On Tuesday morning, around 80 theater critics sat in a boardroom in midtown Manhattan discussing some of the biggest shows of the last few seasons. School of Rock, they agreed, was “great.” Cinderella, too, was “fantastic.” One critic said Phantom was more her thing: “I really liked the details of the costumes.”
These were not critics whose names you might see on 44th Street marquees. In fact, they were all under 15 years of age, students of MS343, a public middle school on the corner of Brooke Ave and 142nd Street in the Bronx. But these kid critics had put in their time on Broadway.
Asked by Damian Bazadona, who leads the Situation Project—the non-profit arm of the Situation Interactive agency which had brought the group in for the day—how many of them had seen two Broadway shows that year, every student in the room raised his or her arms. Three? Most hands stayed up. Four? A few dropped off. When Bazadona reached eight, still two hands remained pointed in the air.
Most kids are lucky to have seen one in their lifetime.
Digital agency Situation Interactive has a number of Broadway shows on its roster (and deals frequently with Time Out). It launched the Situation Project to give kids who might not normally get the chance to see a Broadway show the opportunity to go to the theater.
The program runs in four schools in lower socio-economic neighborhoods throughout New York, and focuses on high-achievers. Students see Broadway shows, learn about the productions in the classroom, and then get involved further with Q&As with cast and crew or in specialty workshops. MS343 students were given the opportunity, for example, to photograph a performance of Finding Neverland—the resulting production stills can be found on the musical’s official website.
On Tuesday, the school's budding critics were in the Situation Interactive offices to grill Broadway creatives on their experiences working in musicals, as well as to take part in movement and video workshops.
MS343 principal Vincent (“Vinnie”) Gassetto says the effect of the program is profound. Three or four years ago, not a single graduating student from his school applied to a performing arts high school; in the last graduating class, 20 students from a class of roughly 100 auditioned for performing arts schools.
More importantly, the students are becoming comfortable being in a theater and being part of a theater audience—an experience that, just a few years ago, was foreign. “When some of these kids first come in, they don’t even know how to use a ticket,” says Gassetto. Despite going to school just a few subway stops from Times Square, some don’t know where ‘Broadway’ is. “Now, if they don’t get their playbill, they’ll go up to an usher and ask for it.”
“At first they thought, ‘I don’t fit in here.’ Now they don’t think about it. They belong."