(On November 22, 2013 Dallas Theater Center’s education program, Project Discovery, received the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from First Lady Michelle Obama and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). The award recognizes exemplary after-school and out-of-school time programs from across the country and is the highest national honor awarded to such programs. Project Discovery is one of 12 programs to receive the award this year. The full list of recipients is available here. The deadline to apply for this year’s award is Monday February 10th. More info on how to apply can be found here. –Alissa Moore)
ALISSA MOORE: I’ve learned that Project Discovery has quite the history (founded in 1986) – can you share about how the Project was developed and who the visionary was? What is the primary goal of the program now? Since the program is “at no charge to the school (including tickets, teacher training, study guides, student pre-show workshops and buses) for every production during the school year” how does DTC navigate and sustain the program’s growth?
RACHEL HULL: Project Discovery started in 1986 primarily as an access program was initially funded by the ARCO Foundation & Ford Foundation. It’s primary purpose then and now was to provide pathways for students from Title 1 schools to Dallas Theater Center in a meaningful way. Over the last 10 years Project Discovery has continued to shift from that initial goal of access toward student impact.
This year we have 38 schools participating from 9 cities in North Texas representing just under 1,000 students and teachers at each of our mainstage shows this season. The current mission of the program is to be a catalyst for young people to explore their place in the world. Built around performances at DTC, this yearlong afterschool program brings together diverse teens from underrepresented high schools across North Texas and cultivates them as patrons.
Project Discovery is built on preparatory programming and a full season of mainstage productions. Through tailored student & teacher study guides, skill building activities, seeing the application of those pieces on stage and then reflecting on the experience with the entire audience, students critically analyze literary themes, civic and historic aspects of wide-ranging dramatic works. Through on your feet activities, students improve their creativity and engage in collaborative art making. As they experience plays among an adult audience, participating students learn to be engaged arts patrons, with the self-assurance to discuss ideas with peers and adults alike.
Dallas Theater Center has maintained a steady growth of the program until recently when the focus has been less on the number of students, and more on the number of impressions on each student. Supported in part by government, foundation and corporate support, Project Discovery has historically been underfunded, with the institution choosing to support this integral program with overall general support. One of the benefits of this award is a renewed determination from board and staff to fully fund the program so that it can be sustained and further developed.
AM: Your website reports that “Project Discovery builds student confidence. Over the season, virtually all students report increased confidence in their own abilities, including theatrical skills and voicing their opinions.” Can you explain how this confidence is imparted and why students and teachers have had an overwhelmingly positive response?
RH: Project Discovery looks at building confidence in three ways. Firstly as an engaged art patron, for many of our students this is the first time they attend a professional theater or even leave their neighborhood for what many would consider an “evening out”. By having students attend in the evening, in a balance of guidance and independence, we aim to break down the barrier that our austere buildings can sometimes create.
Secondly we look at the confidence necessary to partner up with a stranger and create a piece of work. Students are partnered with other schools and in their preparatory workshops are often tasked to create with students they’ve not met, perhaps from a rival school, or paired urban to rural. Working to communicate, collaborate and create in a tight time frame is one way we encourage confidence in theatrical skill building.
Lastly we ask students to rate themselves over time on a confidence scale for sharing their opinion. Dallas Theater Center has implemented several tools over the past 5 years striving to be a town square, a place where people from all neighborhoods can gather and add their voices. This is best displayed in our Stay Late program at every performance, and especially on Project Discovery nights where students from south Dallas place their opinions, their reading of a production in dialogue with those whose names are on our building. This cross street of conversation is often remarked on as revelatory by students and patrons alike.
As for why it has a 99% approval rate from students and a 4.75 out of 5 stars from teachers I’m sure there are many factors. I believe the fact that the program is incorporated into our evening patronage has a huge impact on a student’s confidence.
AM: And of course, we all know that no program is perfect. Can you describe ways in which the program has faced challenges, growing pains, or changed over time? Especially in coordination with your theater’s mission?
RH: For current program management including challenges I turned to Mara Richards, our Manager of Education Programs who runs Project Discovery in its current iteration. She reflected: Education has been an integral part of the theater’s mission since its inception – in fact it’s written into our mission statement. And, Project Discovery is the flagship program of our education department, so it’s never faced the kinds of “are we going to survive this budget cut” challenges that some education programs across the country face. That said, the program has faced growing pains and changed dramatically over time.
