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BLAAC theater arts school already expanding after one semester

Girl standing with raised arm
Natasha Senjanovic
Isabella Wheeler is one of nine students in the inaugural cohort of BLAAC's School of the Arts

Thirteen-year-old Isabella Wheeler says she's nervous as she starts her mock audition, but quickly gets into her monologue.

"Look, I only kidnapped you because you know my secret identity. What was I supposed to do? Let you tell everyone who I really am?" Wheeler takes a beat. "No. Way."

Wheeler is one of nine middle and high schoolers enrolled in the School of the Arts, a free community arts program in Syracuse that aims to upend a theater scene that doesn’t often make room for budding thespians of color. It was launched in October by Blondean Young, the executive director of
BLAAC (Black Latino Asian Artists Coalition) Productions.

Young and other teachers (whom she pays) offer classes in onstage and off-stage skills: acting, costume design, sound and light design, creative writing, and yoga and movement.

Wheeler really likes the acting and yoga components, she says, while 14-year-old Inell Coleman likes "the acting class and costume design class because, well, who doesn't?"

Classes are held three afternoons a week, at the SALT Space on the West Side, and during one of the last classes of the inaugural semester, in late December, the students debrief with Young, after their mock auditions, one of the acting assignments.

"Do you want to give yourselves some good feedback?" she asks. Silence. The nine girls (there was one boy in the class, but he dropped out earlier) are still fairly shy about speaking up.

"It's okay to express yourself, that's what acting is really about," Young tells them. "When you stand on stage, sometimes you're upset, sometimes you're scared, sometimes you're nervous. Hopefully, you're not on stage by yourself and your scene partner can catch you."

After a few more students open up about their monologue work, Young says, "Well, I'll give you some feedback. I think you all did an amazing and great job. So give yourselves a round of applause." And they do.

Through BLAAC Productions, Young has produced short films and plays around Syracuse, with predominantly minority casts, who she says often get overlooked on the city’s stages, as her own work is proving.

"You can no longer say, 'Oh, we cannot find the artists of color,'" said Young. "They're here. You just have to go out and find them."

And there will soon be many more, a whole new generation, formed in part by her school, if it grows the way she hopes. Young would love for it to become a full-time theatre arts school, though she’d settle for a daily after-school program first, and she'd also like to take the kids on the road, eventually, to further broaden their horizons.

"So they can see other production companies, so they can be on set, so they can explore other forms of art outside of Syracuse," said Young, who also pays her students a small stipend at the end of the three-month course.

Her goals are part of a bigger picture being fostered by the Central New York Community Foundation. It awarded Young two grants this year, including $10,000 from the Black Equity and Excellence program, which was catapulted from idea to reality in 2020, according to Program Officer for Strategic Initiatives Darrell Buckingham, following the killing of George Floyd.

"This was really a way for us to be mindful of folks in our community that have been historically excluded," said Buckingham, from the kind of investments that allows communities and youth to thrive.

That's particularly true with Black non-profits, said Buckingham, "Black-led, black-serving nonprofits. And so this was our way of being intentional around our funding."

Buckingham says, in the past three years, many recipients of the Black Equity and Excellence grants are youth arts programs like Young's, which are filling a tremendous need for safe spaces — and opportunities — for kids to freely explore their creativity. Kids who often don’t see a lot of people who look like them working as photographers, or in the theatre wings.

"I think that really gives them inspiration and something to really strive for," said Buckingham. "Something to work a little bit harder [for], while in school, or making decisions outside of school."

Young's program has certainly inspired Coleman, who may like designing costumes, but the teen loved a one-off make-up design class this semester.

"I'm in the cosmetology program [at school]," said Coleman. "And I want to be the behind-the-scenes makeup and hairdresser for movies."

The first session of BLAAC's School of the Arts wrapped up just before Christmas. Auditions for the next session — which will open up to even younger kids and will add fashion design classes — begin in February.

Natasha Senjanovic teaches radio broadcasting at the Newhouse School while overseeing student journalists at WAER and creating original reporting for the station. She can also be heard hosting All Things Considered some weekday afternoons.