All Things Entertaining and Cultural

News from the Avenue — Dreams Thrive at Paul Robeson

It was one of those “Eureka!” moments.

       Choreographer David Pershica and Philadelphia Theatre Company education director Maureen Sweeney were sitting in Sweeney’s office to discuss the winding down of a two-year Greenfield Fellowship during which Pershica trained with Sweeney to enhance his career as a teaching artist. Pershica had excelled in the program, and the next step seemed to be discussing jobs that would allow an artist to teach and provide stability. Pershica was actually wondering  what he should do and if it was prudent to become a teaching artist — He also has training as a substance abuse counselor and has many dance students — even though one outstanding offshoot of his time on the fellowship was realizing how much he loved teaching.

        Then came the moment that galvanized everything. Purely as a throwaway, Pershica said if he had more time, he would like to direct a musical that include students from every high school in Philadelphia. He envisioned a professional experience that would mean intensive training leading to a full production with a five-performance run. All who came to audition would be accepted for some job in the production, and the educational and socializing aspects of the show would lead to a real achievement by the participants.

        Pershica finished spouting his idea, and Sweeney said, “Sit down again.” Next thing Pershica knew, she was on the telephone calling the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership. Their reaction, Pershica says, was, “You must do this.”

        “Everyone was encouraging me,” says Pershica during a dinnertime interview in Center City Philadelphia.

        “We developed a business plan, in which objectives for the program and costs were described. All of the money for the production comes from private donors. The School District signed off on the project. We were on our way.”

          That way began in the fall of 2013. It culminates from Thursday, May 8 to Sunday, May 11, when students from 11 Philadelphia high schools perform the musical, “Dreamgirls,” at Paul Robeson High School for Human Services, 42nd and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia.

        “Most of the students had never seen a musical, let alone having been in one,” Pershica, the director, choreographer, and head poobah of all theatrical crafts for ‘Dreamgirls,’ says. “The experience has been amazing for everyone. We’re putting on a great show while achieving all arts education is statistically proven to do. This production has the potential to launch a program that can continue and introduce young people to musical theater, the arts in general, and the excitement of putting together a show.

      “My objective from the beginning was to provide a real-world working experience for the kids in this show. We worked side by side with theater professionals from Broadway and Philadelphia. Donna McKechnie , while in Philadelphia to perform a Marvin Hamlisch program with the Philly Pops, spoke to the students. Stephanie Eley, who was in Michael Bennett’s original Broadway production of ‘Dreamgirls’ conducted a master class. Andrea McArdle, who rose from being a Philly school kid to a major star in ‘Annie,’ worked with us, as did producer Carl Levens, who is represented on Broadway by ‘Rock of Ages.’

      “We work on acting, we work on dance, we work on scene construction and character motivation. From the time I was a kid in Delaware County’s SummerStage program, I learned theater crafts. You can only be in one show at SummerStage, so you also learned how to build and paint sets and work the sound and light boards. In productions as an adult, I have been called on to work tech, so I can oversee that while professionals pitch in to help. ‘Dreamgirls’ is a great collaboration that shows how much theater is a cooperative art.”

       Pershica says he would like to see the “Dreamgirls” project become permanent. He has developed a business plan that makes putting on an annual city-wide musical profitable. He has also delineated the educational and cultural benefits of the program.

      “The program has three major prongs,” Pershica says.

      “The first is to provide a theater-making experience for high school students from the City of Philadelphia. This includes students from public, parochial, and charter schools. The kids will learn how a show is built from the ground up and all that is involved with mounting a production.

       “The second goal is become annual, to have an annual musical by students from various city high schools expected and instituted.

       “I would like a different high school to host the show each year. One of the issues there is the quality or condition of a school’s facilities. Paul Robeson, in addition to having a supportive principal,  Richard Gordon, has an auditorium. I would like to upgrade these facilities. As we raise more funds, this might be possible, and we would be giving even more to the School District.

       “I’ve already put the third goal in place. That is to make the conditions of production the same as they would be in a professional theater. That means being disciplined, using rehearsals wisely, and getting past obstacles that keep you from giving your finest performance.

       “Discipline starts in each individual high school. If a student is late or doesn’t turn in homework, he or she can’t participate in our program. Principals have told me that I have worked with some of their biggest behavior problems, and they are surprised at how much behavior has improved. This kind of report is consistent with statistics that support arts education. Students have a purpose. They are having fun while working towards a difficult goal, difficult because I intend to put on  a credible show,  not supervise a student activity. They learn to socialize and cooperate and back each other up. They learn to get past fears and inhibitions and, at the same time, control some of the behavior that makes them too big or too much to handle. Their emotion is invested in a character. They are encouraged to be big but in the context of a larger project that teaches them the difference between big and inappropriate or overstated.

      “Statistics reveal more than improved behavior among students in arts programs. They show an increase in academic success. This makes sense. The students have to concentrate, they have to understand their role in a show and work to make themselves excellent in a setting that demands no less. They have to read to learn their lines, and they have to be critical about what those lines mean and why their character is saying them. Kids working behind the scenes realize the efficiency and precision required in a set change or setting up props. The timing of a light cue or sound cue comes clear to them. They learn that efficiency and timing is important. Things in the theater happen as they must, as they’re cued to happen, not when someone gets around to it. All of this hones professional skills and habits that so beyond the theater.

      “Working with professionals helps us as well. In addition to introducing the students to truly accomplished stars like Donna, Andrea, and Stepahnie, we have formed partnerships with the Voice Foundation, whose representatives teach people to use their voices in ways that don’t damage them. Michelle Eugene  has been great in working with the students about their vocal production. This is important when you have students who want to belt out songs but don’t realize how to control their breath or vocal cords. The Voice Foundation saved my voice. By working with our kids, it helps to prevent problems before they start. Donna Snow, from Temple’s department of theater, has also worked with our students.”

       Originally, Pershica had a different show in mind, but as he studied the people who came for auditions and thought of the musicals available, he settled on “Dreamgirls.”

       “A lot of the students were enthusiastic about it.  We were able to secure the rights, and we were on our way. Eleven Philadelphia high schools are represented. The students are doing great.

        “Best of all, we have received a lot of cooperation. The School District has been a good partner. I couldn’t ask for a more encouraging or enthusiastic supporter of our work than Robeson’s principal, Richard Gordon.,

         “Philadelphia Theatre Company and Maureen Sweeney are catalysts. They applied for the Greenfield Fellowship, and I was one of five people chosen from around the country to participate in it. I was the only Philadelphian.

         “Maureen Sweeney was a great mentor and continues to be. We also partnered in significant ways with the Painted Bride. It has been a good collaboration.

         “We are up and running, and we will have a positive net at the end of our effort. All of our funding is from private sources, so it’s encouraging to see how efficiently we’ve used our resources. I am thankful all has gone so well and hope to be thinking about next year’s musical once ‘Dreamgirls’ has its run.”

         “Dreamgirls” runs from Thursday, May 8 to Sunday, May 11 at the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services, 4125 Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia. (Ludlow Street is one-half  block south of Market Street.) Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.  All tickets are $10 and can be obtained via Brown Paper Tickets at this link,


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