NEW YORK—A schoolgirl wearing a T-shirt with “I ‘heart’ You More than my Selfie” printed across her torso gave a big smile—eyes bright, rosy cheeks. Pausing briefly to say hello, she then galloped up the stairwell of the Maravel Arts Center, home of Rosie’s Theater Kids in the middle of the Clinton neighborhood of Manhattan.
The rooms are colorful—the atmosphere light and fresh. “This is going to be buzzing in a minute with a class at 4:30,” Lori Klinger said, as she walked past a dance studio. On another floor, a teacher counting, “five, six, seven, eight, …” and the catchy, rhythmic beat of a group of girls learning tap dancing resonated through the glass door of another dance studio.
Klinger, a former ballerina, co-founded the performing arts education center with Emmy award-winning comedienne and actress Rosie O’Donnell. They came up with the idea just sitting around a table. They envisioned how underprivileged children, who may struggle academically, would be able to improve in a performing arts environment; how they could learn to appreciate the arts, and thrive in whatever they wanted to do in life.
Twelve years later and that spark of an idea “turned into something quite phenomenal,” Klinger said.
With a very supportive board, and a healthy stream of funding, Rosie’s Kids eventually settled in its own building in 2009, servicing 5th- to 12th-graders who are enrolled in Title I public schools, where there are higher numbers of children from low-income families.
Step One: Courage
Klinger regularly gives an introductory theater class at public schools, with one warm-up exercise seamlessly leading to the next. At the end of the class she will ask the students to walk across the stage, say their names nice and loud, and exit.
She said that for some students it’s a very easy thing to do. Some might even shout out their name and exit with a cartwheel while they are at it. But for other students, it can be so painful. They may hesitate for a long time before they feel ready and when they finally do go on stage, instead of spreading their arms wide, their shoulders may be curled forward, their chest hidden, as they say their names very quietly, Klinger recalled.
“Just standing there in front of everyone, having your classmates looking at you while saying your name, that can be so courageous. It’s the most beautiful moment you have ever seen,” Klinger said.
At such a tender age, children are just beginning to understand who they are, what they want to do, how they belong in the world.
“That’s the first step along this journey,” Klinger said.
All the kids eventually do it. They are all in the same boat as Rosie’s Theater Kids. It’s a safe and creative boat where they can build their self-confidence and self-discipline.
Eventually the children write their own skits, sing songs, or dance in a theatrical performance. By the time they reach 5th grade they perform in front of their whole school. The younger students then know what to look forward to should they choose to become one of Rosie’s Kids.
The children who show aptitude and much enthusiasm during the classes at the public schools are invited to take classes at the Maravel Arts Center. “They are not necessarily the best performers, they are just the best students. Usually it goes hand in hand,” Klinger said.
Klinger believes training in the performing arts is essential. “I just think its part of every well rounded education,” she said. “So if my eighth-graders can stand up in front of a group of people and do a monologue, they will be just fine at a job interview.”
The children also learn essential social skills. They follow the tradition of greeting the teacher in class. “They practice shaking your hand. … It’s an acting lesson, but it’s not really. It’s a life lesson disguised as acting,” Klinger said.
Rosie’s Theater Kids
The Maravel Arts Center was named in honor of Rosie O’Donnell’s 5th grade teacher, Pat Maravel. When O’Donnell’s mother died, Maravel took her under her wing, becoming her mentor.
O’Donnell also found much solace in the theater, an experience she has been passing on through Rosie’s Theater Kids. O’Donnell goes to the center regularly and currently mentors two boys who want to be hosts.
In the kitchen area of the center, a very slim girl named Tiamen with beautiful big eyes, a clear voice, and a gentle demeanor, asked me a question about journalism.
Klinger praised her talent. “Her writing is very quirky, I kind of love it. She’ll send me an email and it’s so darling,” Klinger said.
But Tiamen “has a very rugged life,” Klinger later explained. The 15-year-old girl does not have a father, and her mother is ill with scleroderma—a chronic systemic autoimmune disease, whereby the skin and organs harden over time. Her mother doesn’t go anywhere.
“And that beautiful little girl gets up every day with a smile on her face,” Klinger said.
Luckily Tiamen has a mentor, Rosemary, who has already agreed to step in as a surrogate mother if necessary.
“And that has brought Tiamen a sense of security,” Klinger said. When they had first met, she was very unhappy. Now she has set goals for herself. “She’s a very smart student and wants to go to an Ivy League school. That’s what she’s determined to do, and she’ll get there,” Klinger said with confidence.
Also in the kitchen area of the center, an academically inclined 10th-grade boy, Brandon, talked about how he enjoys the theater–dance classes. “I never really got to experience this side of the world before. It’s a really great experience,” he said, calling himself “a shy student.”
Brandon also shared his plans for the future. He wants to go to medical school. Rosie’s Kids gave him a scholarship so that he could take courses in medicine at a summer camp.
“I’m so proud of him that he really knows what he wants to do, and he’s already walking down that path to figure it out,” Klinger said. So when a child shows an aptitude and the determination to do something, Rosie’s Theater Kids focuses on creating opportunities for that child.
