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Madison Youth Arts Center brings dancers, drummers and divas together

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It’s mid-morning at summer theater camp, and rehearsals for “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” are in full swing. While half the cast works on blocking in another room, three masked middle schoolers gather around a small table in the corner of a kid-friendly studio. 

These actors are, in our imagination, Dodo, Lory (a small parrot) and Mock Turtle. Alice, read by teaching assistant intern Allison Horvatin, is upset and confused, alone at the bottom of a rabbit hole. And she’s all wet from a pond created by her own tears. 

Don’t worry, the animals tell her. The pond will soon dry up. 

“How is that possible?” Alice asks. 

“Anything is possible in Wonderland,” replies Lory.

The new Madison Youth Arts Center is located at 1055 E. Mifflin St. in Madison, Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2021. The center provides space for the Madison Youth Choirs, Children’s Theater of Madison and many other local visual and performing arts groups.

What is possible now that Madison has a dedicated youth arts center is so much bigger than the four-story, nearly 70,000-square-foot building itself. It’s a very big deal not only for arts administrators, but for theater-loving teens like Horvatin, a recent Waunakee High School graduate and an alumnae of Children’s Theater of Madison’s Summer Stage programs. 

During rehearsals for a Summer Stage “Seussical, Jr.” in 2019, the cast bounced from space to space, Horvatin said — “from Overture to the CTM space to a church to the basement of this building somewhere on State Street. Now, we can just eat in the room we rehearse in.”

With its sprung floors for dancers, black box theater, upright pianos and surfaces made of kid-friendly “indestructible stuff,” the Madison Youth Arts Center, or MYArts, is poised to make big changes for students like Horvatin and her Wonderland crew. MYArts is the new, official home of CTM and Madison Youth Choirs, the two anchor partners. 

Here, there are extra rooms to make rehearsals more efficient and acoustics and airflow designed for soundproofing and safety. There’s a costume shop, a scene shop and storage space, as well as places to perform.

MYArts is in its “soft opening” phase through early fall. Then, if all goes to plan, the center will have a grand opening at 1055 E. Mifflin St. Before that can happen, there is a proscenium theater to complete, murals to paint and art to be hung.

Even with white walls and lingering construction dust, the first young occupants have been delighted by the center. They love the “social stairs” in the fourth floor lobby (wide steps, for future pre-show chats) and space to spread out. Horvatin’s group of “Wonderland” castmates can split up to run lines and block scenes, then eat lunch together on an outdoor patio. 

“I feel like it’s a lot easier to get a lot of work done, to know where everything is and keep more organized,” Horvatin said. “There’s a lot more room for community and productivity in this space.”

She checked the time. Snack break!

“In other buildings, all the kids would have to sit in the room and watch rehearsal happening,” she said. “Here, we have this room where they can just talk and be friends. We’ve all gotten a lot closer than we ever thought.”

The new Madison Youth Arts Center is located at 1055 E. Mifflin St. in Madison, Saturday, Jul. 24, 2021. The center provides space for the Madison Youth Choirs, Children’s Theater of Madison and many other local visual and performing arts groups.

Combined resources

The 69,500-square-foot, four-story arts hub officially known as the Madison Youth Arts Center, Inc., has been in the works for years. It was collectively envisioned by local youth arts organizations as a place for dedicated, permanent rehearsal and performance space for students in pre-K through high school.

Even before MYArts was in the works, some organizations had already combined resources. Madison Ballet and Madison Youth Choirs had joint offices and shared studios in Westgate Mall (now a pile of rubble on Whitney Way, set to become apartments).

In 2017, Children’s Theater of Madison was among several nonprofits including Forward Theater and the Wisconsin Academy for Sciences, Arts and Letters to express interest in turning the former Madison College building downtown into an arts hub called Madison Central. The nonprofit youth theater founded in 1965 needed room both for Summer Stage programs and “Christmas Carol” rehearsals. (The college decided to go in another direction.) 

In 2018, Stone House Development proposed an 11-story, mixed-use building with eight floors of luxury apartments, retail space on the ground floor, 51,000 square feet of commercial space and a parking garage.

Part of that project was a four-story youth arts center.

“We want to do our best to ensure that this facility is inclusive and diverse,” CTM executive director Allen Ebert told the Wisconsin State Journal at the time. “It will be a fun, welcoming facility.”

Designed by Eppstein Uhen Architects and built by CG Schmidt, MYArts broke ground in October 2019. A capital campaign set a goal of $35 million that was raised entirely from private funds, notably $20 million from American Girl founder and longtime arts supporter Pleasant Rowland.

