Mosaic, a theater in Detroit that will celebrate its 25th year in 2017, provides a learning environment that offers young people (from grade five forward) the opportunity to learn and work in either music or acting. In their shows presented each year in the auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, the young actors and singers create shows that recap the history of Detroit and its music as well as its ways of celebrating the Christmas holidays.
Recently, Rick Sperling, founder and artistic director, joined with leaders of The Public Theater in New York to think of ways to help Mosaic youth think deeply about what lies behind what audiences see and actors/singers feel on the stage.
Together, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, and Rick began in this summer of 2016 a program in New York that brings Mosaic’s most senior actors to New York to begin to learn what it takes to run a non-profit theater. Producers, finance directors, and members of departments handling props, costumes, and scenery met with the young actors to open windows into how non-profit theaters run. The young people got it! Did they ever!
In their letters written to the staff of The Public Theater, they made clear how their thinking about a future in the world of theater was undergoing shifts. Their observations portrayed their ways of thinking toward a future for themselves as they move toward selecting courses in higher education.
“When people think theater, they think actor, singer, dancer, performer….They think show tunes and kick lines. But I didn’t always feel that was where I belonged. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy being on stage performing, or that I don’t like the sound of applause. It’s just that I felt much more comfortable in shadows clad in black: a ghost making sure that everything ran smooth behind scenes, so that from top of show to the final bow, we could tell the best story possible, despite not being on stage.”
“Do you know how there are things you know but you never really considered applied to you? I know actors and actresses aren’t born great or famous, but I never considered that I could be…great, at least not until this trip.”
“Talking to your staff reminded me that I can still be involved in the theatre world, even if I’m not on stage acting.”
“Artistically, I took so many skills back home with me. A quote that stood out to me was ‘Other people’s success is not our failure.’ I learned that when I don’t get a role, or when something doesn’t go my way, I can use that experience to allow myself to grow and become better than I was before as an actress and a person. The most important thing that I learned on this trip is that I have to put myself out there in ways that I was never comfortable with in order to go the extra mile and get what I want. I have to stay focused on my goals and remember to trust myself in all that I’m doing.”
As researcher on this project, I selected these quotes not because they were exceptional or stood out from all the others that I might have pulled from the letters sent to Oskar Eustis by the young actors. Instead, I selected these to indicate the various ways in which entering into a world completely unknown in the previous work of the young actors opened their thinking about their future.
Today’s popular thinking often charges young people with not thinking ahead, knowing how to plan, or being willing to self-assess. Each one of the letters received by The Public Theater staff reflected in one or another way evidence that unexpected openings into new learning environments can most certainly help young actors think ahead, plan, and self-assess.
In coming months, the actors and singers of Mosaic will be featured in one way or another in my blogs. They are moving forward, knowing that in the summer of 2017, they will create and perform a show inside The Public Theater to celebrate their 25th year. Moreover, they will be immersed within this theater’s ongoing life for a stretch of days following their show, with several interns shadowing for a subsequent block of time a chosen staff member, ranging from costuming to set design to production. As one young actor noted: “It’s so amazing to see how theatre runs in places we can’t ordinarily see!”