Sonia Herrera had waited almost forever for this moment, and now that it was here she didn’t know what to say.
A stagestruck teenager from the southwest side, she was sitting with classmates and teachers from Kelly High School in the front row of the Auditorium Theatre as cast and crew members from Crazy for You, the hit musical featuring songs by Ira and George Gershwin, gathered on the stage almost begging for questions. There were so many questions Herrera wanted to ask, so many things she needed to know. Dazzled by a Wednesday matinee performance of American showmanship at its best, she was starting to think of theater as her destiny. “I didn’t know about the Gershwins before this–I didn’t know their music,” she said. “It was great, much better than I expected.”
At first, most questions were asked by teachers Bobby Wolf and Margaret Raab, the Kelly High teachers chaperoning the event, but slowly Herrera and other students opened up: How did you get your start? When did you know this is what you wanted to do? How much money do you make? What’s it like being away from your family? “I feel like this is something I can do,” Herrera said afterward.
The class from Kelly was taking advantage of a community outreach program sponsored by the Auditorium Theatre Council, which oversees theater operations.
At least two or three times during a run of such hot-ticket shows as Phantom of the Opera and Tommy, the council offers free tickets to students from Chicago public high schools. The purpose, theater officials say, is to awaken inner-city kids to the power of the performing arts.
“Hopefully it causes them to see something they have never seen or felt before and perhaps causes an awakening with them,” says Dulcie Gilmore, the council’s executive director. “Maybe that will lead to some creative impulse that they have, whether it’s singing or dancing or simply a deeper appreciation for the arts–something that perhaps touches the spirit more than one encounters in everyday life.”
As Gilmore knows, the gap between high and low culture has grown so great that even onetime chart toppers like the Gershwin brothers are now seen as the province of elites, financially and culturally cut off from the masses. Today’s teenagers might be shocked to learn that the Gershwins (George wrote the music, Ira the words) were influenced by such African-American art forms as jazz, ragtime, and spirituals.
For the most part, Chicago’s established art community is far removed from the reality of the neighborhoods that surround it. True, almost every major institution has some sort of outreach program, but by and large the men and women who run these boards seem disinterested in the world of inner-city Chicago.
For example, members of the Auditorium Theatre Council are having to waste their time and money fighting a take-from-the-city-to-feed-the-suburbs idea devised by council chairman Theodore Gross, president of Roosevelt University. They’ve gone to court to prevent Gross from spending money raised at the theater to build a campus in Schaumburg.
Just as disturbing was the resounding yawn of indifference with which the established arts community reacted to pleas for help from drama students at Lane Tech on the city’s north side. Their program, perhaps the public system’s finest, was obliterated this spring when Lane’s principal, without explanation, fired Randall Bates from his position as drama coach. For almost ten years Bates has staged two full-scale student productions a year; now there will be none. One can only imagine the outcry over a similar situation at, say, Lake Forest or New Trier High School.
The outreach program is the council’s attempt to counter such indifference. Working with Urban Gateways, a not-for-profit arts program, the council also sponsors workshops featuring renowned dance companies such as the American Ballet Theatre.
“We contract with Urban Gateways for $2,000 worth of tickets,” says Tony Karman, director of marketing for the Auditorium Theatre. “The kids will come in from all over the city. The dancers will do 20 minutes of what it’s like to be a ballet dancer and then 25 minutes of a program, say Swan Lake.”
In all cases, the council distributes study guides for teachers to help prepare their students for what they’re about to see. Some of the study guides are unintentionally a hoot, as they try to explain one generation to another.
The guide for Tommy, for example, offers a brief history of Woodstock (which came to “symbolize the idyllic, innocent yearnings of the youth culture,” as well as glossaries of 60s slang (“cool, groovy, far out, hippie, sock it to me, happening, psychedelic, yippie, flower power, weathermen, acid, beam me up”), fads (“Nehru jackets, tie dying, go-go boots, love beads, granny dresses”), and dances (“the Twist, the Swim, the Hully Gully, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey”).
Other high points of the study guide include a quiz in which students are asked to match the quotation with the person who said it: “Don’t follow leaders and watch the parking meters” (sic); “You’re traveling in another dimension”; “Tune in, turn on, drop out”; “And we’ll have fun, fun, fun”; “The Torch has been passed to a new generation”; “I have a dream.”
The Crazy for You guidebook encourages teachers and students to appreciate such ingeniously crafted songs as “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which features one of Ira Gershwin’s most devilishly clever rhymes: “The only kind of work that really brings enjoyment / Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.”
Ira Gershwin later wrote that the idea for that song came from a cartoon in a British newspaper. “Two characters are discussing the daughter of a third,” Gershwin wrote. “And the first says she’s heard that the discussee ” ‘as become an ‘ore.’ Whereat the second observes it’s nice work if you can get it.”
Of course there’s no guarantee that today’s students will immediately appreciate the music of previous generations.
But the students from Kelly said they loved Crazy for You, even though many had never heard of the Gershwin brothers. As much as they enjoyed the show, the highlight came afterward when they met the actors, the show’s conductor, and several crew members.
By then the auditorium had emptied and the actors, who had changed out of their costumes, were eager to catch a break before the evening’s performance.
“Where you from?” yelled out Cathy Susan Pyles, one of the show’s stars.
“Kelly High,” answered Wolf.
“All right, Kelly High.”
Most of the students wanted to know how the actors got their break in the business.
One dancer in the chorus, Jennifer Paige Chambers, is only a year older than the students from Kelly. “I auditioned while I was in high school,” Paige said. “I say go for it.”
The other actors described years of hard work and training and disappointing auditions.
How much money do you make? Herrera asked.
“Not enough,” one actor cracked. The others laughed and explained that a chorus member can expect at least $1,000 a week. “That sounds like a lot of money, but when you think of all the money you laid out in voice lessons and living in New York, where a one-bedroom goes for at least $1,000 a month, it’s not that much,” said Riette Burdick, an actress in the show. “We feel we deserve it.”
No one disagreed. “Don’t get into this for the money,” added Gary Kirsch, an actor in the show. “Do it because it’s what you really want to do.”
Another student asked about life on the road, and several actors described sad, lonely days and nights, bouncing about from city to city away from family and friends.
There was a pause. Then Shawn Stengel, the conductor, quipped, “Actually, some of our families prefer that we were on the road.”
His timing was perfect and the students laughed. The last words they heard before they filed out to catch the bus back to the southwest side belonged to Pyles. “Follow your heart,” she said. “Don’t limit yourself. And don’t let others tell you what you can’t do.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.