Blumenthal Performing Arts
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Winter 2021-22
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Theater Calling
Junior Ambassadors Program Grooms Future Arts Supporters
by Michael J. Solender
“Show business – everything about is appealing!” sang Ethel Merman, the late mega-theatrical star, in her beloved show-tune, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” While many interpretations of “everything” in this context center on the stage and in front of an enthusiastic audience, for others, the allure of the performing arts exists behind the curtain, in less glamorous yet just as essential areas, such as operations, production, marketing and administration.
Learning about the variety of disciplines supporting the theater industry is the primary objective of Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Junior Ambassadors program. Established nearly a decade ago, the eight-month program is offered annually to Charlotte-area high school juniors and seniors and delivers a series of workshops, discussions, volunteer experiences and social activities designed to provide deeper exposure to the multifaceted business aspects of the performing arts.
Along the way, participants expand their network of friends and contacts, develop communication and leadership skills, and discover potential career opportunities they might not have previously considered, according to Tommy Prudenti, education special programs manager at Blumenthal.
Junior Ambassadors Clara Bumgarner and Ben Doub usher a show at Belk Theater.
Developing lifelong arts supporters
“The purpose of the program is to develop and inspire lifelong and enthusiastic supporters of the performing arts,” says Prudenti. He noted the program is open through an application process to Charlotte public, private, charter and home school students. “There are special opportunities through the program for students to build self-confidence, hone personal interaction skills, develop new professional relationships, and gain invaluable experience through volunteer work in our environment.” Beginning in September and running through April, the program holds a series of events for that season’s class – typically 50 to 60 students. Participation in the program is provided at no cost to the students and provides the opportunity to volunteer as an usher during performances at various Blumenthal theaters. Blumenthal Junior Ambassadors was a “game changer” for Mallard Creek High School graduate Cierra Reynolds, currently a freshman at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro where she’s double majoring in kinesiology/sports management and professional theater. Reynolds participated in the Junior Ambassadors program in both her junior and senior years in high school. “One of my favorite aspects of the program was the networking and relationship building it offered me in connecting with my peers and theater professionals,” she said. “I’m a people person, and meeting people from different high schools that share the same passions as I do was inspiring. Meeting so many different people and being exposed to what makes the Blumenthal the Blumenthal was a great learning experience.” While Reynold’s second year in the program was during the throes of COVID, she said the energy level remained high and the program overcame the challenges by using the virtual programming in such a way that kept everyone engaged. “We used discussion and chat throughout the seminars to remain connected,” said Reynolds, one of four annual recipients of the program’s Spirit of Service scholarships. “When COVID restrictions eased this past summer, I did have an opportunity to work the front of the house in a paid position during 'Immersive Van Gogh' at Camp North End. The opportunity was a direct result of my participation in the Junior Ambassadors program and was a wonderful way to connect with people and have another great experience from the program.”
Junior Ambassadors attend a seminar with Blumenthal President Tom Gabbard and Vice President of Education Andie Maloney.
A recent topical seminar held for the incoming 2021 class was titled, “We Have Reopened. Now What's Next?” The discussion, featuring Blumenthal President and CEO Tom Gabbard and Blumenthal Vice President of Education Andie Maloney, addressed the organization’s lessons, learnings and take-aways from operating during COVID-19. Students heard perspectives through various lenses and had the opportunity to learn about the complexities of operating through the pandemic. Last year’s COVID restrictions relegated much of the Blumenthal Junior Ambassadors programming online and into the ubiquitous Zoom Room. Prudenti and the Blumenthal team took the opportunity to engage the students and tap into their creative energy through an online workshop led by Blumenthal Director of Creative Engagement Boris “Bluz” Rogers, an Emmy-award winning poet, author and spoken word artist. “We look to schedule social events that are educational, fun and offer ways for kids to connect across their schools,” says Prudenti. “Last year’s spoken word workshop over Zoom led by Bluz gave the students a chance to not only learn about the art form of spoken word, but they also got to do exercises and activities and share with each other pieces they were doing in the moment with Bluz.” While pandemic disruptions were the “new normal” last year, the Blumenthal Junior Ambassadors program found ways to create connections despite the many restrictions placed upon in-person meetings. “What was so unique about last year is we keep the chat open for all of the virtual experiences,” said Prudenti. “And when somebody shared something, such as either a spoken word piece or an improv scene over Zoom, the other students would immediately rush to type in celebratory or heartfelt notes in the chat, lifting each other up and cheering each other on. And even when we've only done a few in-person events from the tail end of last year into the start of this year's class, we see that translate with each other. There’s an inspiring component of community building though our program.” McKenna Lawler, a senior at Piedmont Community Charter High School in Gastonia, is entering her second year as a Blumenthal Junior Ambassador. “I’m definitely a theater nerd,” said Lawler, who loves performing in musical theater. “The program has exposed me to so many different aspects of what goes on behind the scenes at the theater. We recently toured various (Blumenthal) venues and learned about ticketing and how the ushers must learn the various theater setups, which are each different – it’s been very insightful to see the operations from different angles.” Lawler highly recommends rising juniors and seniors consider applying for the program. “If you love the arts,” she said, “it will be one of the best things you could spend your time on. It’s been incredibly rewarding for me.”
Junior Ambassadors attend an ushering seminar with Cliff Olson, director of volunteer services at Blumenthal Performing Arts.
Service element
Prudenti says serving as a volunteer usher for Blumenthal performances is a rewarding component of the program, instilling a service element for the participants to benefit from and providing the opportunity for front-facing interaction with arts patrons – the lifeblood of the performing arts. “Learning about customer service and interacting with a patron base at a young age is illuminating,” said Prudenti. Our ambassadors get the opportunity to work alongside people that have such varying levels of industry experience, whether it's those working part-time for Blumenthal in a front-of-house capacity, or somebody who's retired and volunteering their time to usher with the touring productions that are coming through. The opportunity to work alongside people that have such varying backgrounds is a great learning experience – plus they get to experience world-class live theater.” Each class participant who applies is also eligible for one of four scholarships that are provided annually. Two $1,500 and two $1,000 scholarships are awarded. These Spirit of Service Scholarships are for students to use post high school toward their pre-professional or college education. Jacob Blizard, a graduate of Mooresville High School and current freshman at Cornell University, said participation in the program gave him renewed self-confidence and demonstrated that the theater community is an open, welcoming and inclusive place where everyone can contribute. “Diverse voices are what make the theater strong,” said Blizard, a recipient of the program’s Spirit of Service scholarship. “The program offers much more than learning about theater as so many life lessons are uncovered about the power of teamwork and collaboration and how many different talents are required to make the theater run. Each of us has a role to play – on and offstage. The theater is a place where everyone has the chance to contribute.” ◼
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