Fort Worth — In some programs I have worked for previously, I was always surprised to see how unhappy a handful of teaching artists were about working with kids. Yes, working with children can be a challenge at times. But, when I hear teaching artists being downright condescending or bitter about children, it sends a red flag. You have the opportunity to share your art with others, and this could be the first time they learn about theater, music, dance, or visual art. The arts are a pathway to fully develop human beings to be inquisitive and utilize their intuition. While I don’t believe any teaching artist would say outright “I hate kids,” their demeanor in the classroom can tell a very different story. Also, children can sense it immediately. In my opinion, some behavior problems in the classroom stem from the lack of collaboration between student and teacher.
When Mark Lowry told me about a theater company that creates new musicals with nearly 200 children—including international students—I was very curious about the feasibility and artistic merit. If you told the artists mentioned above—who don’t trust children—they might have a laugh or a stroke at the thought. But it’s true. And their work is quite remarkable.
Kids Who Care offers a theater home that cherishes the whole child, helping them grow into thoughtful, goal-oriented leaders…who also happen to put on amazing musical theater productions. Executive Director Deborah Jung has developed the company over 27 years and made significant strides in major initiatives that form the identity of the company.
Jung started Kids Who Care while working as a full time actor at Casa Mañana, noting the disturbing trend among some artists who teach without a true enjoyment in working with children. She also noticed that thousands upon thousands of children were seeing the shows at theaters like Casa, but not having an opportunity to experience the creation of theater for themselves, particularly those who could not afford to participate in “pay to play” programs. These two concerns encouraged Jung to be inventive and create a brand new form of educational theater in Fort Worth—blending an excellence for the art with a heart for developing future leaders.
The idea for the current working model for Kids Who Care originated when Jung visited New York in the late 1980s. She saw a performance at Madison Square Garden in which 1,500 children from around the world sang and danced together, while celebrities joined them for cameos. Inspired by the magnitude and collaboration between children and professionals, Jung pioneered a new company in Fort Worth. She started the program in her church basement, but moved in 1989 to the Scott Theatre. Jung began to announce auditions in Boys and Girls Clubs all over the city, and took whoever auditioned. The drive to participate and perform was the only prerequisite for the company. The first collaborative musical was Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be You and Me. Adult performers made cameos in the production, mostly Jung’s friends. From speaking with Jung, it’s amazing that the model that began so many years ago is still fresh and new each time they create a summer musical.
Their latest production, Look Up!, is a theatrical exploration of the consequences and benefits of living in a cell phone world, developed this summer with 188 child performers. You read that right, a lot of children and youth on stage at the same time. With the school year starting, the international students have traveled back to their home countries. However, the production continues as a nine-month tour with 50 children, which is still a major logistical feat. As I watched the performance, I noticed how much precision each performer needed to master. The structure of the musical is complex, with many small vignettes and no singular narrative to follow. It breezes from scenes to poetry to songs quickly, really taking the audience on an inventive exploration. All of the children (ranging from early primary to high school) were on point and present, from the tiniest child to the teenagers. Clearly Jung and the adults who work for Kids Who Care trust their students immensely. They have high expectations for the performance and believe that children have intuition; they can handle challenges, overcome obstacles and demonstrate a significant amount of focus. From watching the performance, I think many adult actors would struggle with the versatility and physical nature of the musical, but the kids handle it beautifully.
While the work they produce stands on its own, Jung acknowledges that most of the children won’t become artists, and she doesn’t see that as a problem. She believes that the skills these children obtain through participating in the arts will help them aim for excellence at whatever career path they choose. While they offer classes, Kids Who Care is not a conservatory for children; it is a place where kids learn how to become leaders through the vehicle of theatre. To reinforce this part of the mission, Jung developed a leadership training program called Kid Power, focusing on entrepreneurial skills and goal setting. With notoriety, this program has also been utilized by adults in corporate America, teaching them how to “think like a child, with endless possibilities and tenacity.” Since theater artists utilize group leadership skills on a constant basis—including goal setting, collaboration, and envisioning a final product—it makes sense why many corporations have been curious about Jung’s program. Once students have been through a camp, they can volunteer to take the Kid Power training, which is a significant commitment. The student leaders train for 40 hours before becoming a part of the leadership team for the summer programming. Jung has established life long relationships with students as they leave, many of them return to be artists or participate as an alumni. The scope is much wider than simply creating plays.
Kids Who Care has also been making an impact on the children around the world by hosting international students each summer. Countries such as Italy, China, Australia, Germany, Albania, and Israel are just some of the nations represented each year in the July musical. The collaboration with international communities has evolved over time; it started with Fort Worth’s Sister Cities initiative. The first collaboration was with Reggio Emilia, Italy with three Italian students who had never participated in a theater production before. After the initial collaboration, Jung realized that in order to build an international company, Kids Who Care needed to travel to the origin countries of the international students to build trust. Since then, international participation has grown significantly and it makes the world more broad and within reach to the children of North Texas. They appreciate other cultures, languages, and stories through meaningful collaboration, not just reading about the countries from a book or watching a video at school.
After doing this experiment of interviewing theaters and artists for nearly a year now, I’ve seen such a wide variety of missions. Kids Who Care is a unique place because of the local and global experience that they provide. While they are reaching individual children here in North Texas, they are part of a global picture. What has impressed me the most is the aim for excellence beyond the art; they make a clear connection between theater skills and life skills. It’s not about impressing parents or being a star, but you can walk away from the experience with new tools for whatever future you choose.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director and performer. Each month in TheaterJones, she'll write about a different North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages. Below is a list of previous columns:
- February 2015 "Teacher/Artist" (Capers for Kids)
- March 2015 "Parental Guidance Suggested" (WaterTower Theatre)
- April 2015 "DaVersify Your Life" (DaVerse Lounge)
- May 2015 "The Work in Art" (Tax time for an independent artist)
- June 2015 "Learning to Say YES" (Cara Mía Theatre)
- July 2015 "Exploring Language" (Dallas Children's Theater and Junior Players)
- August 2015 "Transforming Through Dance" (Junior Players)
- September 2015 "Walking Tall" (Amphibian Stage Productions' Tad Poles)