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Meet Val Zvinyatskovsky, a California middle schooler who's as committed to theatre accessibility as we are
At TDF, we're proud to attract a diverse array of generous donors. But this past spring was the first time we ever had a seventh grader call our office offering to give us money!
For a class project at the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, California, 13-year-old Val Zvinyatskovsky was assigned to find a nonprofit he wanted to support. He knew immediately that whatever organization he chose would have something to do with theatre. "I was 6 when my mom first signed me up for theatre camp, and I was 7 when I first saw my favorite musical Wicked," he says. "That's when I was like, that's what I want to do with my life."
Over the past few years, Zvinyatskovsky has appeared in productions at multiple California theatres, mainly at the Peninsula Youth Theatre. Initially that's where he wanted to donate, but Ora Gittelson-David, the Director of Jewish Studies at the school, encouraged him to think outside the black box.
"We do this project so our students understand that their bar or bat mitzvah comes along with responsibilities, not just a ceremony and a party," Gittelson-David explains. "Rather than giving each other presents, every family contributes to a fund in honor of all the students. Then the students follow their passions and decide where to donate money."
Zvinyatskovsky told Gittelson-David that he wanted to research organizations that help people attend the theatre, so they did some googling and came across TDF. Once he read about our accessibility programs, particularly our Autism Friendly Performances, he knew we were the one.
"I fell in love with you guys," he says. "Just a few days prior to discovering you, I read that Frozen on Broadway was doing an Autism Friendly Performance, but I didn't know you made that happen. I thought that was really cool because we do sensory-friendly performances at Peninsula Youth Theatre. We do the same things TDF does: the lighting is changed, the sound is turned down, there's a quiet space outside, all that jazz. I feel that everyone should be able to enjoy the theatre, so TDF's mission is really important to me."
Identifying TDF was just the beginning of Zvinyatskovsky's work. "Students need to learn everything they can about the nonprofit, including interviewing someone from the organization," Gittelson-David explains. "Then they make a presentation to the class and also do a written report. At the end of the process, the students decide how much money to allocate to each organization as a class. Every organization gets money, though some get more than others."
Gittelson-David admits that most students opt for nonprofits that feed the hungry or do cancer research or address other life-threatening issues. But she says Zvinyatskovsky made a compelling case for the necessity of TDF, explaining that seeing theatre can be a transformative experience -- especially for those who don't usually have access. "We want to teach our students how to take action and speak loudly, and we want them to connect to things that are important to them," she says. "It was okay for him to say, 'This is what I'm passionate about,' and he did a great job of championing TDF."
Ultimately, Zvinyatskovsky presented TDF with a $1,000 check and a promise to visit us in person the next time he's in town. "I cherish my trips to New York," he says, adding that going to Broadway shows is always on his family's agenda. "I bought tickets from the TKTS Booth in Times Square in the past and had no idea they had a connection to TDF. When I found out my mind was blown."
In the meantime, Zvinyatskovsky continues to be a busy theatre artist and audience member in his hometown. He just wrapped up his run as the title character in Aladdin Jr. at Peninsula Youth Theatre, he's writing an original musical called Popcorn Dipped in Syrup with a friend and he's planning on seeing Wicked for a fourth time when the tour comes around. "Everything about that show gets me," he says. "Every time I go, I tell myself I'm not going to cry during 'For Good,' but I always do." What a fitting songs for him to love.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Val Zvinyatskovsky as Charlie in Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka at Peninsula Youth Theatre. Photo courtesy of Zvinyatskovsky.
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