The campaign, which successfully concluded last week, raised $29 million to build and furnish the building, $5 million for an access fund to ensure groups of all sizes and stature can use it, and $1 million for a building maintenance endowment. MYArts will continue to raise money for the access fund.

MYArts quietly began moving administrators into the building in the first week of May. Madison Youth Choirs and Children’s Theater of Madison (CTM) are both “anchor partners,” with offices on the third floor. The choirs, which serve young singers ages 7 to 18, moved in its choral library. And MYArts now houses CTM’s costume stock and scenery (some left over from Madison Repertory Theatre) as well as a set production studio that spans two floors.

The School of Madison Ballet has reserved studios for classes, designated for dancers younger than 10. Music Con Brio has begun rehearsals in the building. So has Black Star Drum Line. Joey Banks, founder of Black Star, hopes to have offices there too.

The new building adds to a growing list of youth arts organizations in the East Washington Avenue corridor. Arts + Literature Laboratory, where this summer’s youth arts classes include block printing, making posters and collage, is half a mile away

And the Wisconsin Youth Symphony announced in June that it plans to build a new music center in the 1100 block of East Wash, where the Avenue Bar once was. (Food Fight closed the Avenue Club and Bubble Up Bar last year.) According to the State Journal, the WYSO Center for Music will be 40,000 square feet and could open in 2023.

“These three buildings and organizations are all in the youth arts space, but we all have a different kind of focus,” said Jess Courtier, director of community partners at MYArts. “The WYSO building is going to be built specifically for their needs. Art Lit Lab focuses on activities that are going to happen there.

“I hope that as the organizations settle in, we can think about how to do things collaboratively to support access.”

Children’s Theater of Madison rehearses Alice in Wonderland at the new Madison Youth Arts Center, Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2021.

Still sequestered

With more than a dozen studios at MYArts, there should be ample opportunities for collaboration and cross-pollination as the building begins to fill. A child headed to pre-ballet on the second floor might catch a glimpse of a roaring dragon head in the scene shop and decide to try stage crew. Or perhaps a budding soprano overhears a drum cadence and signs up to strap on a snare.

But though COVID-19 was, ironically, good for this project in some ways — it was easier for CTM to move costumes, sets and props with its season on hold — collaborative dreams will have to wait. Kids younger than 12 can’t be vaccinated for COVID-19, so everyone is asked to wear a mask in public spaces, adults and children alike. While schools have not been a major cause of COVID spread, as the highly contagious Delta variant becomes the dominant cause of infection, everyone is being more cautious. 

CTM has been an “excellent partner in developing how we manage the traffic flow of kids coming into the building,” Courtier said, with as few contacts as possible. 

“Though there’s a fair amount of activity in the building, because we are still sequestering and isolating programs from each other, we’re not cross-pollinating at this point,” said Roseann Sheridan, artistic director of CTM.

“We’re looking forward to when the kids, the teaching artists, the constructors and conductors, everybody can actually socialize.”

“We all dreamed about this project for years,” added Madison Youth Choirs’ artistic/executive director Michael Ross. “We give a lot of tours, and we have been super excited at what’s been reflected back to us.

“Kids say it, adults say it — it’s clear to them that we worked hard in every detail to design a space that kids would get excited about and feel welcomed in.”

There’s a lot kids won’t directly notice. Mike Huffman, owner of Huffman Facility Development, said the MYArts team “has done an exceptional job at looking at (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements, and how we move beyond those to truly accessible features.”

The design smoothed over thresholds in doorways and made single stall bathrooms for use by people of all genders. On the first floor, there’s a therapeutic sensory room for students who may feel overstimulated.

“On the third floor in the community lounge, there’s not seating specifically made for ADA level, it’s just all ADA level,” Huffman said. “As you approach the building, it’s set up for good access not only in function of doors, but in communication to people.”

An accompanist plays music as students sing during a rehearsal for the Children’s Theater of Madison’s production of How I Became a Pirate at the new Madison Youth Arts Center, Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2021.

Huffman said he often works with school districts, and ventilation has been a hot topic over the past 18 months. At MYArts, needlepoint ionization filtration and frequent “air changes” are “all good things,” he said, “especially when you’re serving a younger sector of our community.” 

“I think that’s a real positive coming out of COVID, that we’ve had more focus on indoor air quality,” he said.

Courtney Byelich is MYArts’ director of facilities, serving as the co-director of the space with Courtier. She’s in charge of learning all the systems, from HVAC to plumbing, from the contractors who made them. In these early days, she and Courtier have dealt with cleaning, trash, desks and furniture.

