid national resource known as the teaching profession. In the spirit of that idea, Theatre For A New Audience (TFANA) held a dinner Monday night at Gallagher's Steakhouse to thank the teachers who participate in their arts in education programs, World Theatre Project and New Voices. The programs, established in 1984, have served 100,000 students and 3,000 teachers in the New York City public school system. The classes presently run in 27 schools on all age ranges and involve almost 3,000 students.

The World Theatre Project, for middle schools, is a 12-week program in which a teaching artist makes 10 visits to a class, introducing the students to the concepts of drama and the themes of a Shakespearean or other classical play, culminating in a trip to see the show, plus an in-school staging of the artist's and the students' collaborative play. Teachers also attend workshops and receive study guides to help them in the classroom.

New Voices is a 15-week program run on the high school level. In addition to the above mentioned strategies, here the teaching artists help the students write their own one act plays based on the classical production they attend, and then the actors return to the school to perform staged readings of their completed plays in front of an invited audience.

Gallagher's (which was founded by Jerry Brody, husband of TFANA board member Marlene Brody) generously donated the soup-to-nuts filet mignon dinner for 100 or so people: teachers, their guests, teaching artists, and various staff. My guest and I sat with five women from P.S. 79 in Queens who could not stop praising their teaching artist, a sweet, friendly, energetic man named Dave who reminded me of a cross between Regis Philbin and Billy Crystal. They said the kids connect with him immediately and ask anxiously, "Is today theatre day?" I was impressed on two counts: one, that he had elementary students working with Julius Caesar, and two, that while he was seated at a table with some influential people in the TFANA group, he spent an equal amount of time talking with the various teachers he works with.

In between the main course and dessert, TFANA Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz gave a short speech thanking those in attendance and announcing the institution of a new scholarship program for high school seniors. Funded by the Richard and Mica Hadar Foundation, the scholarship is meant to help bridge the gap between tuition and any aid a student might get. Seniors who have been involved in the TFANA programs who have been accepted to a college and plan to pursue a career in the arts are eligible to be chosen to receive the scholarship, to last throughout their college education. I spoke with Mr. Hadar, TFANA Board member, a warm and amiable man who explained that arts students often incur hidden costs which other students don't have, such as paint supplies for visual artists and lessons for musicians and singers, etc. The scholarship will aim to help a variety of art students with just such needs.

To be honest, during Horowitz's speech I, with my jaded New York City Board of Education mind, expected a sales pitch to be thrown in at some point, but it truly was a thank you dinner. Horowitz spoke of being a "murky adolescent" until his teachers introduced him to great literature, and he was amazed how great authors were able to "put a language to the thoughts rumbling around in [his] head."

He then introduced Zoƫ Caldwell, who delighted the audience by leaving the microphone and pacing up and down the room, speaking in the thrilling voice of a classically trained Shakespearean actor. In what was almost a mini one-woman show, she spoke fondly of the teacher who exposed her to her first Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the age of 7-1/2. She read the role of the First Fairy, and fittingly enough, she acted the role 18 years later in Stratford in a production staged by Peter Hall, with Ian Holm as Puck. She indeed looked and sounded the part, in her plain black dress and unruly salt and pepper hair, with her fists clenched with energy. She reminded us that, while the role only involves two small speeches, they give so much information that the audience looks for her throughout the play. She said it was much like a teacher's role: "The first one who tells you that you are not a whit too young to understand - you look for them your whole life, and you sure as hell don't forget them." I'm sure I was not the only teacher who had tears in her eyes at that moment, and yes, I did feel truly appreciated.

Anyone interested in getting more information on these programs for their school can contact Joseph Giardina, Education Director of TFANA, at (212) 229-2819, ext. 18, or email him at jgiardina@tfana.org.

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