Photo featuring Traci Allen Shannon by Dan Norman.

A Partnership with North Academy of Arts & Communications Theatre Program

Clare Dickey, Theatre Program Director at North Academy of Arts and Communications, brought her students to a technical rehearsal of Akeelah and the Bee, where they were given backstage access and presentations from CTC Technical Director Adriane Helfin, CTC Production Manager Ellen Baker, Akeelah and the Bee Director Charles Randolph-Wright, and more. In this essay, Clare describes her history with CTC and the performing arts as well as her hopes for the new arts focus of North Academy of Arts and Communications, formerly North High.

“By late August, the first week of school was in full swing and on the first Friday of the school year, seventeen students from North stepped into the wild world of tech week at CTC.”

The Art of Belonging

An essay by Clare Dickey

In the dark shadowy seats of first balcony, high above the UnitedHealth Group Stage, I used to rest my arms on the bar that separated my seat from the air. I would peer down at Dean Holt, Reed Sigmund, Gerald Drake, and Autumn Ness, mesmerized by their chameleon-like ability to blend into new worlds, new ages, and new people; to tell stories with the kind of fervor that made me think, made me hungry for more. I began to create my own art, to tell my own stories and I haven’t stopped since. As the new Theatre Program Director at North Academy of Arts and Communications in Minneapolis, I proudly take on the responsibility of telling a new story, one that I believe is vital to the success of Minneapolis as a booming cultural hub.

Throughout the end of the 20th Century, North High was known for its strong partnership with Jazz 88 KBEM radio station, a high performing dance company, a strong athletic program and student-run theatre productions that elementary and middle school students came to see for field trips. North’s heyday lasted for some time until Minneapolis Public Schools shut down North’s feeder schools, Franklin Middle School in 2007, and Lincoln Elementary in 2008, diverting families from North. In the aftermath, North received a great deal of criticism from the public. Many Minnesotans unjustly faulted the community and the teachers for the downfall of what was once a great school. Despite the board’s intention to “phase out” North High in 2010, the local community fought to keep the school open. Today, North stands strong, newly established as North Academy of Arts and Communications. In addition to partnering with the Institute for Academic Achievement, for the first time in many years North now offers courses in the fine arts including dance, studio art, performance theatre, radio, film, and music. North’s new Fine Arts Department seeks to inspire students, to catalyze self-discovery and to promote the development of a voice that demands to be heard, whether it be in writing, on stage, in a painting or on the radio.

I grew up in “the 612,” riding my bike along the parkways, going to coffee shops, museums, art shows and plays. Not only did I feel my voice was heard, but art was everywhere and my own experiences as a young, white, American female were reflected in that art. I came to believe that art belonged to everyone and therefore everyone had access to it. While I thought this belief was justified, I did not know it was naive, and came from privilege. My parents and the schools I attended provided me with the means to experience art as a part of life, not as an extra endeavor that took time and money. As an adult, I realized art may indeed belong to everyone, but not everyone is given such ease of access. At North, a large part of my job is to ensure all students not only have access to theatre but experience the same sense of belonging that I felt as a child peering over the stage from first balcony.

In July of 2015, CTC’s former Arts Administrative Fellow Tevin Giddens and I started to plan for the implementation of a new partnership between North and CTC. I would begin by incorporating this season’s premiere of “Akeelah and the Bee” into my teaching curriculum and Tevin would begin by setting dates and preparing for visits. We hoped that by actively engaging students in the production process of “Akeelah,” students would not only gain further appreciation of the art form but would reconcile their understanding of who theatre belongs to.

By late August, the first week of school was in full swing and on the first Friday of the school year, seventeen students from North stepped into the wild world of tech week at CTC. I watched eyes open wide and necks tilt backward as students looked up at the hundreds of ropes and pulleys holding thousands of pounds in weight hanging over the stage. I listened to them listening, teenage mouths unmoving, as Adriane Heflin, CTC’s Technical Director, explained how she had to use physics, bicycle mechanics, and her experience as a ballet dancer to make the bookshelves on set turn seamlessly on stage. I saw them smile at the Beyoncé poster the props artisans had recently made for Akeelah’s room. I heard a student asking the Costume Director, Deborah Shippee, question after question about sewing and design and pattern. I felt a shared sense of joy and belonging when award-winning Broadway director, Charles Randolph-Wright, came over in the middle of rehearsal to tell my students that the most important lesson “Akeelah” teaches us is to never doubt ourselves and our right to reach our greatest potential. These moments are only a few of many that continue to fortify my confidence in rebuilding North’s theatre program and confirm my belief that partnering with CTC will be invaluable to the overall growth of both organizations.

The first week of school has come and gone now, and the Fine Arts department has accomplished much. We produced the first formal Homecoming coronation to take place at North since the late 1990s. We got the old clay kiln working. We had students give their first company dance performance. We began teaching a college-level film course and we are planning a Winter showcase for December. Despite a nearly $0 budget, outdated technology onstage and off, limited classroom materials, and large workloads, the arts program is making great progress. On Thursday October 8, all the students in my theatre classes attended “Akeelah and the Bee.” Although they will not get to chat with Charles Randolph-Wright this time, his message to us will be echoed by a quote from Marianne Williamson that Akeelah recites in the play: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” Some of my students will hear this and it will inspire them. Others will not hear it because they will have closed their eyes or let their minds wander. Regardless, all will be closer to that sense of belonging everyone deserves to experience, sitting in the dark, shadowy seats of first balcony, watching a show.