Tri-District Arts Consortium celebrates 30 years of providing arts to Midlands students

Tri-District Arts Consortium celebrates 30 years of providing arts to Midlands students


Article by Kelly Petty, photos by David Mitchell

Ellie Rose Feuerstein can’t remember when she wanted to become an actress but says she felt a spark when she danced in front of a crowd at Disney World when she was 3 years old. The rising ninth-grader has taken dance, attended camps, sings and even plays the guitar. But an opportunity to join Tri-District Arts Consortium has helped her demonstrate her strength as a performer and as a person.

“Tri-DAC has really helped me become a better singer, actor and dancer,” she said.


The jazz ensemble performs.

Tri-District Arts Consortium, known as Tri-DAC, was founded in 1985 by a group of teachers in Lexington One, Lexington-Richland Five and Richland Two school districts. Those teachers were looking to give middle school students the chance to hone their passion and talent for the arts.

The program, now in its 30th year, is celebrating its new home at Richland Northeast High School’s Palmetto Center for the Arts and its place as a stomping ground for future artists, musicians and actors.

“The idea was to give more in-depth exposure to specific art areas for students who had shown talent in one or more areas of the arts. Oftentimes, when a student is gifted in one area … they may also be gifted in other areas,” said Stephen Hefner, superintendent of Lexington-Richland Five and one of Tri-DAC’s founders. “So, we wanted something that gave them exposure to a broader range and more art forms than just the one that maybe they were most interested in.”

The program originally started off with a cohort of 150 gifted and talented students who spent their summers on the campus of Columbia College. Hefner, who was with Richland School District Two at the time, said the women’s college provided a neutral spot for students from the three districts to meet.

“We met with the president of Columbia College, who was Dr. Ralph Mirse,” Hefner said. “We approached him and said it would be good to have a location that wasn’t identifiable with one district alone.”

The summer program now hosts about 450 students a year.

For 23 years, students visited Columbia College to study dance, music, theatre and visual art. The program grew during that time, earning the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award for arts education in 1991 and adding creative writing in 1995. The program eventually was invited to join Richland Northeast’s arts magnet program in 2009.

“This is the same high energy, high spirited, exciting place it has always been since we opened the doors,” said Executive Director Donna Wilson, who has been with the program since its inception. “The vision behind it is really spectacular. The program has become a model for other consortia in South Carolina.”

Rising sixth-graders through rising ninth-graders are eligible to take part in the program. Students can be nominated by a teacher, parent or themselves, and they must go through a rigorous audition process. Experience is not necessary to be admitted, Wilson said.

Students spend the the first three weeks of July taking classes and finish with a showcase festival at the end of the program.

Tri-DAC taps into professional talent nationally and internationally to give students an opportunity to be trained from the best in their fields of study. This year, world-renowned artists Giorgos Mitsis from Greece and Shirou Shirai from Japan were invited to conduct classes with the students.

“What we want for every child is that they be a great supporter of the arts,” said Diane Gilbert, a 10-year theater co-director for Tri-DAC.

The program also boast a dedicated staff, many of whom have been participating for more than a decade.

“[The students] work with a wonderful staff who’s so committed, who overworks,” said Cindy Flach, a dance instructor in USC’s dance and theater program who has been with Tri-DAC for 22 years.

Wilson said she has seen students go on to attend the Governor’s School of the Arts, study their craft in college and pursue professional careers.

Edmund Bagnell studied strings and theater in the program, and he studied at the Governor’s School before heading to New York University’s Steinhardt School of Music. Bagnell eventually went on to play Tobias in the national tour of “Sweeney Todd” and formed his own classical string quartet Well Strung.

Chryssie Whitehead studied dance and theater and eventually earned the role of Christine in the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.” She has been featured on television and film.

“It’s just exciting for the students to have this opportunity to discover their potential,” Wilson said.

The success stories are why Hefner thinks Tri-DAC is a “an outside-the-box idea” that has benefited the students who participate as well as the whole community.

“We also believe that art adds value to everyone’s life, whether they choose a career inside the arts or not,” Hefner said. “We hope Tri-DAC and exposure to the arts will enrich all their lives.”

Feuerstein, much like Coco Hernandez in the film “Fame,” wants people to remember her name. She plans to continue studying theater when she heads to Blythewood High School this coming school year, and she wants to focus on singing and guitar. She said she hopes those who come behind her in Tri-DAC take advantage of the program.

“Don’t be afraid to try something new because in the end it will pay off and you’ll have an amazing time and an amazing experience,” she said.