SJR Column: Class Acts, June 2017
Just a few days ago, the State Journal Register’s “Weekend and More” section featured the rollout of UIS Sangamon Auditorium’s 2017-18 performing arts season. “A year of diverse programming” reads an inviting headline and, more than ever, the 2017-18 season includes wonderfully talented artists from around the world performing in Broadway shows, jazz ensembles and rock bands, as well as professional dance performances, comedy and even some bluegrass.
The season represents the final encore for Auditorium Director Bob Vaughn. Bob is transitioning to a well-earned retirement after 11 years of bringing exceptional quality and diversity to the Sangamon Auditorium stage.
But many of the more than 75,000 patrons who regularly attend Sangamon Auditorium Broadway Shows, Visiting Artists, and Kitchen Sink Series each year are not aware of an additional slate of rich performances that are equally appreciated. I’m talking about the Class Acts program – special daytime performing arts programming offered for students from preschool through high school from across Central Illinois.
Thanks to enthusiastic partnerships with several school districts, including the Springfield public schools, almost 15,000 students attended at least one of 15 Class Acts performances this year ranging from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for high school students to Pete the Cat for primary-aged children.
“These are professional touring companies and this is what they do,” says Amy Zepp, Audience Development Coordinator for the Auditorium. “They are full time professionals creating art especially for young audiences.”
Pete the Cat, for example, a Class Acts show based on a popular children’s picture book written by Eric Litwin, brought 3,400 preschoolers and first graders to the UIS campus and the Auditorium on a single busy day this season. Most of those students were seeing live theater for the first time.
A complimentary program called “Grow Up Great” provides additional funding for professional development for teachers and opportunities for parents and Head Start children to attend an evening meal and performance.
The Class Acts and Grow Up Great programs would not be possible were it not for the generosity of donors who believe in the importance of arts education and who help fund the programming, subsidize the purchase of tickets for the students, and help pay the cost of bus transportation.
In addition to being a show sponsor every year, PNC Bank is a major sponsor of both Class Acts and Grow Up Great. “We’re so appreciative of PNC’s consistent support for these programs,” says Vaughn.
“They’re helping us create a point of entry to the performing arts for both students and educators who might not otherwise have access to these experiences.”
Bob and Liz Staley have also been longtime supporters of the programs. Though Liz is now deceased, the Staley family continues to provide a generous grant each year to enable small town schools in New Berlin, Auburn and Waverly to participate in the Class Acts program. The Staley gift also provides funding for teachers to attend an evening performance at the Auditorium each year.
Participating teachers are asked to provide feedback about their students’ experience and their words may provide the best commentary on the value of the Class Acts and Grow Up Great programs. A music teacher from Riverton High School reported, after her class attended a performance of the acapella group Vocalosity: “An excellent performance! The students loved it. Students need opportunities to compare and contrast real professionals with their own ensembles so they can better understand what a high quality performance really is.”
A teacher from Wilcox Elementary School who accompanied her first graders to Pete the Cat had this to say: “The experience of students getting to sit in a real theater and watch a live performance is priceless. Some of my students will never get to experience that with their families. It was fantastic!”
Perhaps this second grade teacher from Enos Elementary School said it best following a performance of Junior B’s Essential Survival Guide To School:
“The whole experience was engaging and educational,” she said. “It is a great way to integrate the arts into the curriculum and motivate students to learn and grow.”
As we bid Director Bob Vaughn a fond farewell and welcome new Sangamon Auditorium Director Bryan Rives in the coming weeks, I’m looking forward to another exceptional year of performing arts at the University of Illinois at Springfield – for audiences of all ages!