Performance
3:24 pm
Wed November 9, 2011

Golden Anniversary for Kansas City Young Audiences

When Kansas City Young Audiences was founded in 1961, its mission was to provide children in local schools the chance to see and hear classical music performances they might otherwise never experience. The definition of arts education has expanded through the years.

Kansas City, Mo. – When Kansas City Young Audiences was founded in 1961, its mission was to provide children in local schools the chance to see and hear classical music performances they might otherwise never experience.

The definition of arts education has expanded through the years to include everything from ballet to improv, and this weekend the organization celebrates its 50th anniversary with a sold-out benefit concert featuring Tony Award-winning actor and singer Idina Menzel.

Humble Beginnings

When schools are forced to tighten their budgets, one of the first casualties is often arts education, making organizations like Kansas City Young Audiences important to local kids searching for healthy means of expressing all that's complicated about being a kid. Though the program started focused just on classical music, executive director Martin English says its programs have evolved over its 50 years.

"Now we cover all of the arts in schools: music, dance, creative writing, (and) liberal arts," English says. "We do workshops, residencies, and performances, so from that seed it's grown and broadened.

"Our mission is to engage all youth in the arts, promote creativity, and inspire success in education, no matter what we're doing," he adds. "Whether we're going out into the schools doing a dance workshop or they're students here taking improv workshops and classes, that mission stays the same."

Paying Off Handsomely

One young person who has taken advantage of Young Audiences' programs is 10-year-old Martin Tomlinson from Baldwin, Kansas. He's been involved with Young Audiences for 3 years and, though he just started singing and saxophone lessons, he says his improv classes have paid off.

"I've been doing improv for a couple years, and now doing Improv 2," he says, adding "I think it actually helps with bullies; you always have something funny to say."

His father, Ralph Tomlinson, says he's seen other benefits in his son since getting involved with Young Audiences.

"He's quite willing to get up in front of people and speak, no matter what the situation," says Martin's dad. "He's run a couple times for student council and had to get up and make speeches in front of his school. I'm sure I couldn't have done it at his age; I'm not sure I could do it now. It just builds up a lot of confidence."

Arts Education Helped Shape Tony-winning Actress

Headlining a sold-out benefit concert for Young Audiences this weekend is Idina Menzel, who appeared in the original casts of "Rent" and "Wicked," for which she won the Tony for Best Actress, and currently has a recurring role on the musical TV series set in a high school, "Glee." She recalls arts education's impact on her own formative years and how artistic endeavors can transfer to other subjects.

"I was very fortunate to be in choir and in school plays and speech and debate," Menzel said in a phone interview from California. "I can't imagine not having had those in my upbringing, especially being a kid who needed to express herself so fully through music and acting.

"So much about learning is about confidence. And if we're able to thrive in our environment, and it's not math or science, and we feel celebrated about something else - because we can sing or we can dance, and have that sense of expression - then we're going to thrive because we feel better about ourselves.

"That, in effect, spills over into the mechanics (of) arithmetic, and language and social studies."

Pattern of Menzel's Career

Menzel adds that she has come to realize that, collectively, "Rent", "Wicked", and "Glee" send a message of hope to young people with artistic leanings.

"I don't know why but for some reason, there's been this pattern," she says. "You have a responsibility as a role model (with) the themes your projects explore with young kids; it's important to help them evolve into who they want to be.

"It's a huge responsibility and I don't take it lightly. I feel proud of that."

Martin English says that over the last year, Young Audiences' programming both in schools and in classes at its Community School of the Arts has reached over 150,000 children and youth and may, if examined over its 50 years, total 5 million young people.

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