Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.

MacTheatre: Schooled to Be the Best

  • August 7, 2018

Today, arts programs are being cut from school budgets all over the country, to the detriment of students and their communities. It’s a lose-lose for everyone since, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts students engaged in the arts have “better academic results, better workforce opportunities, and more civic engagement.”

But in Texas, one community has stepped up time and again, first to launch McCallum Fine Arts Academy in Austin, TX, and then to nurture it, with epic results. Here is their story.

According to Joshua Denning, Head of Theatre at McCallum, commitment to the arts reaches back to the early 1990s, when a group of community members interested in creating a fine-arts immersion program contacted legendary Texas drama educator and Austin Hall of Famer Ruth Denney (1914-2007), founder of Houston’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts. “It was Ms. Denney who recommended McCallum High School,” said Denning, citing the school’s dedication to arts education and proximity to a concentration of arts organizations.

After joining UT at Austin’s faculty, Denney continued to mentor the fledgling program, which has since created bonds with such state and civic arts organizations as The University of Texas College of Fine Arts, the Austin Chamber Music Center, Texas State University, the Austin Classical Guitar Society, ZACH Theatre, the Austin Symphony, MINDPOP, The Long Center, Ballet Folklorico, Ballet Austin and more. “Our program has grown along with the growth of the city of Austin,” said Denning. “Each season the casts, productions values and audiences have become larger and more sophisticated.”

Denning himself has been with the program for seven years. (“Eight at McCallum,” he adds, drawing the distinction between the Academy, which is a magnet program, and the high school itself.) Under his direction, the theatre at McCallum Fine Arts Academy has twice been awarded the distinction of Austin’s Outstanding Academic Theatre by the Central Texas Excellence In Theatre Awards presented by Austin Entertainment Weekly. “I come from a background of 25 years of working in professional Equity theatre on every type of contract from national tour, to theatre for young audiences, to summers stock, to European ‘Broadway’ productions, to cruise ships, to regional theater, to workshop musicals, to warehouse theater. I take that versatility and experience and infuse it into all of our productions and classes.”

Each season, MacTheatre does two mainstage musicals, two mainstage straight plays, and a student-directed one act play festival that typically features five one-acts completely produced by students. “The result,” said Denning, “has been more and more support from the community each year. We served 8,000 audience members last year, many of whom, I am happy to say, do not even have children or grandchildren in the program. They come to our shows because they have a reputation of quality.”

McCallum Fine Arts Academy’s accelerated arts curriculum attracts and includes talented and motivated students from public, private, charter and home schools; these hail from all areas of Austin. Among the stated purposes of the academy is “to develop well-rounded students, critical thinkers, collaborators, and a community of arts advocates.”

It also has created a few stars of tomorrow, like Zoe Graham and Violett Beane. “When I have a student like that,” said Denning, “I know it’s my job to give them as many tools as I can to prepare them for all of the challenges that lie ahead for them. Star quality will only take them so far; a bit of technique is needed to make them ‘director-proof’ or pull them out of a difficult dramatic situation.”

While there are about 125 Acting and Technical Theatre majors within the Fine Arts Academy, “our shows are open to any student on our campus,” said Denning. “Within a school year I would estimate that we have 175 or so students from McCallum involved in our season. When you factor in parents, we are talking about 400 people altogether.”

In fact, behind MacTheatre’s talent, technique and ambitious productions stands an army of parents. “I am blessed beyond measure to have the parent support that I have at McCallum,” enthused Denning, “Our parent advocacy group is phenomenal; they operate like a very successful small business.” The parent advocacy group supervises the theater’s box office and has Chair and Vice-Chair positions with an accompanying sub-committee. All box office issues and requests and forwarded to them. “Many of them come from the professional marketing and tech worlds and they apply those skills to the parent advocacy organization. The results have been extraordinary.”

Listed among its other blessings is MacTheatre’s modern, professional facility, which includes an industry standard-sized stage. “I have to say,” admitted Denning, “I like the kind of artsy, edgy feel to the auditorium itself. It reminds me of a modern art gallery in a metropolitan city.”

MacTheatre has been with Ludus for about a year and a half. For Denning, it was the answer to a problem common to many independent theaters. “We operate out of two venues,” he explained, “and were having an issue with walk-ins and people sneaking into the theater without tickets.” Denning chose Ludus for its ability to provide reserved seating with scannable, accountable tickets to help us combat that issue. “Ludus had those features. It was easy to implement, and its customer service has been so helpful in making sure that each of shows runs as smoothly as possible.”

The most recent season culminated in a sell-out performance of West Side Story. “There is an alchemy created by that powerful mix of the vitality of youth, coupled with the optimism of musical theater. It’s a feeling you don’t get from professional theatre a lot of the time,” Denning admitted, adding, “It’s pure joy.”

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