The DC Arts Education Alliance Announces $750,000 in Funding for a Groundbreaking Program to Train Disconnected Youth to Work as Theater Technicians

By Editorial Team on July 26, 2022
Photo by Kara Turner, The Theatre Lab

The city’s largest arts education organizations unite to address the effects of the pandemic on marginalized youth and repair a disrupted workforce pipeline in DC’s creative economy

The DC Arts Education Alliance today announces the formation of the Arts Institute for Creative Advancement, a year-long education and apprenticeship program in technical theater to launch in January 2023, in which participants will be paid to learn and work. Seventeen of the largest arts education organizations in the city, led by The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts, Life Pieces To Masterpieces, Sitar Arts Center, and the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, have teamed up to train young people who are disconnected from or under-engaged in school and work to enter DC’s creative economy.  Through an intensive education and apprenticeship program in technical theater, youth ages 18-24 will be prepared for careers as offstage theater professionals whose roles include lighting and audio engineering, set construction, scenic painting, rigging, and stage management. 

The Institute seeks to address two pressing challenges faced by our city: 1) the barriers to a meaningful career path for youth from DC communities hardest hit by the pandemic, and 2) the labor crisis in the DC theater and entertainment industries caused by a lack of skilled technical production workers in the area. Applications for the Institute are currently open with an October 1 deadline, and the inaugural class of 20 students will begin in January.

The Share Fund, one of Washington’s most generous supporters of both professional theater and youth development, has provided a $500,000 matching grant for the first two years of the Arts Institute for Creative Advancement, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) announced this month that she secured $250,000 in Community Project Funding for the pilot year in the House’s fiscal year 2023 appropriations bills. In addition, the DC Arts Education Alliance is working to make the Arts Institute for Creative Advancement the city’s first official apprenticeship sponsor in the arts under the Department of Employment Services.

The Arts Institute for Creative Advancement will not only be tuition-free, but students will be paid for their training time, removing one of the most pernicious barriers to career skills development. Participants will not have to maintain full-time jobs in order to survive while pursuing a rigorous training program.

Built into the Institute curriculum, and unique for a workforce development program, is arts-based socio-emotional training and support drawn from the DC Arts Education Alliance partners’ vast experience of working with youth whose opportunities have been limited by systemic racism, poverty, and educational challenges. Alliance organizations collectively serve over 15,000 students annually and employ more than 450 teaching artists and more than 125 full- and part- time staff across all eight wards.

“This program is unique in its design to attend to the whole student,” according to Amy Moore, Executive Director of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, the Alliance organization serving as the fiscal sponsor of the Institute. “The collaborative programming brings the best of what local arts education organizations have to the table and establishes a clear, comprehensive and sustainable path to employment for students who have not had an opportunity to grow professionally in one of the most vibrant industries in the city.”

There is an immediate and critical need within the D.C. community for youth to receive opportunities for social and emotional healing, reconnecting with community, and re-engaging with meaningful work and study following pandemic-related disruptions in school, family, and community. COVID-19 erased ten years’ progress in reducing the number of youth disconnected from school or employment in a matter of months.1/ Collective impact strategies, especially those focusing on the “whole child,” have proven highly effective in working with disconnected youth.2/

“We are thrilled to center this high quality and unique workforce development opportunity within a very intentional, homegrown cultural environment that fosters human development and advances justice, equity, diversity and inclusion,” says Mary Brown, Founder and Executive Director of Life Pieces To Masterpieces, the Ward 7 organization leading the social-emotional support system embedded in the Arts Institute for Creative Advancement.  “Our Color Me Community curriculum has, for 26 years, successfully formed the basis of our programming with children, youth, and families. By bringing together arts education organizations from here in Washington, DC, each bringing our unique strengths, we are sharing in this powerful mission, and can bring a new social-emotional perspective to apprenticeship programs.”

The Institute has been embraced by Washington’s professional theater community as a solution to a critical problem in the local entertainment industry.

“The Arts Institute for Creative Advancement is a workforce development program that will address a crisis faced by nearly every professional theater in the District: a shortage of production workers who have the skills to support DC’s theatrical productions,” says Theater J Managing Director David Lloyd Olson. “If unaddressed, this labor shortage will cripple DC’s nationally-renowned theater industry. The Institute will be a boon to DC’s thriving creative economy.”

Theatre Washington, the service organization for the region’s vibrant theater community, applauds the effort as a “citywide training program to reawaken the necessary and vital connections between students and the arts. And most importantly, connect them with workforce development pathways that they may not otherwise know exist in their communities,” says Amy Austin, CEO and President.

The Institute offers participants more than 1,000 paid hours of skill development and on-the-job training in the arts, resulting in nationally recognized certifications in Lighting and Electrics, Audio Engineering, and Rigging.   The Institute is looking for young adults with a strong desire to learn a trade that has both physical and creative components and requires a high degree of commitment. The program is open to  individuals age 18+ who did not complete high school, as well as those who have diplomas, GEDs, and some (limited) post-secondary experience; no prior experience or education in theater is required.

The program will be housed at The Theatre Lab, Washington’s largest theater school and the Alliance organization responsible for teaching the technical theater curriculum.  “We’re thrilled to be creating and implementing a curriculum in theater production that will be accessible to young adults who have faced obstacles in traditional learning environments,” says Deb Gottesman, Co-Executive Director of The Theatre Lab. “And, at the same time, we look forward to doing our part to diversify a high-wage, high-demand field that is currently more than 80% white.”

Demand for the program is expected to be strong, in part because it was created to serve needs directly identified by young people who are already involved in the grassroots Alliance organizations. “Consistently we hear from our youth, through our annual evaluations, that the skills they develop in Sitar’s programs prepare them to move forward in post-secondary education and career pathways” says Maureen Dwyer, Executive Director of the Sitar Arts Center, the organization providing the Institute’s 21st century work readiness curriculum.

The Members of the DC Arts Education Alliance, who are providing training, mentorship, and/or apprenticeship opportunities for the Arts Institute for Creative Advancement include the following:

Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Children’s Chorus of Washington, CityDance, Critical Exposure, Dance Institute of Washington, DC Youth Orchestra Program, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, Levine Music, The MusicianShip, Life Pieces To Masterpieces, Project Create, Sitar Arts Center, The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts, Young Playwrights’ Theater, The Viva School, Words Beats & Life, and 826DC.

For more information about the program visit www.dcartsedalliance.org/arts-institute or contact deb@theatrelab.org.

About the DC Arts Education Alliance
Initially formed in spring 2020 with the focus of elevating arts education efforts in the District, the Alliance subsequently worked to amplify the critical need for arts education during the pandemic. The eight founding organizations – Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, CityDance, DC Youth Orchestra Program, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, Levine Music, Life Pieces To Masterpieces, Sitar Arts Center, and The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts – are anchor institutions in their communities that have each been working in the District an average of 30+ years and are deeply committed to students and community. During the pandemic, all Alliance organizations ensured students were able to stay engaged during a time of deep social isolation by continuing student programming uninterrupted—through successful models that were virtual, in-person, and hybrid. Coming together has offered members of the Alliance opportunities to exchange best practices, share messaging, and collaborate on Programming.

In April 2021, nine additional arts education organizations joined the alliance– 826DC, Children’s Chorus of Washington, Critical Exposure, Dance Institute of Washington, Project Create, The Musicianship, Words Beats & Life, The Viva School, and Young Playwrights Theater (YPT). The 17 Alliance organizations collectively serve 15,000+ students annually and employ more than 450 teaching artists and more than 125 full- and part-time staff.  All organizations receive support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

(Source: Arts Institute for Creative Advancement Press Release)