The flip side of that is when Byelich gets to give tours. “It’s been really exciting to see people’s enthusiastic responses,” she said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Wow! This is an amazing spot!’ It’s the thing that speaks to your soul about working here.”

“We do a lot of bringing groups through,” Courtier added. “Sometimes it’s kids and families, sometimes it’s donors or potential donors. Sometimes it’s organizations that might use the space, or they can help us think about best practices.

“It is as if a light bulb is drawn in the air over their head. You just see this light of possibility shine all of a sudden, the inspiration. When you bring kids through, you see them respond to the building and furniture and the colors.

“No kid has ever come through and been bored.”

Marley and mirrors

On a recent morning on the second floor of MYArts, the doors stood open to a studio on the second floor. “Yo ho ho, and a bottle of sunblock!” shouted a ragtag group of pirates-in-training inside.

“Personally, these are my favorite floors,” said Isha Camara, a CTM teaching assistant intern. Dramatic eye makeup glittered above her mask. “And these are my favorite rooms.”

Camara likes the movement-friendly floors, made with marley (vinyl, built for dance) or hard wood. Mirrors, she said, are “really great when we’re trying to teach students about sense of self.” Even the walls, covered in acoustic panels, can help middle grade kids cast in “How I Became A Pirate” channel their inner scurvy dog.

“One of the things that’s been helpful for students who are nervous to perform is we tell them not to look at us,” Camara said. “We tell them to focus on the boards in the back ... ‘pick something behind my head you can focus on.’”

Camara trained as a spoken word performer and in May, she graduated in the 11th First Wave cohort at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Growing up in Minneapolis, youth arts programs like the one Camara now helps to lead with CTM changed her life “one thousand percent,” she said.

“Art has impacted literally so much of my life, down to my major and the jobs that I want,” Camara said. At MYArts, she can learn from the other teachers, but she also pays careful attention to the students themselves. She’s already used the “mood room” on the first floor to help calm a nervous child.

“Kids are oftentimes isolated in the conversations about what kids need, which is kind of mind-boggling, right?” Camara said. “The learning experience is that I’m listening to them. And they’re comfortable enough telling me like, ‘Hey, Miss Isha, I need this. These are my needs, these are my boundaries.’”

Moving CTM’s camps from Overture to MYArts has been “a huge change,” said Erica Berman, CTM’s director of education. Berman loves Overture, but she’s thrilled to have storage space and a new sense of community.

“It was ‘Ever After,’ and we were up on the fourth floor (of MYArts) in a nice big studio,” Berman said. “There were folks from MYC (Madison Youth Choirs) there. There were folks from MYArts there, CTM folks. It just felt like, ‘We’re all part of this building. We’re all part of this family network, this community.’

“Everyone kind of felt it.”

Students create props for the Children’s Theater of Madison’s production of How I Became a Pirate at the new Madison Youth Arts Center, Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2021.

Because of COVID, CTM is running fewer camps with fewer students this summer. But Berman loves that the shirts say “Play On.” She loves that message.

“That’s the theme of the summer,” she said. “We will play on! We will continue to do this work, because it’s so important.”

Black Star Drum Line has started twice-a-week rehearsals. Before its third rehearsal on a recent Saturday morning, the truck holding the drums wouldn’t start, so the kids gathered to practice marching formations without instruments.

“We’re not totally moved in yet,” said Joey Banks, who founded and directs Black Star. “Like ... figuring out where our drums are going to go, where they’re going to be stored. We’re sharing the space with Madison Youth Choirs. There’s still a lot of things to be worked out.”

After rehearsal, Kevin Elmer picked up his kids, Eva, 14, and Lily, 13, who’ve been playing with Black Star for about six months. Their first impressions? “This is big, and it is colorful,” said Lily.

“It’s impressive,” Elmer added. “They did a really nice job. It’s inviting. It’s not cold and impersonal, it’s warm and friendly.”

Before, when the drum line was practicing in a park pavilion, “people would come over and sit on the benches,” Lily said. “The pavilion has pretty good acoustics.”

Being at MYArts, though, could “help bring community together a little more,” Eva said. “It gives people a place to go, for some people, a second home or a safe place if they don’t have one.”

“If you have everything in a central spot, community outreach can be easy,” Elmer said.  

Harrison Glazer, a 14-year-old student at Madison West High School, has been playing with Black Star Drum Line for 3 1/2 years. He likes the view from the MYArts fourth floor patio. He also likes not having to haul heavy drums around.

“It saves time not to have to load everything in every day,” Harrison said, “and it’s nice not to bounce around to different places.

