Arts Beat: Island time for NYC’s Rosie’s Theater Kids

Weekly thoughts from the inside.

Rosie's Theater Kids spent a week at Vineyard Arts Project in Edgartown. — Taylor Ahearn

Rosie’s Theater Kids, a nonprofit arts-in-education program in New York City, has returned to the Island for their sixth consecutive summer. Thirty-three high schoolers have been awarded scholarships to spend a week at Edgartown’s well-equipped Vineyard Arts Project, participating in performing arts classes and unique opportunities to explore the Island.

RTK was founded in 2003 by the effervescent comedian, actress, and activist Rosie O’Donnell, along with friend Lori Klinger. O’Donnell is known for her devotion to and generous philanthropy on matters concerning women and children. Klinger, an upbeat, welcoming, highly organized soul, has a distinguished pedigree in arts-in-education, having worked in lead positions in the field for 15 years, prior to taking on the artistic and executive directorship of RTK. O’Donnell and Klinger were determined to change lives for the better, and this they do, on a regular basis.

RTK grew out of O’Donnell’s For All Kids Foundation, and is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, among many other organizations and patrons. RTK provides classes for low-income kids in theater, academic support, and a rigorous creative environment. The expectation is that, while theater — in all of its branches — is a career option, the continuum of discipline, and its attendant self-satisfaction, is key, regardless of the students’ eventual chosen path. One of the things RTK is most proud of is that 100 percent of their high schoolers graduate and 98 percent go on to college.

In an interview in the NEA’s “Art Works Blog,” O’Donnell says “It really means a lot to a place like us to be able to have [NEA support] and the fact that we get an NEA grant really helps other grantors give us money.” 

The program started out small, and on some levels still reaches a modest number of students — if you call 20,000 students with direct contact modest — as compared to programs that focus on kids-as-audience-members. What makes RTK unique is its on-going support throughout the school years of the individual students accepted into the intensive program.

One of the observations that planted the initial seed to create the program was that there were children attending public schools literally blocks away from the Broadway theater district who had never seen a Broadway show. A localized example of the distressing inequities of the haves and have nots. O’Donnell and Klinger decided to do something about it.

RTK started out small, growing organically from year to year. They eventually acquired a building in the Broadway neighborhood. Maravel Arts Center, named after a beloved and influential school teacher of O’Donnell’s, Pat Maravel, holds a number of spacious studios, an academic support center, offices, dressing rooms, and a rooftop terrace. There are 11 full-time staff members, six of them artists, and all of them deeply devoted to the goals of the program, to the process and experiences they bring to it, and to the students themselves.

Students in grades 6 to 12 attend classes after school and weekends at the MAC intensive course, continuing through various age-appropriate groups as they grow. RTK also works directly in NYC public schools, and it is through these in-school residencies that students are identified who are invited to attend the MAC program. Students coming to Martha’s Vineyard are chosen for the trip based on their exceptional dedication and professionalism in their regular RTK classes.

A residency on Martha’s Vineyard, in a state-of-the-art facility like VAP, with its 24/7 camaraderie, mutual passions, focused time for class, preparation, practice, and lack of distractions, makes for an exponentially valuable experience. Add to these attributes the welcome provided by the Island’s charm that we all so much enjoy, and the program’s offer of the possibility of a life-changing experience.

Classes are run on a highly professional basis, taught by accomplished teaching artists and guests, all active in professional theater. Actor BD Wong, a friend of O’Donnell’s, was invited by her to drop by the MAC. He was so struck by the world created by the team of theater professionals at RTK, he joined the board and regularly works with the students. Last year the students learned the actual Jerome Robbins’ choreography from the “Fiddler on the Roof” wedding scene staged by former NYC Ballet star Robert LaFosse. This season, they’ve worked with actor Ben Stiller, who will be honored at the NYC November gala, held in one of the city’s large ballrooms with thousands in attendance. Naturally, the kids perform.

One can’t say one week a year a wash-ashore makes, but Klinger and gang definitely feel the best of the Vineyard vibe.  

“Martha’s Vineyard is the perfect community for our kids, where we have found ourselves totally welcomed. It’s an aspirational place for all of us,” Klinger says. “Everything changes when we get here; our guards come down, we put our phones away, and we breath. We love it here — like it’s home.”

The RTK tagline says much about the overall care, support, creativity, and practicalities offered to kids: “We’re rehearsing for life!” Klinger and O’Donnell are optimists, and O’Donnell believes she is living proof of what the arts can do, saying on the NEA blog, [The arts] “It saves children. It certainly saved me.”