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Nearly 60,000 students have danced through the halls of the Maravel Arts Center as a part of the Rosie’s Theater Kids program, and after an extended pause, the nearly 20-year organization this week welcomed back young performers to the Hell’s Kitchen stage. W42ST caught up with Rosie’s Theater Kids co-founder and artistic and executive director Lori Klinger on the return. 

“We’re dipping our foot back in the water,” Klinger said as the group returned to in-person classes and live performances. On Thursday Rosie’s Theater Kids were busy rehearsing in the space, preparing to shine at a starry gala honoring the organization’s industry mentors this Monday. 

Klinger is no stranger to the stage. Before founding the nonprofit with Hollywood star and Broadway’s cheerleader Rosie O’Donnell, the artistic director was a company member at the Eglevsky Ballet. Klinger eventually moved into the educational dance sector, serving as the longtime artistic associate at the Jacques d’Amboise National Dance Institute, the artistic consultant for Richmond Ballet’s outreach program, and a faculty member at STEPS on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, and countless public school arts programs. 

After being connected to O’Donnell, the two decided that there was a vital need for equitable, accessible arts education for all city kids. They began a pilot program at Hell’s Kitchen’s PS 51, where 40 children from the public school participated in a 15-week arts intensive that culminated in a trip to their first Broadway show — all free. Bolstered by the local interest, Klinger and O’Donnell sought to expand the program, quickly turning to the West Side as their home base. 

Rosie’s Theater Kids co-founder and artistic and executive director Lori Klinger. Photo: Phil O’Brien

“Rosie wanted to start in the schools closest to the theater district,” said Klinger. “She said, ‘These kids walk past Broadway theaters every day and they don’t get to go in — no one can afford tickets. I want to start with those kids,’” said Klinger. “While we were at PS 51, every day I would walk by this building that was for sale. And at a certain point we really started to get so many kids interested in continuing with us, so we bought the building on 45th.”

The nonprofit completely reimagined the W45th Street structure to construct the state-of-the-art Maravel Arts Center where, as Klinger put it, “We renovated the building specifically for our program needs.” In addition to building a brand-new theater school a stone’s throw from the lights of Broadway, Klinger and O’Donnell ensured that there was a direct line to the resources of the theatrical community. 

“The other thing that’s been really great about being in Hell’s Kitchen is that we wanted the Broadway community to feel included in the program — they come by, they teach master classes and it’s easy for them to be right here on 45th. They come in between shows, they come in between auditions, and the kids get that direct mentorship from the industry,” said Klinger.

Associate artistic director Lisa Dansern works with students. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Many of the program’s boldfaced Broadway mentors plan to present at this Monday’s Passing it On Gala at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. The benefit to honor President and CEO of CBS George Cheeks as well as producers Cathy and Elliot Masie will be hosted by BD Wong and features performances by Rosie’s Theater Kids and notable industry mentors. 

Many of the program’s mentees go one to become mentors themselves, said Klinger. “One of our students — Anthony Santos, who I met when he was in fifth grade — is now a dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem and is performing a piece with New York City Ballet on Friday.” Watching young artists grow through the program has been especially powerful and so exciting to see, said Klinger, who plans to attend Santos’s NYCB debut: “I will be crying the entire time,” she added. 

Students from the training program have also returned to give back. “We recently hired our first alumni, Krystal Rivera, who joined the staff last June as part of the teaching and administration team.” She hopes that the alumni involvement will continue to flourish: “It’s been a goal of mine to turn it over to the students.”  

Maintaining that connection has been challenging over the course of the pandemic, where for a significant portion of time, all classes were held virtually. Eventually, students and staff were able to return to Maravel in a limited capacity, with the help of some innovative rehearsal tactics.

“After running everything virtually, we were able to hold the summer program in person. We have a fifth-floor terrace in our building so we installed an awning and held masked vocal classes outside — we had to keep kids singing, it’s such a vital part of what we do,” said Klinger. 

She credits the program’s continued resilience to its talented student performers and tireless, passionate staff. “We have some fabulous people who started with us and are still here,” said Klinger.  “Lisa Danser has been with us from the beginning, does all of our vocal classes and is directing this show. I brought in Jeff Statile, who does all the drama classes and who’s also still with us. We have fabulous musicians, technicians, choreographers — I try to surround myself with the very, very best people, let them do what they do best, and try not to step in and micromanage because they’re so good and so dedicated,” she added.

As both the students and faculty at Rosie’s Theater Kids readjust to the exhilaration and exhaustion of live theater training, Klinger is reminded of the program’s overarching mantra, courtesy of O’Donnell: “We’re rehearsing for life”.

“I try to not ever miss an opportunity to let the kids experience something different. We try to encourage every moment of real-life interaction — less time on our phones or answering emails, more time interacting face to face,” said Klinger.  In the hallowed halls at the Maravel Arts Center, full once more of curious, inquisitive, young artists, she said: “I want them to experience something new every time they’re here.”  

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