JANE SEYMOUR SPEAKS ON ARTS EDUCATION AND CITY HEARTS
ELIA Senior Managers Symposium. Leadership in Higher Arts Education. December 3-5, 2003 in Los Angeles.
High profile and charismatic symposium speakers come from within the arts, management, the corporate world, finance and entertainment. The goal of the Cultural Program is to expose each participant to the background and issues facing other cultural organizations in the host city.
Jane was a featured keynote speaker at this Symposium. Here's what she had to say:
Thank you. I was very kindly invited here by Ken after I met him at the British Embassy and I was filling his ears about what I was doing, in a very small way, to try to make a difference here.
Just so you have a little background as to who I am, and why I care about this: I was born in England, not to any major money; we were faily poor. But I got to see the arts, usually from the top part of the theatre. I got to go to museums because my parents really loved the arts. When I first went to school, I had flat feet and I had a speech impediment, so I was immediately enrolled in ballet lessons to get rid of the flat feet and enrolled in speech classes, which of course ended up making me love the theatre. I was a pretty bad student, I was not one of those students who loved taking tests. I hated normal school—sports and things were something I loathed. I had a passion for ballet. I had a dream to be the next Margo Fontained, and I danced at every possible opportunity, until I found myself being exchanged by my father to Hungary, which was still a Communist country and behind the Iron Curtain. I was spotted by the head of the Hungarian State Ballet Company, who said that she would give me a place at the Hungarian State Ballet if I would move there. If that didn't work out they would train me to be a doctor or lawyer, presumably in Hungarian.
My parent's fear that I was moving to a Communist country was such that they enrolled me in a place called the Arts Educational Trust. It's a school in London where I was able to study ballet, modern dance, tap, choreography, scenic design, make-up, costume design; every form of theatre including singing, classical singing, the Vakai for opera, musical comedy, improvisation, masque, everything. I had this amazing education in the arts at this school, and at the time, never really appreciated why I had to do all those classes, but I've used every single one since.
I would probably have been an outcast if I stayed at a regular school, I wouldn't have got more than probably a C-, a C maybe. I hated the normal curriculum, but once I went to this art school, I was empowered. I believed that I had a dream and I was initiated and introduced to all these different art forms. No one ever said to me I could only do, or should only do one—I kind of got this crazy idea that I was allowed to do all of them.
As you probably know, I ended up in America after doing lots of theatre and film (I'd injured myself as a dance). I did actually dance with the Kirov at Covent Garden. I helped Ben Stephenson, who's been running the Houston Ballet for the last twenty-five years (when I was a student dancer, I was part of his choreography). I really got to be in lots of different areas, and when I came to America and had a certain amount of success in television, I found myself meeting a woman who they originally wanted me to play in a movie. This woman is juvenile public defense attorney and the one thing we had in common was we both loved ballet, and both of us had to quit it. She showed me this program that she ran called "City Hearts." She told me this story about how, having graduated from law school, she went to Juvenile Hall, which is the jail here for juveniles, and saw this young black kid playing the piano, beautifully. She asked, "How did he learn to play the piano? How did this happen?" "Well," they said, "he certainly didn't know the piano, he had never heard of a piano, he didn't know pianos existed until he came here and this old broken-down thing was there... Somebody must have shown him a little bit, and he just picked it up..." He was obviously an incredible prodigy, because anything he heard, he figured it out and he could play. And she asked, "What's he in for?" And they said, "Murder." She said, "How did this happen?" And they said, "Well, you know... gangs... gang initiation—he was part of a gang initiation and he got caught, and now he's here."
And it occurred to her, "what would have happened to this child had he met the piano before the child met the gangs?" So she started this organization that I've been involved with ever since I met her. I've taught in Juvenile Hall, and I've seen these kids, I've seen the worst criminals that we have, the young criminals. I've done improvisation with them—terrifying! I mean... I've passed an imaginary butterfly to a man that—a kid—that turned out to be one of the worst gang leaders. And the most amazing thing happened—it's when you start bringing the arts to these kids, these kids who don't even know the arts exist, they learn how to communicate. They learn how to trust. Just through learning these simple, acting exercises. The guards there, the people there, they couldn't believe how these kids jsut totally got involved in this. They totally relized that this was something that they loved to do.
You may say, "Why? Why are we teaching kids who are incarcerated to do acting?" The real point is, and the message of my little speech here is that somebody empowered me somebody made me feel that I uniquely was able to express my feelings through the arts. Most of these kids are only empowered to express their feelings through joining gangs, and mindlessly killing and stealing and ending up in prison.
Most of them have, if they're lucky, one parent, that parent is probably working several jobs, or is an alcoholic, or an addict on the streets.The norm for these kids is to live on the poverty level, to have nobody to help them with their homework, to be in violent situations at school and at home, and they are definitely never introduced to the arts because, as we know, in Los Angeles and in America, the arts have been taken out of public schools.
This program is something I'm really very proud of because it's mission statement is this, "City Hearts—Kids say yes to the Arts," (as opposed to no to drugs). "It intervenes in a loving, supportive and nurturing way to break the cycle of poverty, neglect, abuse, homelessness, delinquency, and violence that destroys children. Through the discipline and healing of arts education and performance experience, City Hearts provides positive role models, enrichment, and inspiration for children to become productive, creative, law-abiding members of society."
We have a number of different programs that we run. I would say that 90% of the kids that we get are at poverty level, which means that by law they are given breakfast and lunch. We have a lot of homeless kids. A lot of the kids are Hispanic in our catchment area, and they barely speak English; in fact their parents usually don't speak English.
