Lisa Condit spoke with President of Conservatory and Education division Meghan Montaner about Access to the Arts, WYSH, and The Hanover Theatre Conservatory. Read on for highlights from the interview, or listen to the full interview below. Then tune in to Talk of the Commonwealth with Hank Stolz on WCRN 830AM Fridays at 9 AM and Saturdays at 1 PM for more behind-the-scenes interviews.
Lisa: Thank you all for listening to Behind the Scenes at The Hanover Theatre. This is Lisa Condit and I’m here with Meghan Montaner; Meghan is our President of the Conservatory and education division. Welcome, Meghan!
Meghan: Thank you so much for having me again! It’s great to be back on the show.
Lisa: Always! In the spirit of the season, we would love to talk about our Access to the Arts campaign. This is near and dear to your heart and mine. Do you want to tell our listeners about the programs and Access to the Arts?
Meghan: Our Access to the Arts fund is our annual fund that we do to raise money for all of our education and engagement programs, which take place both in the Conservatory, in the Theatre and out in the community as well. It’s a really important fund for our organization, it’s important for our community building and it’s very important and essential to the work that we do in the education department and the Conservatory.
Lisa: It’s amazing the number of programs that we’re able to do and the ways that we’re giving back to the community that really does such a great job in supporting us. I know it might be like asking who your favorite child is, but if you had to pick, what are the top three programs that Access to the Arts really helps to make possible?
Meghan: There’s a program that we started last year that was something near and dear to my heart and another one of my colleague’s as we developed it a couple of years ago: the WYSH program. WYSH stands for Worcester Youth Speak Honestly. It’s a program where we provide youth living in Worcester the opportunity to come into the theatre and work with some facilitators to devise a piece of theatre; “devise,” meaning that they are creating the play that they’re going to perform. It’s all generated out of activities, workshops and exercises that they’re doing to speak and write their thoughts, feelings and experiences. We were able to kick that off last spring with a group of 11 students in Worcester who came in on a weekly basis. They would have dinner together, they would do workshops, exercises and drama games together and talk about their life experiences growing up in our beautiful city of Worcester. That all culminated in a performance in July that they were able to share all of that with the community. We had a wonderful showing of support from the community come out and see the show, our deputy superintendent of the Worcester public schools Dr. Susan O’Neil came.
The kids were very honest about what it is to be a youth right now in the city of Worcester. I talk about that program because it was something that was really meaningful for everybody involved and the connections that those kids made to one another and to the facilitators still exist.Meghan Montaner
Meghan: A group of them just came to a show from our Youth Acting Company just a few weeks ago because they’re still connected to one another. Any of the programs that we do, the reason why our Access to the Arts fund is so important, is that it helps us to create some of these pilot programs that allow kids to get involved in the activities that we do here at The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory. I guarantee you, it’s almost never just one experience; every single kid in the WYSH project’s participation allowed them to, also, take a class with us this fall. It’s not just a one-and-done experience, they’re now all students in our Conservatory taking one or more classes.
Meghan: One of the students is also in our Youth Acting Company, so she’s been performing and she just had a performance a couple of weeks ago with them in the BrickBox Theater. They will continue to come to see shows with us because of that connection that they made in our program, and that was made possible through Access to the Arts and the Worcester Arts Council. Programs like that are the first hook that we’re able to get children involved in our programs. We’re always looking forward, “What’s the next way that we can keep working with these students?” Because once they’re here, we want them to continue to make this a part of their everyday lives and recognize The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory as a big part of their community experience.
Lisa: It’s so rewarding and so humbling and inspirational all at once. I’m curious, were there are any nuggets that you could share with us about some of the feedback that the youth talked about, about what it is like to be a young person growing up in Worcester?
Meghan: A lot of the words that they shared turned into a script, and a lot of it had to do with what their shared experiences are. This is a very diverse group of students from all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences. What they found to talk about was the thing that they all related to and connected to — whether it was experiences being brothers, sisters, daughters, sons or students in the Worcester public schools, sharing their cultures and that shared experience around holidays and food – all these ways that they could relate to one another. They focused not on their differences, but their similarities which was really beautiful.
Meghan: They also brought up things that were difficult for them. One of the students talked about having it be challenging to be a Person of Color at a school without an administrator that was a Person of Color and the struggle of, “What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to be comfortable going to leadership in my school if I don’t think they can understand my story.” That was a really powerful message for people in the audience to hear, especially those in the school system who maybe have the ability to impact some sort of change. And they are, they are impacting change. we’re working with the school system right now to talk about bringing that show to a couple of different schools this year to help students understand how their voices and stories matter. [The students] have important things to say and we need to listen to them.
We’re working with the school system right now to talk about bringing that show to a couple of different schools this year to help students understand how their voices and stories matter. [The students] have important things to say and we need to listen to them.Meghan Montaner
Lisa: That is so heartwarming. It takes me back just a little bit and reminds me of all the other programs and outreach that is made possible through Access to the Arts. You touched on how for each one of the students, that was their hook and now they’re taking Conservatory classes and of course, we have our Conservatory scholarships that are part of our Access to the Arts fund. We have the Goddard Scholars Program and you’ve been really involved with that. One [program] that a lot of people grab onto and gravitate towards is our Adopt-A-School Program, offering a lot of young people their first experience in the theatre. I’m thinking of On Your Feet! where a lot of the students really related to the content and it was made that much richer because of the preparation that was done before all the students came to the theatre.
Meghan: Any time we are bringing students into see a performance, we’re always trying to prepare them or provide resources for their teachers to prepare them for that experience. Coming to see a show is an amazing opportunity and an amazing experience, however, it’s just a moment versus preparing for that experience and then talking about the experience afterwards. We’re always providing study guides and trying to provide lesson plans for teachers to help prepare the kids before they even come to see a show. Adopt-A-School, the program you referenced, takes that to a whole other level. We go into the school and work with teachers to help them understand what the show is about so we can find ways to tie into the lesson plans they’re already doing. Kids work on projects that are already part of their curriculum but they’re somehow tying into the Broadway show before their experience. The day-of, thousands of kids are coming in and seeing their work on display throughout our entire lobby as they walk through the doors. In that performance, we find ways for the students to be involved as well.
Meghan: Typically at the end of whatever show we’re doing with Adopt-A-School, many of the students are participating by dancing in the aisles during the finale having learned a piece of choreography or music from the show. We always cap that off with a talkback so that the students have an experience where they are able to see the actors on stage as real and relatable people, and maybe picture themselves in that situation as well. Adopt-A-School has been a huge program for us for many, many years since we started it in 2013. We’re looking forward to hopefully bringing it back this spring, all systems are go for that right now so we can’t wait. Students are going to be coming from South High School and Burncoat High School to see Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and we’re really looking forward to that. Even for every student matinee, we’re looking to make sure that it’s more than just the experience of sitting in a seat and that there’s another piece of engagement with that arts experience that they’re having.
Lisa: If you’ve been inspired, please check out our website, TheHanoverTheatre.org, and consider supporting our Access to the Arts fund during this holiday season.
Meghan: Reminder that we’re a non-profit, so your donation is tax deductible. It’s a great time of year to give to the theatre and to the Access to the Arts program to make the arts available to all in our community. Thank you so much!