Arts education programs at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts get a major portion of their funding through the GRoW at the Annenberg Foundation. And when Mark Slavkin stepped into his position as director of education at the Beverly Hills venue in January, there was plenty of growing to do.
The Wallis, which launched its third season of programming in the fall, was originally intended as a space devoted exclusively to children’s theater, along with a theater school. Three classrooms were even built into the facility. And while the scope of the programming has broadened to include entertainment for all ages, the arts-education mission is still intact. “That’s still part of our DNA,” says Slavkin. “I walked into a space with three empty classrooms and a challenge: How do we bring that to life?”
One answer: Jazz great Arturo Sandoval.
In October, Sandoval – protégé of legendary jazz master Dizzy Gillespie and winner of 10 Grammy awards – taught a Master Class to a group of young jazz musicians from local schools. Slavkin wanted to fill the class with students advanced enough to truly benefit from the opportunity. And while he knew of many top-notch jazz programs in L.A., he also wanted to target programs where students weren’t as likely to get this type of chance. So, he pulled in kids from Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center (a nonprofit providing arts instruction to underserved students in south Los Angeles), Foshay Learning Center in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Beverly Hills High School. The class was conducted in front of a live audience, and jazz students were admitted for free.
“It’s scary to perform before an audience, and even scarier to have Arturo Sandoval peering over your shoulder while you do it,” says Slavkin. But the students had an amazing experience, and even when Sandoval had critical feedback, he gave it with a lot of love.
Sandoval is just one of the 2015-16 Artistic Advisors at The Wallis. Actor Denzel Washington spoke at The Wallis in September, invited students back stage after his talk, and even listened to an impromptu performance of one young theater student’s monologue. Ballet legend Suzanne Farrell will work with a group of 20-25 ballet students in January, and again Slavkin will be selective in gathering the dancers. “I want them to be diverse, and not always the usual suspects,” he says.
Arts Courses for Teens
The Wallis also offers enrichment courses for serious young high school and college artists from across the region. “Art of Choreography,” which started in September, was designed for students ages 16-20 with a sincere passion to delve deep into choreography. And this course, too, gives Slavkin a chance to fill a gap. Because while there are many top-quality studios teaching dance, the focus is generally on performing. “The missing link for me was around choreography for young dancers,” Slavkin says.
“Songwriting for the Theater” for ages 16-20 offers another rare opportunity. Working in teams, groups of students will create 10-minute musicals, which will be performed by professional artists at The Wallis Feb. 7. “High school kids don’t get to create original musicals, basically ever,” says Slavkin. “It’s all about performing Grease or Annie or whatever’s happening at their school.”
The Wallis also aims to reach more broadly into L.A. schools with two tiers of programming. Each season, the organization selects 10 Wallis Focus Schools – all in underserved communities – that don’t currently have an arts program, but have a strong commitment to creating one. Participating schools receive tickets (and transportation) to student matinees at The Wallis, workshops and study guides to help teachers prepare for each show, 20 hours of time from visiting teaching artists who will customize their efforts based on school priorities, professional-development workshops for teachers, and Careers-in-the-Arts events for students.
The organization also selects 40-50 Wallis Partner Schools to receive tickets to performances at The Wallis, along with companion workshops for teachers. For performances of Weisenthal – the true story of Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who devoted his life to bringing more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice – which ran in October and November, teacher workshops focused on helping kids in middle and high school understand the Holocaust, and helping kids recognize and address injustice in modern life. For the Lightwire Theater’s puppetry performance of The Ugly Duckling in October, workshops focused on helping younger students learn mime techniques to act out the story. “We’re hoping that the teachers will deepen the experience,” Slavkin says.
Arts for All Ages
Families are also targets for outreach at The Wallis. Along with its Theater for Young Audiences programming – with upcoming performances from children’s musician Dan Zanes and some renowned children’s theater companies – there are now dance programs that promote lifelong enrichment and learning through the arts.
In partnership with Invertigo Dance Theatre, The Wallis began offering “Tiny Tots Move and Grove” in November, with dance games and activities for toddlers and their parents. And “Dancing Through Life,” which runs through February, offers older adults the chance to strengthen their bodies and experience the joy of movement.
And, lest there be a gap in the schedule, Family Days are planned for Jan. 10 and March 5. “We want, as we grow, to have a pretty consistent offering of programming for families to be at The Wallis on a regular basis,” Slavkin says. The Family Days will be like open-house events filled with hands-on dance, music, theater and art activities.
And, because The Wallis is still growing, new programs are being created all the time. “Literally every day, something’s coming up for the first time,” says Slavkin. “It’s just like working in a candy store.”
Which brings us back to “GRoW with The Wallis.” GRoW is an acronym that stands for Gregory and Regina Annenberg Weingarten, who established the foundation that helps fund the venue’s education programming. And that programming, according to Slavkin, will be shaped by suggestions, input and new ideas from the community. “We want to be connected to the community,” he says. “The whole Wallis is a space for arts education, and we want all of us to grow together.”
Learn more at www.thewallis.org.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.