We have on program called ALITE—Arts and Literature for Tomorrow's Education. We have teachers, and this is the important part, who are not actually necessarily trained as teachers. These are artists who will come and give their time and learn how to teach these kinds of kids in these particular multi-disciplines. For example, we have play-writing, dance, music, circus and tehatre arts. Through this, we also have a specialized class called, "The Shakespeare Challenge," in which we incorporate the poetry, themes and characters of Shakespeare's work. We get these kids who barely speak English to perform, in iambic pentameters, to understand the concepts of Shakespeare and how they relate to their existence and their lives. It's an amazing thing to see, because in a very short amount of time, they get Shakespeare. They are not intimidated by him. They can relate to him, they can relate to it in their own life; you know—Romeo and Juliet with gangs... I mean, every aspect of Shakespeare, they understand everything. They get to put on these amazing performances, and they really stand up tall when they come out of one of our classes.
We have a program for the early years, from the ages of five up to seventeen. We have the program I mentioned before called "Sentenced to the Stage," where the courts in the judicial system here decided to sentence kids to our program. Because they found that first time offenders, instead of going to regular probation and finding a way to kind of lie and cheat their way through that, they showed up and they were part of a play that they helped write, they helped create, that was abomut their environment, about their experience in life. So for the first time, they were listened to. And then they got to write, and then they got to perform it—to their peers, to their families, and to their community. It had an extraordinary effect because what happened was that these kids didn't get back into trouble. Of the kids that were being taught Shakespeare up here in the Oxingshard area, I think it was something like 95% or 98% graduated from high school. That was unheard of, that just never happened.
Through the Shakespeare program, they got to love to read, they got to love to perform, they got to love the language of English, and one of the important things about the arts is that there is discipline involved. They had to turn up for rehearsals, they had to be responsible, and they had to communicate wiht one another. When you act or when you dance you have to trust the person that you perform with. So it has just been this amazing learning tool for all of us about what can be done with kids that are usually just thrown to the side.
We had a new program with photography, which was very exciting. We managed to get these disposable cameras with a pretty wide format. We also got a wonderful photographer who came in and donated her time, got hold of these cameras, and taught these kids how to use the cameras and how to develop the pictures, and then assigned them a project, for example to photograph their mothers. The majority of that particular group of kids were Hispanic, and in their community, women are not necessarily treated particularly well culturally. They went off and took these pictures of their mothers and they came back and with great pride they said, "This is my mom, and she does this, and she works two jobs, and this is how she behaves..." What they realized, when they were able to show off their work photographically, was that for the first time they were really looking at their mothers, they were looking at women in their society in a different way. That is a very big part of our photographic program—not just to show them hot to take photographs.
We have a program that's for girls only, where they do theatre and dance and music, and at the same time they get to really talk about the issues of being a woman, of being a young woman. Of the peer pressures they have, of the pressures they have from the opposite sex, and how to make choices, whether or not they really want to have a baby at fifteen, whether they have another choice, whether they want to protect themselves, and it empowers them. They are safe to do it because they are only talking with other girls.
We then have another program, which is even more exciting, which is the kids who have been through these programs learn how to be the mentors and to assist the professional teachers who come into our programs.
It costs us about $350 a year for one child, to run this program. It's fantastic for th efew children we manage to get. My dream, my hope (because I have six children, three of whom are still in school, and all in public schools, so I know first hand what they are not getting in terms of the arts)—my hope is to bring the arts back to all children. Because it is through the arts that people are able to communicate. It is through the arts that people can convey emotions. It is through the arts that people are able ot see and show the tender side of themselves, the caring side, or the pain that they are suffering. Most of these kids have no idea about classical music—they just know hip-hop and that's it, they have no idea abomut the museums that they could come to that are just right here that they could visit. No one is actually showing them how to appreciate art and how it pertains to their lives, and how they could actually do it themselves, and uniquely b especial in it. How they could use their unique sensibilities, their unique life experience, and that they too could become artists.
The other side of watching my kids grow up in this system is that the educational system here is all about tests and testing. More often than not the schools are closed because the teachers are off doing tests, or they're assessing tests, and I have yet to meet an artist, or a successful artist, or really any atist who was ever any good at tests! I think it is a whole other mindset, a whole other ability. We need people to have creative thoughts, we need people to think of things to be unique, to have problems solved from a creative point of view. Rather than just being able to repeat facts that they have been given and to put together a test in the time that is allotted to them.
I am here really in the same way that you are. You're here with high education. What I wanted to talk about was that if you don't get them empowered to believe that they can do this, that if they have a natural ability, physically, to move, or to hear music, or to product music, or to describe their circumstances, to be able to write, or to perform, then we won't have the students that we want, to go to your incredible schools across the world, and we won't have the incredible performers that we need.
I live in LA and I have the privilege of having time to do things like this which is what I really like to do. The other good thing is that I really do believe that there are enormous numbers of artists, dancers, musicians, choreographers, actors, directors, producers, animators, who are out there. If we could get them and show them how, they could help bring this into after-school programs. I think there is a way of harnessing this amazing talent that's out there because I think there's a lot of people who want to do this, who want to give back. And they are sitting there waiting for the phone to ring, so let's get these people and get them to change these kids' lives. Thank you.
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To learn more about City Hearts and see if you might be able to help get this message out or provide for more children to be exposed to arts, visit their web site.