“I think it’s good to keep everything congregated together, and keep children engaged in different forms of art and stuff. It keeps people creative. And it’s fun.”

Banks hopes to have an office in the building, and would like to see technical upgrades like Smart Boards in the studios. MYArts offers something the 13-year-old Black Star Drum Line hasn’t had before: a forever home, and a base to build on. 

“That’s the bottom line for every program that comes in here,” Banks said. “We want to have the stability, support and a facility that is arts friendly. So other kids in other art forms can come. ... The dream is to walk upstairs, and the ballet’s over here, and the drum line’s over here, and the children’s choir over here and the children’s theater over there.

“And they all can check out each other’s arts situation. There’s going to be collaboration.”

Members of Black Star Drum Line line up for a photo on “the Instagram wall”, located on the rooftop patio of the new Madison Youth Arts Center, located at 1055 E. Mifflin St. in Madison, Saturday, Jul. 24, 2021.

Holding space

MYArts is governed like a “three-legged stool,” according to Madison Youth Choirs executive director Lynn Hembel. Courtier and Byelich are working with CTM and MYC to figure out who should be able to book what when, and make some guidelines (or “guardrails”) around that.

“We would like to ensure that there is always room for less established groups to book things on a shorter time frame,” Byelich said. “We know there are certain groups that would book three years out if that was something we allowed them to do. But we’re trying to make sure the spaces are available for folks who are not in that boat.”

MYArts seeks “a mix of different kinds of groups,” Courtier added. “Different can be defined a lot of ways, right? Bigger groups, smaller groups, well-established or newer groups. We’re trying hard to make sure spaces are available.”

Ross summed up the idea with a costume metaphor.

“When I’m wearing my Madison Youth Choirs hat, I really hope that as an anchor partner I continue to get whatever space I want, whenever I want it,” he said. “When I wear my Madison Youth Arts hat, I want that to be a problem for me.

“I want there to be 16 groups here at the same time and us to have to say, ‘I know we always do this on Sundays, but it would be so awesome if this other group were here, so let’s figure out how we’re going to do something differently.’

“That’s the kind of growth we’re excited about,” Ross said.

One challenge will be getting the word out to students. The School of Madison Ballet plans to put notices in school newsletters, Madison School District newsletters, “all the resources that school-age kids’ parents are getting,” according to Ballet general manager Gretchen Bourg.

“The proximity to Lapham Elementary is phenomenal,” Bourg said. “For many years we’ve talked about finding ways to provide better access for some of our families on the east side. We all love the isthmus, but we’ve all tried to drive through at rush hour or on a football Saturday.”

Families with children ages 10 and under are busy, and the Madison Ballet’s primary studios on Odana Road, where the company moved in 2019, may not be as accessible, Bourg said.

Joey Banks teaches students in the Black Star Drum Line at the new Madison Youth Arts Center, located at 1055 E. Mifflin St. in Madison, Saturday, Jul. 24, 2021.

“We really felt like those kids and families would be better served with a location that suited them, that didn’t require them to drive across town,” she said. Once students get older and their interests have narrowed, the drive to the larger studio may feel less daunting.

The School of Madison Ballet, a nonprofit, is focusing its MYArts programming on the youngest dancers. There’s a creative movement class for toddlers, ages 18 months to 3 years. Pre-ballet is for children ages 4 to 6, with a “bravo boys” class and a Level 1 class, which begins formal ballet training.

“We have all had experience doing classes in church basements and warehouse spaces, dark scary rooms,” Bourg said. “To finally have a space that celebrates the amazing work (students) can do is just — I feel like it’s going to elevate the pride in their amazing achievements.”

Plans are in the works, Byelich said, to curate artwork to hang on the MYArts walls, with murals planned for the stairwells and the fourth floor theater lobby. A proscenium theater, which will seat 300, is still under construction.

MYArts as a building and an organization will continue to evolve even after its grand opening. The space has many “points of discovery,” as Byelich said, designed to change.

“A kid could walk in one day and notice the lights are hung cattywampus and think, ‘That’s cool,’” she said. “Or each floor has a different color scheme.”

Particularly after the isolating effects of COVID-19, what matters most to Byelich are the people.

“If I’m doing my job well, you won’t know me at all; I’m in the background just keeping things going,” she said. “All the user groups in the building are what gets to sing. Buildings mean something to me — I value a community spot, a place where people gather, those intersections among people.  

“Now, to do this, to set up the spot ... half of hosting is making sure your house is clean,” she added with a laugh. “So people can do the thing they do, to make the magic happen. That’s the part of this that is so exciting, to be able to set the stage.”

Lindsay Christians
The Captial Times

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