There's no doubt about it. Educational arts programs are almost always in crisis mode. No matter what city or state you're in, arts courses always seem to be under-funded and in dire need of support, and sadly the lack of funding usually has a disastrous effect on the student population. Some get far less exposure to the arts than they want or need. Others get no exposure at all as their school's arts programs vanish.
McCallum High School in Austin is a rare exception. Its unique Fine Arts Academy thrives despite the current economic pinch.
The Fine Arts Academy program at McCallum provides high school students with both a traditional high school education and a fine arts focus. Students are broken up into majors, including Band, Choir, Dance, Classical Guitar, Orchestra, Theatre, and Visual Arts. While they may specialize in arts courses, the students are required to take the standard core classes with the general school population. By doing so they add an element of creative thinking which benefits the entire McCallum student body, whether they be artistically inclined or not.
I first heard of McCallum's Fine Arts Academy earlier this year when I attended their Theater Department's production of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I was completely awestruck by the talent and professionalism of these high school students, and I immediately contacted their teacher, Joshua Denning, to learn more about their program. Mr. Denning then invited me to a closed dress rehearsal of their upcoming musical production of THE SECRET GARDEN to chat with him and the students.
Witnessing the rehearsal process for an ambitious, complex show like SECRET GARDEN was quite a treat. While they may be young, the McCallum students take immense pride in their work and possess a needle-point focus for their material. That focus and attention to detail is shocking given the age of the performers, yet considering the school's history for mounting daring works such as PARADE, CABARET, CHICAGO, and INTO THE WOODS, that professionalism and respect for the stage is no surprise at all. These kids are hungry for a challenge.
Strangely, one of the biggest challenges for the students is pulling off more standard, family friendly fare that one sees out of most high school theater programs. "McCallum is known for being edgy and experimental," says Mr. Denning. "This was the first high school to do RENT, so we're known for being cutting edge and for doing adult-type material. So this was our year to be happy. We decided to do more typical, American Musical Theater like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE SECRET GARDEN and OKLAHOMA!"
It seems the driving force behind this year's change in tone was the need to diversify the strengths of the young artists and performers. Says Denning, "I was noticing that our kids are good at dark and brooding and experimental theater, but they were struggling with happy and open and earnest pieces. So I really wanted to challenge that."
But for Mr. Denning, overcoming those difficulties and obstacles is incredibly rewarding. "I love the excitement in the kids," he says. "I love seeing them discover new things. It's pretty amazing. I'm living my passion. I get to create every day."
Not only do the students inspire their teacher, but they inspire each other as well. As Sophomore Ben Dickerson eloquently puts it, "I'm very impressed by my group of peers. It's something I'm continually amazed by. Just the level of commitment and effort is inspiring. Everyone in this program really wants to do it. It's really admirable to just do something because of how much you love it. I really see this un-self-conscious, un-embarrassed joy in my classmates."
One of Ben's classmates, Iris Toth, extolls her classmates as well, but also mentioned the strengths of the faculty. ""I've had nothing but great training and great experiences here," the senior says. "My teachers really challenge me to rise to the occasion. I love being here." She also mentioned that her experience at McCallum has inspired her to pursue a career in the arts after graduation. "I'm applying to schools for a degree in Arts and Entertainment Management which is kind of a mix of theater and business. I'd love to run a theater company or be a curator of an arts museum. I definitely want a career in the arts."
Of course, the success of McCallum Fine Arts Academy can only continue with the support of the Austin community. When asked what Austinites can do to support the program, Mr. Denning says, "We accept donations and are set up with the Austin Community Foundation to accept tax free donations. We also have a wish list of things we want like equipment and other things we need and want which you can find on our website."