Most theater schools want to produce lead actors.
But Kids Who Care, the musical theater school and production company that is celebrating its 25th summer, is just as concerned with producing leaders of all types.
“The culture here values artists who are not flaky,” said Deborah Jung, the founder and executive director. “Those who can show up on time and finish on time, and who are efficient business people.”
And Jung’s nonprofit training and production academy, which makes its home in the Cultural District’s Scott Theatre, backs that point with more than rhetoric. In addition to receiving instruction and coaching in theatrical skills such as singing, dancing, diction and movement, any repeating students are eligible to apply to become involved in KidPower Leadership — a program within the overall musical theater program that teaches a wide range of life and business skills.
“The [musical theater] classes are very field specific. We believe that every child ought to have touched creative dramatics [voice, diction, movement and other stage-related skills]. If you are going to become a writer or build a bridge, it all starts with understanding the creative process,” said Jung, who worked at Casa Mañana before starting KWC in the late 1980s. “And we also believe that as early as age 7, you can start to lead.”
New York start
Kid Who Care’s 25 years of teaching its unusual blend of theatrical and leadership skills began with a visit to Madison Square Garden.
“In 1986, I went to New York to see the 10th anniversary celebration of Jacques D’Amboise’s National Dance Institute,” Jung says on the organization’s website. “I gasped as 1,500 children from around the world danced in an exquisite finale filling the floor of Madison Square Garden. When I got on the plane to come home, I told myself ‘I want that to happen in Fort Worth!’ Hundreds of kids from the around the world singing and dancing for sheer joy! And so we have...”
That experience inspired Jung to begin a summer theater camp, which was offered at a church in 1987 and 1988. The concept became more formalized and elaborate with a move to the group’s present home in the Scott Theatre in 1989, the year from which KWC dates its origin.
“We started as a response to the industry,” Jung said. “And so many children wanted to be on stage.”
There were 33 participants that first summer, which had a single session. This summer, more than 400 young people, including several international students, were enrolled in one or more of a series of programs. Some of them will go on to participate in one of KWC’s year-round programs that produces and tours an original musical.
“And at least 25 percent [of the students] on are full scholarship. We award $60,000 to $70,000 in scholarships each year, and have given away over $1.1 million in scholarships over 25 years,” Jung said.
Since its earliest days, KWC has also had a strong international component. Jung had three students from Italy in her first group. And in the organization’s first year, she worked with Fort Worth’s Sister Cities program to take the group’s show, an adaptation of Marlo Thomas’ children’s book Free To Be Me, on tour in Italy.
“About 40 or 50 kids in the program make the tour trip,” she said. “About every third year we are in another country, like Germany, Albania or Israel. Other study tours have been in locations like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.”
Next March, Jung and her aspiring thespians will return to Italy to present their original musical, Deep in the Heart — an all-singing, all dancing extravaganza exploration of Lone Star history.
“Doing a Texas show in Italy is always a good idea,” said Jung, 59, who is one of eight full-time staffers at KWC.
Kids Who Care is supported through a combination of tuition fees, donations, grants and revenue from productions and fundraisers.
“Fifty-two percent of our income is earned through tuition and productions. The remaining 48 percent is from grants from foundations, individual support and special events,” said Kathryn Albright, business operations director for KWC.
The three-week summer camps carry a fee of $800. Students who become part of the resident company from September through May pay $1,320. And those taking part in the out-of-state tours pay an additional $900 to $1,500, depending on the stops for that particular year, Albright said.
The special events are two annual fundraisers: Cookin’ for Kids, a celebrity chef cook-off held each March, and Sugar Rush¸ a December event highlighted by a presentation of KWC’s holiday production.
“The first cook-off, in 1997, raised $40,000,” said Albright. “And the 2013 cook-off raised $111,000.”
An evolving program
Jung said it took about six years for KWC to evolve from a traditional summer theater camp to its current year-round structure, which concentrates on musical theater presentation.
Aspiring performers ages 3 to 20 can enroll in a wide range of classes (about 16 to 20 weekly) during the school year that teach theater fundamentals. A group of about 50 advanced students, from the total of 180-225 students enrolled during a typical school year, serve as KWC’s “resident company,” which presents “4-5 performances per month September-May across the Metroplex” and does an annual “study tour to perform and train in a new city,” according to KWC’s website.
In addition to the core courses and performances, KWC frequently brings in guest instructors to address specific topics.
“What we offer is greatly influenced by what artists are available now,” said Jung, explaining that, at various times, subjects ranging from stage combat to juggling have been taught because experts in those areas happened to be hirable.
And, in addition to being experts in their fields, those instructors have to meet another important standard.
“Nobody comes here who doesn’t adore kids,” said Jung emphatically.
In the summer months, several programs are offered, including two summer-long musical theater camps, a June mini-camp for 3- to 6-year-olds, a June camp that presents a well-known musical ( Peter Pan was the choice this summer) and a July camp that, since 1990, has presented an “original musical by Texas artists.”
These summer sessions are also the period during which the international students, who usually number from 30 to 50 and come from a handful of foreign countries, participate, Jung said. There were 31 such students in the program this summer.
Each year, a group of students are selected to take part in one of four levels in the KidPower Leader program: camp staff, student staff, interns and apprentices. They participate in a variety of workshops and fundraising activities designed to teach them all aspects of theater production, including the daunting financial aspects.
“It basically mimics how any nonprofit operates,” said Jung about the program, which requires the students to raise funds and manage budgets, in addition to other challenges. “We started teaching our kids how we saw leadership.”
Some KWC attendees have gone on to careers in theater, such as Jay Johnson, who was recently part of the Broadway cast of Hands on a Hard Body. He now lives and works in New York and said he feels his years with the program taught him a great deal more than just how to deliver lines.
“Your child doesn’t necessarily have to want to do theater for the rest of their life to go to Kids Who Care,” said the 25-year-old. “I learned more about being a human being and leadership skills and how to socialize than I did about theater.
“For a little boy growing up in Texas who was good at singing and dancing but not necessarily good at football, Kids Who Care became another family for me,” said Johnson, a graduate of the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts who was involved with KWC from 2000 through 2003, and who will be returning to join in the 25th anniversary celebration Aug. 1-4.
KWC is also special to a little boy who grew up far from Texas.
“I believe that it doesn’t matter how old you are, you always need to reach that inner child in you, and let it out,” said Liran Roimi, 26, of Jerusalem, who made five trips to Texas to participate in KWC, beginning at age 15. “Kids Who Care also taught me to how to look on the world with a different perspective. And I usually follow the things I’ve been taught by them in my personal life.
“One of my goals for when I finish my studies is to get a group together to go to Kids Who Care. I want other people to enjoy that feeling that I enjoyed — and am still enjoying.”