It began, as these things often do, with a phone call.
The phone call came from Chicago. It was Christine Taylor on the line, the director of education programs for the Ravinia Festival. She told Robin Berlinsky she had some newly minted bills amounting to $25,000, furnished generously by Boeing, that she wanted to spend on “Porgy & Bess” education initiatives, and, well, she figured that Charleston might be a good place to offer that programming. It’s the place where “Porgy” is set, after all.
Berlinsky, who runs the nonprofit Engaging Creative Minds, said, Come on down! “We’re going to open our community to you.”
Oh, and by the way, Berlinsky added, your idea happens to coincide with Spoleto Festival USA’s plan to present a new staging of the famous Gershwin opera, so, like, the timing is perfect.
That all went down last year, and the two groups rushed to forge their collaboration so they would be ready by the spring semester of 2015, when the “Porgy and Bess” production was supposed to be presented in the Gaillard Center’s shiny new performance hall.
When construction delays prevented the hall’s opening in time for this year’s Spoleto Festival, Berlinsky shrugged. It only meant they’d have more time to get things together. (The show will be one of Spoleto’s big 2016 productions.)
Since then, Ravinia and Engaging Creative Minds have been working hard to develop a unique curriculum meant to complement South Carolina’s social studies education standards. They will focus on eighth-graders throughout the tri-county area, as well as on teachers, to whom they will offer professional development opportunities.
Spoleto Festival staff wouldn’t comment on the “Porgy” production it has in the works but did express enthusiasm about the chance to extend the festival’s reach to young students.
Dance instructor Heather Bybee shows STEAM camper Amari Ancrum and other campers attending the Engaging Creative Minds camp a dance move that mimics forces of motion.
“Spoleto Festival USA is delighted to be partnering with Engaging Creative Minds in 2016,” General Director Nigel Redden said. “Although our 2016 program is yet to be finalized and announced, we look forward to collaborating with them and to provide an opportunity for Charleston schoolchildren to engage with the festival.”
Taylor said Boeing is the common denominator since it operates in both the Lowcountry and Chicago, and since it’s keenly interested in arts education. The company wants Ravinia to expand its outreach to other places where airplanes are made, she said.
Ravinia has developed a music education model it calls “One Score, One Chicago,” based on the public library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program, which strives to galvanize the community around a single title. (The Charleston Public Library has its own “One Book” initiative.)
“We started doing this in 2004 and we always felt it was the kind of idea that could take off in different places,” Taylor said.
Ravinia will bring a team of trainers to Charleston on Oct. 23 and 24. The trainers will work with local teachers to demystify classical music and “transform their understanding about how they can use music,” Taylor said.
The music of “Porgy” is so quintessentially American and appealing, it can help bring cultures together, she said.
Kids in Charleston will have a richer experience because they won’t just be entertained, they’ll be listening for chromaticism and its significance, or the “Summertime” theme and the way it’s used to foreshadow tragedy, Taylor said.
Teachers, instead, will learn to make musical instruments using found objects, sing in a chorus and, with eyes closed, sketch on paper the contours of a piece of music. In so doing, they will become more willing to engage with the music rather than sidestep it in favor of focusing only on literary themes, she said.
“It’s all about creativity,” Taylor said. “Teachers are the most creative people in the universe, they have to be.”
Engaging Creative Minds started to ramp up in earnest in 2013 and has since added key community partners and forged an important public-private partnership with the area schools. Its purpose is to enhance public school learning with arts-infused lesson plans.
The group deploys dancers, visual artists, poets and musicians to classrooms to give kids a chance to learn by doing, and to do things that are fun and fascinating.
The “Porgy and Bess” project is one of several efforts now underway, including a partnership with the Gaillard Center to develop more student lesson plans that have the arts at their center.
Tuning conductor Christopher Blair let the audience know what to expect. An invitation-only audience got an early look at the new Gaillard Center Performance Hall, where their presence made them an important part of an acoustic tuning concert in the still-under-construction facility.
Susan Antonelli, lead coach for Engaging Creative Minds, said “Porgy” provides a great opportunity to use jazz, show and Jewish music to help educate teachers who in turn can share insights with young students and engage them in Charleston history. And there is no reason why this new curriculum can’t be reused year after year, she said.
Other art forms, such as film and movement, also will be used and connected to specific 5th grade social studies standards, she said.
To inject its arts-focused lessons into the schools, Engaging Creative Minds depends on a variety of partnerships — with Annex Dance, the Charleston Performing Arts Center, Charleston Museum, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Charleston Stage, the Gibbes Museum, Storytree Theatre and several individual artists, among others.
Those partners learn how to integrate specially devised lesson plans with classroom curriculum, working with children in innovative ways to drive the lessons home.
“We’re trying not to work in silos,” Berlinsky said.
The newly reorganized Gaillard Center is getting in on the act, too, according to Rick Jerue, director of education, outreach and strategic initiatives. (Jerue sits on ECM’s board, and Berlinsky is a member of the Gaillard’s education advisory board.) The Gaillard will work with Engaging Creative Minds on the “Porgy” project as well as 13 other education outreach initiatives during the 2015-16 season.
The Gaillard will team with Greenville’s Warehouse Theatre on a “Hamlet” project; Chicago’s Theatre Unspeakable on lessons related to the show “American Revolution”; the Kennedy Center on a presentation called “Elephant and Piggy” for K-4 students; Richmond, Va.-based Theatre IV on a “Songs from the Soul” initiative that explores the significance of African-American music; Theatre IV and the S.C. Aquarium on a production of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”; New York-based American Place Theatre on “The Life of Zora Neale Hurston,” and more.
The Gaillard just hired Sterling deVries, a teacher at Angel Oak Elementary School, as its education coordinator. DeVries, who has lots of experience working with Engaging Creative Minds, said she will collaborate closely with key partners “to encourage teachers across all three school districts to incorporate arts into the classroom.”
All of the Gaillard’s projects will involve “teaching artists” and will be accessible to thousands of students, Jerue said.
The Gaillard, he said, needs to be a central resource in the community, and its partnership with Engaging Creative Minds helps it achieve that goal, “bringing people together to learn from one another.”
“There are a lot of people doing a lot of interesting things, but they don’t know about it,” he said. Better would be to collaborate more and leverage one another’s expertise.
“Over time, this will really strengthen the arts community,” she said.
Image above: Jonathan Gray, with Science Song Rocks, works with STEAM campers incorporating science words into lyrics and a musical tune during music class at the Engaging Creative Minds camp.