Tatianya Beckwith (left) and Aaniyah Washington stand ready to discuss student work on exhibit during the run of Quintessence Theatre Group’s production of Clifford Odets’ Depression-era drama, “Awake and Sing!” (Photos by Ellie Seif)

by Brenda Lange

As public schools shutter arts programs and limit students’ access to music, theater and the visual arts, private groups have stepped into the breach with a variety of creative programs. One of those programs is the Picasso Project, an initiative of the Public Citizens for Children & Youth (PCCY) in Philadelphia. Since it was founded in 2002, the Picasso Project has provided $809,466 in grants to 105 Philadelphia schools, offering more than 47,600 children access to innovative arts programming.

“We started during a time of drastic budget cuts in the Philadelphia School District,” said Tim Gibbon, director of the Picasso Project. “Teachers, artists and activists, people who cared enough to give a portion of their own salaries, pooled money and gave out the first grants in an attempt to remedy the situation. Today we think more holistically, increasing funding as well as engaging students and teachers in advocacy efforts to fund arts education.”

Some of the students who benefit from the Picasso Project attend the Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice in Germantown and have received grants from PCCY for five years. Because this public school is so small — only 275 students — offering a wide range of arts programming has sometimes been a challenge, but Principal Jeffrey MacFarland and his staff are committed to making all their students’ experiences fit into the larger educational experience.

“Our job is to do programming around the students’ voices and help them step up across the board so they develop confidence in expressing themselves to show power in who they are and what they advocate for,” said MacFarland.

For two years, some of that programming has centered around a partnership between Parkway and the Quintessence Theatre Group in Mt. Airy. Last year, the focus was on the 9th grade English and social studies classes, which were studying the Great Depression at the time. Quintessence presented a play from that era, “Awake and Sing,” and about 80 students attended.

Beyond attendance at the performance, however, these students researched primary source documents from the 1930s, thanks to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and created poster projects based on their research. The posters became an exhibition shown in the theater’s lobby throughout the run of the play. They also learned elements of theater arts from several members of Quintessence.

When Quintessence performed “Waiting for Godot,” the lead actor, Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., former head of the drama program at University of the Arts, gave a master class, of sorts, to the public speaking and drama class at Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice in Germantown. He is seen here (left) with teacher Jordan Zotter.

The connection between members of the Quintessence Theatre Group and Parkway has quickly become deep and meaningful.

“The students’ engagement and excitement is amazing. They have shown gratification and understanding about the relevance of their work in the classroom and their community connection,” said MacFarland. “It’s deeply satisfying and builds sustainable relationships that helps students see what they’re doing and why and their importance in the larger community.”

He added that two years ago, Quintessence performed “Waiting for Godot,” and the lead actor, Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., (former head of the drama program at University of the Arts) gave a master class, of sorts, to the school’s public speaking and drama class. The student-actor relationships bring the fledgling drama program to life.

“It made an indelible impact on our 9th graders,” said MacFarland.

And why has Quintessence Theatre Group become such an enthusiastic partner?

“We take educational outreach seriously,” said Patricia Stranahan, the group’s executive director. “We are so proud of this partnership and everyone has liked the results. The students’ poster exhibit was very well done and a huge success.”

Stranahan hopes the partnership continues. Next year, the group will perform “Rachel,” one of the first plays written by an African-American woman. It premiered in 1917 with an all African American cast performing before a white audience, and the play connects thematically with “A Raisin in the Sun,” which the students will study in English next year.

Parkway students are addressing their core subjects and learning about pivotal historical events while also learning how to give voice to their own passion. They are bringing them to a life in a unique way, always with an emphasis on peace and social justice, added PCCY’s Gibbon. “And we like that they have learned to love theater arts while doing all this.

For more information about the Picasso Project, visit PCCY.org. For more about Quintessence, visit QuintessenceTheatre.org