Another young boy who was falling behind at school was home schooled with a private tutor at the center. “It is like night and day. He’s gone through every book. He’s done excellent work and is going to graduate on time,” Klinger said.
Not all of the students have big problems, there are also “just wonderful kids with totally lovely and supportive parents,” she said.
Be the Seer, Not the Seen
Klinger feels inspired by the children’s courage every day. They also teach her patience and, sometimes, when not to be patient. Every day is structured by the class schedule, by the daily routine, for example, of warm-up exercises for voice or dance. But every day is also full of excitement, challenges, and joy.
“The kids are so incredible. I really think their courage is extraordinary,” Klinger said.
As a former professional ballerina Klinger really didn’t have the training to be an executive director of an entire nonprofit organization. She learned courage from the children—just in the way they say their names on stage for the first time. And the board members—many brought on by O’Donnell—have guided and supported her along the way.
More familiar to her was having a discipline, understanding the rules of the theater, and performing—lessons she passes on to Rosie’s Theater Kids.
“I was born in my ballet shoes!” Klinger said. He mother was a ballet teacher and had a dance school in Ohio. From the very beginning, she knew she wanted to dance.
“I had no other plan, so I’m really glad that this one worked out,” she said laughing. She then explained how her transition from dancing to teaching was seamless, with teaching gradually taking more of her time.
Klinger had a strong connection with her own teacher and mentor, Melissa Hayden, a principal dancer with the New York Ballet.
“She taught me about ballet, about life—how to roast a chicken, all those kinds of things. I felt like she cared about me as a person,” Klinger said with a glimmer in her eye.
“She was very tough, she didn’t try to be popular—I don’t want to say that she didn’t care who liked her, because of course she did—but her job was to teach ballet and she was going to tell you the truth. … I just loved her,” Klinger said.
As a performer, Klinger explained, “You have to be a clean slate and drop who you are so that the choreographer or director can look at you and see the possibilities.” To be able to do that calls for a great deal of self-confidence.
When the actress, Betty Buckley gave a master class at the Maravel Arts Center, Klinger was struck when Buckley told the students, “As a performer you want to be the seer, not the seen,” Klinger recalled.
Klinger found that advice was useful for her teaching as well.
“It is the perfect thing for a teacher, especially one who has been a performer, because you want to be the support and yet be entertaining … they [the kids] need to know and feel that it’s all about them,” Klinger said.
As a performer Klinger also knows how to be tenacious, especially auditioning. “You have to hear ‘No’ quite a lot. It’s really difficult and you try to get that thick skin, but it’s never thick enough,” she said.
Not all of Rosie’s Kids will take on performing arts careers, but all of them learn the rules of the theater. Rules that help them navigate through life—like being on time.
“In ballet the curtain goes up at 8:05, and [that means] it goes up at 8:05,” she said. “I’m not the one saying you have to be on time. That’s a rule of the theater. Also, you have to dress and look a certain way for the part,” she added.
“You’ve got to navigate, you’ve got three sets of these … and six, seven, eight,” the dance teacher, Kyle Pleasant, instructs the students taking the 4:30 theater–dance class. “One, two … palms on, elbow up, open your chest—it’s like someone is pulling you in two different directions. You have to open wide in your chest, get as much line as possible, right? And! five, six, seven, eight …”
Whether Rosie’s Kids are heading off to a new high school or college, they have the courage and self-confidence to move onward. In the performing arts, you are exposed.
“The arts are very public, so when you get a correction everyone is listening, when you get a bad review, we’ve all read it in the paper,” Klinger said. That vulnerability takes courage and Rosie’s Kids get to practice a lot.
“It’s not like in math class where if you got a bad score the teacher hands it back to you folded and no one can see the red ink all over it. But here in the arts, it’s like ‘I don’t know what you just did? What was that? Let’s try it again.’ It’s in front of every one,” Klinger said.
And since all of the children go through it, they have learned to support each other too.
Passing It On
While O’Donnell’s drive to launch Rosie’s Theater Kids came from her very personal history as a child—the loss of her mother and the gratitude she has had toward her fifth-grade teacher—her generosity comes with an innate sense of trust.
Klinger said, “The best thing about Rosie—there are so many great things, she’s very generous, she’s very kind, she’s supportive—but I think the best thing is that when we started, she gave me two pieces of advice, she said, ‘Give every kid a T-shirt, and don’t get sued.'” Klinger laughed.
The direction was clear, open, simple. The T-shirt gives the children a sense of belonging, and the not getting sued advice is obvious: If you do things right, you won’t get sued.
That kind of spirit imbued in how the project was initiated permeates the whole atmosphere of the Maravel Arts Center building—full of promising rosy-cheeked children. Put simply, it’s all about generosity and courage. The children are given enough support to develop and even thrive, and in turn they effortlessly love others more than their selfies.
On May 17 at 7:00 p.m., Rosie’s Theater Kids will perform at the Passing It On Spring Gala celebrating mentorship and their success.