Orchestrating Inspiration: Spotlighting the Transformative Power of Musical Theater Students

Orchestrating Inspiration: Spotlighting the Transformative Power of Musical Theater Students

Unlocking the Magic: How Musical Theater Students Orchestrate Change

As I stroll through the halls of the [Musical Theater Center], I can’t help but feel inspired by the palpable energy and determination that radiates from every corner. These aren’t just students – they’re composers, conductors, and changemakers in the making, each with a unique melody to contribute to the symphony of the performing arts.

Just like the SMTD alumni from the University of Michigan, the students here at the [Musical Theater Center] are leveraging their artistry to transform lives and communities. Whether it’s founding youth orchestras in underserved neighborhoods, leading initiatives to combat social injustice, or using the power of music as a healing force, these individuals are orchestrating a future where the arts play a pivotal role in shaping a better world.

From the Stage to the Community: Empowering Students to Make a Difference

One such student, Christina Maxwell, personifies this dual focus on performance excellence and community engagement. As an undergraduate, she combined her studies in musical theater with volunteer work as an arts therapist for young cancer patients at the local children’s hospital. “In order to get a performance that moves and changes people,” she reflects, “you must be connected with the suffering and stories of those outside yourself.”

This philosophy has become a cornerstone of the [Musical Theater Center]’s ethos. “Dedication to civic engagement is woven into the culture here,” explains the center’s director, David Gier. “Our students display a deep commitment to making the world a better place, and they carry that passion with them long after they graduate.”

Take Brendan Ryan, for instance. As the first male dancer to join the University of Michigan’s dance team, he not only made history but also used his platform to give back to the community. Now a cheerleader for the Los Angeles Rams, Brendan continues to volunteer at local schools, visit hospital patients, and teach dance clinics to military families. “These experiences have literally changed my life for the better – forever,” he enthusiastically shares.

Artivism in Action: Harnessing the Power of Performance for Social Change

For Leia Squillace, the journey of using the arts as a tool for advocacy began during her time as a theatre arts student at the University of Michigan. She participated in the U-M Prison Creative Arts Project, teaching theater to incarcerated women, which she considers her “inflection point” in recognizing the inseparable connection between her artistic work and her advocacy efforts.

At the [Musical Theater Center], Leia and her peers are continuing to hone their “artivism” skills – integrating artistic strategies into advocacy activities. Whether it’s creating and performing short skits about campus-wide issues or training student volunteers at the sexual assault prevention center, these students are using the power of performance to drive meaningful change.

“I don’t see social impact work as separate from artistic work,” Leia emphasizes. “At the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, where I now work, we produce art that is deliberately focused on having a social impact, so audiences are motivated to take action around a particular issue.”

Breaking Down Barriers: Expanding Access to the Transformative Power of Music

For violinist Yuki Numata Resnick, the transformative power of music became abundantly clear after she moved to Buffalo and took a position as an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo. Concerned by the lack of music education in the city’s public schools, Yuki and her colleagues co-founded Buffalo String Works, a music program that supports leadership development and social change, initially serving the refugee community.

“Working with families at Buffalo String Works allowed me to see how impactful and transformative music could be for an immigrant family,” Yuki reflects. “It also solidified for me what music can do for a community.”

Recognizing that systemic barriers often limit access to music and arts education, especially for underrepresented and minority groups, Yuki recently accepted a new role as the director of arts and culture at the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. “I hope to take down some of the silos in society that prevent arts access,” she explains. “I also want to open conversations across our community that can lead to healing so we can all move forward together.”

Cultivating a Global Perspective: Bridging Academia and Community

At the [Musical Theater Center], we’re also fortunate to have faculty members like Marjoris Regus, who is drawing on her experiences at the University of Michigan to create innovative arts education and participation programs that bridge the academy and the community.

As a graduate student, Marjoris worked closely with the Engagement & Outreach team at the University of Michigan, partnering with local schools to provide additional private and group music lessons and build a college-going culture for young musicians underrepresented in arts higher education. She also expanded her understanding of different music pedagogies and conducted research on hip-hop music around the world.

Now at Rutgers University, Marjoris is leveraging these lessons and putting her own spin on them. “At the top of my project playlist is the development of an intercollegiate symposium focused on global hip-hop artists and music,” she shares. “We want to bring life to this genre, which is observing its 50th anniversary and has become a global art form.”

Reflecting her family’s roots in the Dominican Republic, Marjoris has also been researching reggaeton music and helping to forge an international partnership that engages the Departments of Music Education and Dance at Rutgers with a performing arts school in Brazil. “As music educators, we have a big responsibility to consider music that’s happening locally and around the world to ensure we are being responsive to our community’s wants and learning from local artists,” she explains.

Elevating the Voices of Artists: Championing Change from Within the Industry

The pandemic’s devastating impact on the performing arts industry prompted Ned Hanlon, a member of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, to take a closer look at the systemic issues plaguing the industry. “I started to see the issues we were dealing with on a contract level as symptoms of overall issues within the performing arts,” he reflects. “Artists who should be the center of conversations about the arts are not treated equitably and often face harassment and discrimination.”

Determined to empower artists to advocate for themselves, Ned stepped up to a new series of roles within the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the union that represents over 6,000 singers, dancers, and staging staff members. In 2021, he was elected to the union’s board of governors, and two years later, he became AGMA’s president. “We’re focused on finding ways to empower artists to advocate for themselves and giving them the resources and support to accomplish that both inside and outside the union,” he explains.

Ned credits his experiences at the University of Michigan and the [Musical Theater Center] for preparing him to take on this dual role as a performing artist and an advocate for artists’ rights. “At U-M, I was exposed to a lot of different ideas and received a well-rounded education,” he reflects. “I also built sets in the Walgreen Drama Center as a work-study carpenter, which gave me another perspective on the industry.”

Orchestrating a Brighter Future: The Transformative Power of Musical Theater Students

As I watch these students, faculty, and alumni orchestrate change, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe and optimism for the future of the performing arts. From the grand concert halls to the community centers, they are using their creativity, passion, and unwavering commitment to make a tangible difference in the world.

Whether it’s founding youth orchestras, leading social justice initiatives, or championing the rights of artists, these individuals are proving that the power of musical theater extends far beyond the stage. They are the composers of our future, collectively possessing the ability to envision, orchestrate, and lead the world they wish to inhabit.

So, the next time you step into the [Musical Theater Center], remember that you’re not just witnessing a performance – you’re witnessing the birth of a movement, one that has the potential to transform lives, communities, and the entire landscape of the performing arts. These students are orchestrating inspiration, and the world is listening.

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