Community Relations – when it’s about THEM!

2016 High School Musical Theatre Season

One of the most rewarding parts of my work in arts engagement and community affairs is getting into the community to know more about the arts scene, and the many people engaged in it. Four years ago, I started visiting multiple high school theatre programs in order to learn more about what our area students are doing. I wanted to see what resources are available to them, and how Lehigh University might be able to support these efforts.

Lehigh’s arts center presents at least one Broadway touring company every season. The arts center’s last featured Broadway show was Bullets Over Broadway, which featured the choreography of Susan Strohman. Since I’ve seen a number of high school productions in which the dancing reflected well-known Broadway choreographers like Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, I’ve been sharing information about the campus arts center shows with high school choreographers to inspire their work with students.

Two years ago, we had a drop-in Broadway show that took a couple of rehearsal days in the campus arts center. The show’s producers offered a peek into their rehearsal process to local high school students. It was at that moment the relationships I had already built with teachers were a huge asset. All that time going into the community; supporting THEIR programs, and bringing a Lehigh presence by just being there was well spent. One needs to have relationships already built in order to take fullest advantage of sudden opportunity.

But I also started to learn more about the students. Most of the high school theatre productions provide a program (handbill) in which the students’ biographies include what they wish to pursue after high school. Some of them list an aspirational goal to study sciences and theatre. Some of them share they are coming to Lehigh. I’ve made an effort to reach these students to welcome them to campus, and to encourage them to pursue their passions while they are here. Some students come to campus to hear lectures and learn that Lehigh has much to offer them WHILE they are still in high school. I actually had one local high school say, “I wasn’t considering Lehigh before. I had no idea Lehigh offered so much.”

The bios also revealed more of the disparity between schools; some students studied vocal and dance lessons for years with local youth arts training programs or private teachers. What didn’t surprised me was that private lessons were not the key to a quality production. It was the passion the musical theatre directors instilled in the students. A foot might not be fully extended, but you don’t care about that when you witness the closing night speeches by graduating seniors. There are some real heroes in this community. You’ll find them behind the scenes at your local high school; encouraging students to take a chance and find their moment in the spotlight.

Last year, through various conversations with teachers and attending another local school activity, I met a student who aspires to be a filmmaker. She has some incredible skills; not only in editing, but also in storytelling. She produced a video in which you hear from the students of her high school’s latest musical theatre production. I hope you have a chance to watch this.

Keep an eye on this student. She’s already amazing.


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