Rosie's Theater Kids Brighten Up Manhattan.

| 24 Oct 2014 | 12:36

Co-founder Lori Klinger shares her love of the arts with New York City public school students

The first class of Rosie?s Theater Kids is graduating from college. This is a huge milestone for Lori Klinger, co-founder of the Manhattan-based arts education program. Along with Rosie O?Donnell, she started the nonprofit in 2003 and together they have transformed the lives of thousands of students who, without the program, would not be where they are today.

Each year, New York City public schools with the highest free lunch rates are chosen to participate. Over fifteen-thousand fifth graders are introduced to the arts and are even taken to their first Broadway show. Out of those kids, the ones who show the most interest are selected for the program?s conservatory-style training, which lasts until they complete high school.

A former dancer with the Eglevsky Ballet, Klinger gets just as much out of the program as her students do. ?The kids, they?re the light of all of it. I barely get through a day without crying, mostly tears of joy. They are just so delightful,? she said.

How did your partnership with Rosie come about? How much involvement does she still have?

It started because her ex-partner, Kelly Carpenter, was a ballet dancer. And I knew her for a long time. So through Kelly, I met Rosie. Kelly was having a baby and we were having a baby shower. I think that day we just started talking about it around the kitchen table, this idea that I would teach a class, and it blossomed into this beautiful thing. While I might say that Rosie is minimally involved, I would say her influence is huge. And I do try to run it in the spirit of Rosie. So when someone comes by, I think, ?What would Rosie do?? That?s how I try to run it. I try to make people feel welcome.

The training is held after school at the Maravel Arts Center.

The first year they come twice a week, one day after school and Saturday morning. They learn a technique-based curriculum, proper ballet, tap, vocal, and drama. In the schools, we teach the kids the basics. But this is a real conservatory-style training. If they wanted to become a dancer, singer, or actor, they have the proper technique.

You focuses on preparing students for college. Would they have gone on to higher education if it wasn?t for the program?

They might have gone to a community college, but definitely not the colleges they are in, without our program. I know they feel certain about it too. It?s not so interesting for us to have child actors. Our first group of kids is graduating from college this year. It?s very exciting. We?re very clear that they can major in anything they want. We have five graduating and only one is in musical theater. The other?s in pre-med, another is in a business program, another is in a community college doing some music. The fifth girl is in and out of school, because of her life situation.

What are their situations like at home?
There are kids whose parents kind of have deserted them. So we work with whoever we have to work with to make sure they?re secure with relatives or family friends. We also have kids from middle class families whose parents work as porters in buildings or for the police department. A lot of my time is absorbed with a few kids who really need extra help.
You bring the fifth graders to their first Broadway show. What are their reactions like?
That?s part of our mission; every fifth grader goes to see a Broadway show with their teachers. Their reactions are just astounding. I always tell them, ?Don?t just look at the show, look around, look up at that beautiful chandelier, the orchestra.? They write me letters that are just fabulous afterwards. I remember one time I was with a group of kids, and we had taken the subway. After the show, we were walking back to the subway and this girl said, ?Look, there?s a parade!? And the teacher said, ?No, honey, that?s just rush hour.? It?s almost like she had never been in Times Square before. And mostly, they don?t go there. They stay in their own neighborhood.
Do Broadway actors come to talk to the kids?
As part of the fifth grade series, we have a Broadway professional come and do a private performance and talk to them about life in the theater. Within our building at Maravel, we have so many great people who come in all the time. Zachary Quinto was there coaching our sixth graders on their audition monologues.
Rosie?s Kids just had a gala honoring Cyndi Lauper and Jordan Roth. What is their influence?
Cyndi has been a funder since the beginning. We honored her for her commitment to Rosie?s Kids and also her devotion to helping people with her True Colors Fund. Our kids identify with that. They feel a little bit different. And any time someone can celebrate that, it really helps our kids. Jordan Roth is the president of Jujamcyn Theaters. And Jujamcyn has a program called Givenik, which is a group ticket-buying office. So we buy all our tickets through Givenik, and they give a percentage back to our charity.
Do you accept volunteers?
Yes, of course. We have a mentoring program. People do help us out all the time in different ways. Maybe they?ll volunteer at an event to watch the kids backstage. In the day-to-day operations, we really try to keep professions working with the kids. We have a full academic program and a few volunteers who help with that. The tutors are teachers or come recommended through nonprofits.
Can you tell us a success story?
I can talk about Daniel who was in our very first year. We knew right away we wanted to have an afterschool program and picked about 30 kids and he was one of those. He just identified so beautifully with the arts and really worked hard to transform himself emotionally and physically into becoming quite a young actor. He decided to go to the University of Michigan, certainly one of the top schools for musical theater. I just think he?s going to do it. And I remember at one point when he had started his high school, he went to PPAS, Professional Performing Arts School, he was kind of on the down side. And I called his mother and she said, ?I just think he?s going to quit.? And I said, ?Let?s make a plan to ease up on him a little bit.? She said, ?Lori, he?s my oldest kid. I had him when I was very young. If you tell me he needs to be in this program, I?m just going to trust to you.? And she did and he?s so totally happy. And his two younger brothers are now in our program.