Nathalie Garcia never acted in a play before. She never sang in front of an audience or read lines from a script.
Now, illuminated in the spotlight of her elementary school’s stage, she is a star.
On Monday, March 19, the P.S./I.S. 113Q sixth-grader got her first shot at stardom, an opportunity gifted from an after-school arts program.
More than 30 fifth and sixth-grade students performed in “The Fabulous ‘50s Sock Hop,” a musical extravaganza featuring songs from “Grease,” “All Shook Up” and “Smokey Joes Café,” as part of Inside Broadway’s Cultural After-School Adventures (C.A.S.A.), a program sponsored by the New York City council that partners professional theatre troops with local schools to provide art education otherwise unavailable to students.
Now in its sixth year, C.A.S.A. boasts 19 after-school programs throughout Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. This marks its third year returning to 113Q, in part thanks to unyielding support from its principal, Anthony Pranzo.
“The Fabulous ‘50s Sock Hop” tells the story of a group of children, forbidden from dancing by “the powers that be” who think it inhibits the boys and girls from getting along, due to the competition it creates between the two genders. The kids work in tandem to assist the less-talented dancers, creating unity among them. When the adults spot the students’ camaraderie, they win back their previously-cancelled sock hop.
Every Monday and Wednesday since January, the budding Broadway stars gathered for 90 minutes to learn songs, choreography and dialogue from their “teaching artist,” Dennis Zepeda.
Although it is Zepeda’s first time working with C.A.S.A., he has a long history in musical theatre, including close ties with several community theatre groups and productions.
Zepeda hopes programs such as this can withstand the cuts many schools have been forced to make in recent years. Often, the arts programs are the first to go.
“I truly wish there were more types of this program available to public school students who may otherwise not get to experience the many joys and benefits theatre can bring them,” said Zepeda. “What C.A.S.A. brings to the community is the opportunity for kids to be involved in a project that teaches them responsibility, teamwork, and respect, all in the name of fun with the purpose of providing entertainment.”
What he feels is the best attribute of the program – it’s completely free.
During an afternoon rehearsal session, the students lined up in several rows across the stage – boys on the left and girls on the right.
Nathalie steps out of the crowd and delivers her line – a quip about the girls’ superior dancing abilities. With all the necessary attitude, she flips her hair, shoots the boys a look and steps back into line.
“The Hand Jive” begins to play, and the performers start to sing. Several of the actors have solos during this number, singing a line while dancing across the stage.
“The program shies away from having stars,” said Inside Broadway coordinator Katie McCallister. “It causes hard feelings.”
Because the program only has room for a small number of students, the school selects participants through a lottery system. Anyone hoping to participate in the show can submit his or her name for a chance to be picked.
Of any other after-school club offered at 113Q, the C.A.S.A. program is the most popular.
“Once I got the note, I thought I was good for it and I signed up,” said fifth-grader Matthew Ingrao, who has been playing piano since age four and cites his musical influences as Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson.
His favorite part of the C.A.S.A program is working with his peers.
“You actually get to interact with other students and discover their musical talent and share it with them,” said Matthew.
Zepeda feels the most worthwhile element of the program lies in establishing an adoration for the arts in the kids he teaches — an introduction to something he himself holds close to his heart.
“The reward that comes with knowing I could very well be responsible for the kids getting the ‘theatre bug’ is a welcomed one.”