Putting the Fun Back in Arts Funding
Jessica Jones started working with Ayn Lauren, the founder and artistic director of Stage Left Children’s Theater, in 1999. The two still work together, but instead of Jones being a member of Lauren’s first cohort of students, she’s the theater’s executive director.
“It was a place where I was able to express myself differently,” Jones said. “We learned about working together, we learned about community, we learned about being able to express ourselves.”
Unfortunately, after 17 years as an instructor with the theater, Jones started her new position in the midst of the pandemic. Like other Rockland arts organizations, Stage Left canceled performances, moving some students to Zoom presentations. Now in the fourth year of COVID-19, record high funding from New York State’s Council on the Arts has organizations like Stage Left coming back in full force into the Rockland community.
NYSCA has granted nearly $750 thousand to organizations in Rockland County over the last two years, including Stage Left and Children’s Shakespeare Theater. The Shakespearean theater introduces children to classical texts in a “safe, supportive community,” said Brady Amoonclark, the artistic director of the theater, which lost an entire season due to the pandemic.
“We didn’t know if the children of Children’s Shakespeare Theater would be enthusiastic to return or what type of art we’d be able to make in this pandemic,” she said. “ (But) we made beautiful art and the funding from NYSCA allowed us to do things to keep us safe.”
The theater used its NYSCA funding to buy masks, COVID tests and High-Efficiency Particulate Air filters — which the United States Environmental Protection Agency writes can effectively remove viruses — among other COVID mitigation strategies, Amoonclark said.
“The first year was a big leap of faith,” she said. “But luckily, the kids came back.”
While other organizations only started receiving funding from NYSCA during the pandemic, Stage Left had been using it for years to move their work from the stage and into the classrooms of Cottage Lane and William O. Schaefer Elementary Schools.
The Theater Enrichment Program, a partnership between Stage Left and the South Orangetown Central School District, helps students develop creative writing and theatrical skills not normally found in an English class, she added. Nearly half of the program’s funding comes from the state, much of which is NYSCA’s.
“We’re bringing in theatrical lessons to their school day,” Jones said, “which has been amazing because all of these kids that, maybe the parents work and they can’t get a program after school or on weekends, they’re able to have it in their classroom.”
Every fourth and fifth grader in the district works with Stage Left. Both teachers and principals within Orangetown have said they’ve seen improvements in students’ reading and writing skills.
“Kids have chosen to go back and sometimes revise their writing after taking our course because they’re like ‘oh, there’s so much more detail I can put into this and characterization,’” Jones said educators have found.
Strawtown Studio, also in Nyack, tries to bring students outside of the classroom and into nature. In videos on Strawtown’s website, students create art based on the nature around them such as using collected rocks to make paint they then use. Founder and Director Laurie Seeman said the organization creates the programming which they then use with students.
While not requiring the same COVID-19 ventilation protocols, the nature-based programming center had to shut down its in-person work like any other organization. Within two weeks, Seeman said, Strawtown was getting its programming out to both formal and informal educators, like teachers, parents and youth leaders.
“Our organization was very dedicated to taking this body of work from over 20 years and creating ways to share it with others,” she said. “(NYSCA) funding allowed us to maximize … getting our work out to other people.”
Outside of state funding, Rockland County is also aiding the industry bounce back from the pandemic. On Jan. 9, Lucy Redzeposki, the county’s director of economic development and tourism, announced in a press release $278 thousand in tourism grants to 29 organizations, some of which also receive NYSCA funding.
“Tourism has endless benefits; it creates jobs, strengthens economies, and contributes to infrastructure development,” County Executive Ed Day wrote.
Children’s Shakespeare Theater’s Amoonclark felt similarly about a return to live theater within her own organization. The theater utilizes local businesses for their performances, working with Beckerle Lumber, Harrington Press, and Fiddler Ian Moore, who can also be found at the Nyack Farmers Market.
“These dollars that NYSCA awards us then also get reinvested in our local community,” she said. “Arts are an engine that help drive the economy.”