Shoshana Vogel, a teaching artist at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), leads a small group of preschool children in song inside the Leaders for Life Center in Newark's South Ward. They sit on a rug in a semicircle as Vogel plays guitar and the kids clap and sing along.
Vogel transitions into having the kids doing an exercise that requires them to take small scarfs and make fish movements and sounds. She is teaching from the Orff in Your Community program, and it’s designed as a way for the kids to learn dexterity, focus, and social skills through music and movement, according to Alison Scott-Williams, vice president, arts education at NJPAC.
One can sense the level of training needed to teach the class as well as the care Vogel has put into it. It is part of NJPAC’s Arts Education program, and is being repeated in a variety of classes all over the city. NJPAC offers seven program pathways including jazz, hip-hop, modern and tap dance, poetry, devised theater, film, and musical theater.
“In offering programs in just those seven areas we have the goal of bringing students from observing and experiencing a performance in that area, to learning how to perform through our training programs, and then progressing to making and creating art, which expresses the student’s authentic voice,” said Scott-Williams.
NJPAC’s arts education program has accompanied the city’s resurgence. Right outside the Leaders for Life Center, signs of neighborhood revitalization are underway, including a new woman’s resource center, city commissioned murals and freshly paved roads. And, the aforementioned Orff in Your Community program is part of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s Centers of Hope initiative, which offers city residents a variety of services including art programs, job readiness training, financial literacy and athletics.
Scott-Williams has been at NJPAC for three years after a stint at The Juilliard School in Manhattan. She sees herself as both a steward and innovator for the program.
“I’m building upon what is here, and have created new partnerships in film, modern dance, tap dance and devised theatre, including two consecutive summers of [actor, dancer and choreographer] Savion Glover creating and devising a musical with 40 students.”
One of her big-picture goals is to develop a pipeline of students who are prepared to advance their arts education. In doing so, one area she felt needed to be addressed was getting children involved in music at an earlier age.
Scott-Williams partnered with the Newark School District in bringing a recorder program to the city’s third graders, and created a professional development program for teachers so they could teach recorder lessons. While the program started small, it has evolved into nearly all of Newark’s third-grade students playing the recorder and other school districts requesting the program, explained Scott-Williams.
NJPAC and the Greater Newark arts scene has had a large economic impact on both the city and state. According to the Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 study conducted by the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, “the nonprofit arts and culture sector is a $178.3 million industry in the City of Newark — one that supports 4,963 full-time equivalent jobs and generates $15.6 million in local and state government revenue.”
One unique economic project NJPAC has been involved in is the development of One Theater Square, a newly constructed residential high-rise that will be 22 stories and offer 245 apartments in downtown Newark when it’s completed next summer. It will be the city’s first new upscale residential high-rise in a half-century.
The development of One Theater Square is a public private partnership that includes NJPAC, developer Dranoff Properties, the city, state, Prudential Financial and Fifth Third Bank.
A few miles east of the Leaders for Arts center, NJPAC teaching artist and former arts education student Daryl Stewart is working with a class of seventh graders at the South Street School for the Musical Theater In-School Residency Program.
Working alongside musician Joe Lesky, on the keyboard, Stewart is preparing the class in a production of the musical Rent. The students chose the production based off a list the Stewart and the students’ teacher compiled. Stewart tried to find “a point of entrance that would make musical theater accessible to the students.”
One important goal, Scott-Williams noted, is to allow kids a measure of self-expression through their performances. That, she added, can serve as a counterbalance to what is going on at home or in the neighborhood, she said.
Some students have stayed involved in the program and excelled to the point of making the arts a career. Scott-Williams proudly points to a number of students who have gone onto successful careers. For example, she mentions musician Tyshawn Sorey, who was in NJPAC’s Well Fargo Jazz for Teens program and awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
The children of Newark are not the only benefactors of the arts. NJPAC has the largest educational arts outreach program in the state, and provides children across New Jersey with the opportunity to learn and participate in all facets of performing arts and cultural programming. According to Scott-Williams, NJPAC's Arts Education offerings reach almost 80,000 students and families each year, through live performances, in-school residency programs and training classes.
And NJPAC’s SchoolTime performance series, which introduces students and their families to performing arts on stage, features concerts, musicals and dance programs designed specifically for school-age youngsters. More than 24,000 children attend these programs every year; often, they are the students’ first exposure to live performance.
NJPAC continues to grow outside of the Newark area and is launching more programs statewide. Scott-Williams points to partnerships with the East Orange, Union City and Jersey City school districts as well its burgeoning relationship with Asbury Park. NJPAC is working with the town’s school district, and was instrumental in bringing famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to the Asbury Park Convention Center recently for a speaking engagement geared for families.
When asked about the most rewarding aspect of the job, Scott-Williams points out the murals with hip-hop images surrounding her in one of the rooms at NJPAC.
“For me it is seeing students’ self-expression grow,” she said. “The authentic voice and the confidence a student gains while learning how to create in our programs is a life-changing experience. For example, we have young men who began our programs practically silent, and who are now running for student council president, or using poetry and spoken word, to deliver platform speeches to their entire student bodies.”