School Theater Spotlight: TAPA

When I’m not writing articles for Motif, I can be found in a classroom teaching high school English classes. I feel as passionate about teaching as I do about theater.  In fact, it is because of my love of theater that I returned to college to become a teacher at an age where most people are finishing paying their loans off. It should come as no surprise then that I am a huge proponent of the arts in our schools. I have seen it work wonders. And I mean wonders. From the teen who wants to find their voice, to the young child on the spectrum trying to find their place, there is a place in theater for everyone. There have been studies that children involved in the performing arts have higher vocabulary skills; and in a country where public speaking is still at the top of the fears of most adults, learning to present in front of an audience is an amazing skill to have. So every now and then you’ll see me turn the spotlight on one of the terrific theater programs in our state. After all, if the sports programs can get a spot on the nightly news, let’s give a place for our young artists and the programs they are working with. In a time when we constantly hear that performing arts programs are cut, we are fortunate to have three performing arts high schools in our small state, not to mention the tremendous number of theater programs we have in our public schools. Today, my sights are turned to the theater program at Trinity Academy of the Performing Arts, (TAPA) and teacher Daniel Lee White.  

This small charter school serves around 200 students who enter the school through a lottery. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they have all been sitting at home wishing for a McKinley High moment, as many are unsure of their art major. In the 7th and 8th grade, students take classes in all four majors — theater, dance, music and film — and then audition for the major they wish to be in. White’s program has approximately 40 students in it. And art doesn’t end with the kids. “The coolest thing is that every staff member is an artist,” White proclaims. “It’s nice when you wake up in the morning and want to get to work.” And White clearly has a tremendous amount of love for and pride in his work.

Last spring, White took Steven Rosario Castillo, a sophomore, to the English Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition. Castillo was our state finalist for the competition. On top of those accolades, he competed at Lincoln Center. This has all the makings of a “Glee” episode! Although Castillo did not take the top prize, he was a semi finalist. And believe it or not, Castillo not making it into the top finalists was a telling moment for White, one that will undoubtedly stick with him for his entire career. “When kids didn’t make it, you could see them swear, or just cry. Steven came up to me and said ‘Can I please see the finalists? And see what I can learn from them?’  That was the moment for me; when he didn’t win.” It’s a true testament to White’s teaching (and Castillo’s family of course), for a young man to take disappointment and persevere.

I assumed that would have been White’s proudest moment as a teacher, but like any true educator, his pride for his students is not contained to just one. “I’m really proud of the kids. Steven went on to Nationals, and had only been studying with me for a year. As awesome as that is, there are a bunch of kids like that. The best is that ‘aha’ moment; all of the sudden their eyes light up and they do it. I love the opportunity to work with kids like that.”

This year White has big plans for TAPA. Besides a production of The Female Odd Couple, he wants to visit the Newport Branch of the ESU Competition again, and attend events with the Rhode Island Theater Education Association where White explains that his students “can mingle with other theater artists, and show them what’s out there. Not only the theater skills but the life skills.” And that really is the crux of arts education; theater has real life application. I can only hope that in a society where the arts are seen as this mythical object you can’t really touch, and is fun, but not really a life choice (cough cough Wells Fargo’s deplorable marketing department!) people begin to see the arts differently. 

Fast five…

Favorite play

I love farces.  One Man Two Governors.  Originally starred James Corden

Favorite place in RI to create art

Warwick Museum Of Art with Bring Your Own Improv.  And Newport Playhouse

Favorite role

Father in Blood Wedding in London (An opportunity gained from one of White’s teachers!)

Favorite playwright?

I can’t say if I have a favorite. I like Sam Butler … comedy is where I love to live.

Musical/non musical

Both. Les Mis turned me into a theater person.   

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