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Pittsburgh kids take the stage with Disney Musicals in Schools

Sandra Tolliver
January21/ 2020

Photo by Doug Gifford.

“If you want to get me to school every day, give me something I really enjoy doing,” says Kimberly Cruz, senior program officer for arts education at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

That fun “something” could be participation in the Disney Musicals in Schools program. Four Pittsburgh-area elementary schools — Pittsburgh Dilworth PreK-5, Pittsburgh Faison K-5, Evergreen Elementary in Monroeville and Turner Intermediate in Wilkinsburg – were chosen for this inaugural season.

Disney Musicals in Schools will give kids a way to collaborate in a different sort of environment and learn transferable skills.

“We’re talking about creative expression,” she says. “Oftentimes, our students may not excel in typical academic courses, so they rely on a course like the arts to have creative freedom and creative autonomy. These classes allow them to be problem-solvers.”

The concentration and direction “will spill over into other classes,” says Cruz, pointing out additional benefits: The arts “teach our students tolerance and diversity. It teaches them to appreciate other people’s perspectives and identities.”

Seth Laidlaw gets it. He caught the theater bug early, performing in his first musical in sixth grade. So he knows what it will mean for kids involved in the program. As senior program manager in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust education department, Laidlaw is coordinating the initiative. The 17-week musical residency begins this month, led by teaching artists trained by the Trust and Disney Theatrical Group.

Kids perform in the Disney Musicals in Schools Student Share event at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas.

The national program, now in 25 cities, helps create sustainable musical theater programs in public elementary schools. Disney reached out to the Trust to apply for funding to start the program in Pittsburgh and offered $12,000 for each participating school.

Eight teaching artists – two per school – work with kids in grades 3-5 to help them put on their first elementary school musical. “We provide support to help direct and stage-manage,” Laidlaw says. “We teach them those skills, so in the future, they can do this without the teaching artist.”

The schools get free rights to a Disney Kids musical. The 30-minute productions, designed for elementary school performers, are adapted from classic Disney films: “101 Dalmatians,” “Aladdin,” “The Aristocats,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Lion King” and “Winnie the Pooh.” Typically, putting on such a show can cost thousands of dollars, mainly because of the rights to Disney scripts and music.

In the second year of the program, teachers will get a refresher course and reduced-cost rights to another musical. Four new schools will be chosen to start the process again. By the third year, says Laidlaw, “we hope they are running the program, using the skills we helped provide.”

The Disney program is offered to Title I schools — those with 50 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Choosing from among the competing schools was tough, Laidlaw says.

“We thought these schools were best suited to jump in and put on a musical this year,” he says. “They had the resources and commitment from staff, and they showed a passion for the program. It’s filling in a missing piece in their school, as far as the arts. And it builds a sense of community around the arts.”

Elementary schools sometimes overlook the importance of theater for students, Laidlaw says. One goal of the Trust’s participation is to develop kids’ interest and passion for the arts.

“Not everyone’s going to be a musical star at the end,” he says, “but having this program structure and the teamwork that goes into the musical process is really important for young learners.”

This spring, at the end of the 17-week rehearsal process, the students will perform a musical in their schools. Then all four schools will be invited to perform one musical number at the Student Share Celebration at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

“For some students, that will be the first time they’ll be in the Cultural District, let alone on the bigger professional stage performing for their friends and families,” says Laidlaw. “A lot of high schools participate in the Gene Kelly Awards ceremony, so we’re giving them a taste of that at the elementary school level, fostering that love and appreciation of musical theater at a younger age.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.

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