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Young at Art

Date: May 17, 2007


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When London's Old Vic imported Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten to Broadway in March, it brought with it more than great expectations and its star artistic director, Kevin Spacey, in the lead role. Packed in the steamer trunk alongside the acclaimed, recently Tony-nominated production were the Old Vic's fresh, exciting education and outreach programs, which have been implemented with vigor since Spacey took over the 200-year-old company in 2004.

Under the rubric "Old Vic New Voices," the programs serve emerging artists and nascent theatregoers in the London area and its environs. The New Voices Club, for instance, each year selects 50 young artists aged 18-25 to be trained and nurtured in the ways of the theatre. This year's crop of up-and-comers came on A Moon for the Misbegotten's coattails for a recent industry showcase in New York, and will participate in a gala event with New York's 24 Hour Company on July 1 at the Atlantic Theatre Company.

Also, working in conjunction with Theatre Development Fund's education department, the Old Vic has introduced its Creative Learning program, which gives young people the chance for up-close-and-personal workshops with Kevin Spacey himself. High school students affiliated with TDF's education programs first see a performance of A Moon for the Misbegotten, then are asked to write monologues suggested by the play's themes. The program culminates in a free-ranging session with the voluble Spacey, at which youngsters are given both writing and acting pointers.

For one group of young women from East Harlem's Young Women's Leadership School who recently met with Spacey, the experience was memorable on several levels. Joannas Taylor, a 10th-grader, learned a valuable life lesson: "Kevin Spacey taught us that letting out our emotion is never a bad thing, which is something I will always remember."

Garnering a more acting-related tip was 11th-grader Mashkura Chowdhury, who recalled: "We did an activity where we had to trust our partner to catch us when we fell. This taught me the importance of having co-stars that you can trust and who you know have your back when you do not remember a line."

Were these young women intimidated by the star of such films as The Usual Suspects, American Beauty, Pay It Forward and Superman Returns? If so, he quickly put them at ease, according to 12th-grader Jannelle Page. "His presence was very calming," she said. "I was able to tell him I was nervous to read my monologue, and he helped me get over that nervousness and really made want to share my work with everyone."

Twelfth-grader Alishia Russell put it this way: "I know now if I can speak in front of Kevin Spacey, I can speak in front of almost anyone."

Christina Rodriguez, a 10th-grader, detailed the kind of pointers she received on her work.

"I started my monologue like I was talking to somebody on a cell phone, and didn't have too much eye contact," Rodriguez says. "That's really what he wanted, so he gave me pointers and made me do it again. I was a little intimidated, but once I started doing it, it felt natural. He just felt like another person. He wasn't putting on a show."

Rodriguez's teacher, Afonso Albergaria, was moved by how easily Spacey brought his students--many of whom, he said, had never performed in front of anyone before--out of their shells.

"By the time they did the workshop, they weren't starstruck at all," said Albergaria, who works regularly with TDF's Open Doors and Stage Doors programs. "They were working one on one with Kevin. He was a person to them, not a big name." The experience wasn't just memorable for his students, he said: "It was the most rewarding day for me as a teacher. I saw my kids, some of them very shy, do things that they normally wouldn't do. This is the beauty of theatre."

Education about and access to the theatre have by all accounts been particularly important to Spacey, who was the beneficiary of similar programs when he was young. Accordingly, the Old Vic has imported a bold discount program: In London, tickets are 12 pounds each for patrons under 25, and here in New York, the producers of A Moon for the Misbegotten have set aside 60 seats at every performance, available for $25 to the under-25 set.

For Steve Winter, the Old Vic's Education Manager, programs like these are about more than good works.

"In all the community work that we do, we're eager to get to know our local people," says Winter. "They are our future audiences, and if we nurture them they'll come back."

Obviously some things are the same on both sides of the Atlantic.