Spotlight: Broadway Revival

A local theater group is hoping to revitalize Rainier Beach High School’s theater program.

Category: Arts + Events Articles

 

Photo by Heather Fassio
 
On a blustery May afternoon, the Paul Robeson Performing Arts Center at Rainier Beach High School is humming with activity. On stage, a young woman in a turquoise T-shirt sings a sweetly soulful rendition of an SWV song to whoops of encouragement. It’s the second day of auditions for a production of the Broadway-musical-turned-hit-movie Dreamgirls, playing a weeklong engagement this month at the performing arts center. The production is the result of a collaboration between the South End school and Broadway Bound Children’s Theatre—a local nonprofit that offers local kids, ranging in age from 5 to 18, theater classes and roles in its theater productions.
 
But the Paul Robeson theater hasn’t always been this alive. Back in the mid-’90s, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) announced its intention to make Rainier Beach a magnet school for the performing arts; long saddled with a poor reputation and scant resources, the school and surrounding community jumped at the opportunity. In 1998, the SPS unveiled the first jewel of this glittering promise: a multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art auditorium set snugly on the school’s campus.

But soon after the auditorium opened, a performing arts magnet grant that had been partially funding Rainier Beach’s arts programs ended. As a result Rainier Beach lost some of its arts funding as well as its magnet status. Although the arts center has hosted a smattering of community events over the years, as well as two low-budget Rainier Beach theater productions this past year, it has largely gone unused.
 
Enter Broadway Bound. Created by former television and theater actor Jimmy Nixon, Broadway Bound pulled in 20 kids for its first show in 1997, a low-budget production of The Me That Nobody Knows at B.F. Day Elementary in Fremont, where Nixon’s two children were attending school at the time. Today kids from more than 100 schools in the Greater Seattle area participate in Broadway Bound, which recently staged productions of Suessical and High School Musical at ACT Theatre and The Moore Theatre, respectively. The organization puts on summer camps as well as fall and spring productions and is funded by Broadway Bound’s tuition fees, public donations, grants from the city and several foundations.

The collaboration with Rainier Beach is a first for Broadway Bound. The independent nonprofit organization has had no direct ties to SPS, and the majority of its participants come from families who can pay hundreds in tuition fees (though some scholarships are available) and regularly shuttle their kids to rehearsals.

But at Rainier Beach, where 60 percent of the students come from low-income homes, Broadway Bound would be hard pressed to find a cast who could afford the program’s tuition and spend the month of July in rehearsals. For its Dreamgirls collaboration with Rainier Beach, Broadway Bound waived tuition fees and paid stipends to participating students who would otherwise be working summer jobs.

Nixon says his intention has always been to bring musical theater to the kind of underserved population he grew up among back east in Jersey City. And Rainier Beach, with its hulking untapped theater, seemed like an ideal partner. However, Rainier Beach part-time drama instructor Makela Steward says that she and fellow administrators initially bristled at the idea when Broadway Bound approached them in the fall of 2006. They hadn’t heard of Broadway Bound, and with an enrollment of just 529, the tight-knit school is wary of outsiders with do-gooder intentions. “A lot of people come in for six months, get people’s hopes up and then split,” says Steward.
 
Yet players from both sides persisted. Don Alexander, a Rainier Valle

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