In the early days, the program was open to both middle and high schools, there wasn’t a pre-show workshop component to prepare students, and there was little-to-no consistency in a school’s attendance across a given season (they didn’t see every mainstage show or have the same number of tickets for shows they did attend). About 10 years ago, we began shifting each of these aspects. Because the content in some of our shows is challenging for younger students, we focused solely on high school. We also added a pre-show workshop and set each high school’s ticket allotment so that it was consistent from show-to-show and for every mainstage production in the season. In doing so, we have been able to build partnerships with our high schools. Early on, in focusing on high schools and requiring them to attend every show, we faced some push-back. Now, everyone has adjusted to those changes.
In recent years the biggest challenge has been navigating the changes that occur within school districts. Because Project Discovery has been around for so long, we’ve seen superintendents come and go. With each new administration comes a new set of policies and different set of paperwork to navigate. We often find ourselves reintroducing the program and justifying its importance every few years, which can be frustrating for us, teachers and students. It has also meant that some schools have temporarily been unable to attend our program until their administration gets to know us and understands how we serve students.
AM: This award is a significant honor – can you tell us more about the process you went through to be nominated, as well as the selection process? What advice would you give to a another theatre’s education department that was interested in being nominated in future years?
RH: The National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award is an application process that begins now in fact, applications are due February 10th. We worked with our Manager of Government and Foundation Partnerships Maxine Frampton to submit an application and then waited.
Honestly we figured we were a long shot as the application is open to all after-school and out-of-school time arts and humanities programs sponsored by museums, libraries, performing arts organizations; educational institutions (e.g., preschools; elementary, middle, and high schools; universities; and colleges), arts centers, community service organizations, businesses, and eligible government entities.
In late April early May we received a letter that out of 350 programs we were one of 50 finalists and we celebrated, elated that we were part of the top 50. When we found out in June that we were one of 12 national programs to win – well I had to have someone read and reread the letter just to be sure.
To any other theatre education program who believes in their out-of-school-time work I say go for it! I have seen comparably great work in other pockets of the country at small and large institutions alike, at regional theaters, children’s theaters and universities. Finding ways to continue to speak with clarity and passion about the ways theater education can affect a community, especially a youth community is essential.
AM: The award specifically highlights “exemplary after-school and out-of-school time programs from across the country.” We consistently hear about the importance of theatre education programing done to supplement a student’s school day, but we also realize the importance of keeping the arts as a core academic subject and as a part of the actual school day itself. Has this differentiation come up as you’ve created partnerships with local schools and your regional arts education community?
RH: Yes of course, this duality is very much on our mind as we figure out the best way to support our students. And I think the truth is both are essential. In Texas we have a set of visual and performing art standards and our art institutions in town think about how we work both in concert with those standards and also pick up where they leave off. Project Discovery has always existed out of the school day because of the evening components and there have been challenges and benefits with that relationship.
Whether in school or out, part of our program will continue to focus on our partnering teachers that Mara spoke about, providing artistic collaboration for them in our teacher workshops, and strategies to achieve their standards in connection to the work their students do at DTC.
AM: This is such an exciting moment for DTC and for the theatre education community in general. What’s next for your education programs in 2014?
RH: Well first we’re going to celebrate with a party for students, alumni and supporters on January 27th and the largest collaborative workshop we’ve done to date! And then the ever-present question, how can we do more, and what does more look like? For us at Dallas Theater Center that moves towards increased touch points, and refining our evaluation strategies to fully capture the impact that Project Discovery creates.
Always we’ll move forward with our students and the art at the heart of what we do.
Rachel Hull (Director of Education and Community Enrichment) is in her 10th season at Dallas Theater Center. Her responsibilities include the oversight and management of all education and community programs, including the 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award Winning program Project Discovery, SummerStage, the Shannon and Ted Skokos Learning Lab, teacher professional development workshops, and audience enrichment and humanities initiatives such as Come Early, Stay Late and the Neighborhood Initiative. Rachel received her MA in Educational Theater from New York University, BA in Theater & Dance from The University of Texas at Austin and is committed to furthering the field as an active participant in Big Thought’s Quality Arts Review Expert and co-chair of the Professional Theatre Network of the American Alliance for Theater and Education.
Alissa A. Moore is the education, research & collective action associate at TCG. She has worked as a director and volunteer theatre educator in New York, and is currently the co-founder of Nomi Network, a non-profit organization that leverages the fashion industry to fight human trafficking in South East Asia. She received a B.A. with Honors in Theatre and American Studies from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she served as their theatre department’s student general manager, and was the recipient of the Margaret Ellen Clifford Memorial Prize for excellence in theatre.