Grant immerses Denver third-graders in the many worlds of 'Cinderella'

The DCPA Education staff created a unique educational opportunity over five weeks for third-graders at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in Denver, and DCPA NewsCenter Video Producer David Lenk was there to chronicle the entire experience in this short video above, narrated by DCPA Teaching Artist David Saphier.

By Elizabeth Jewitt
For the DCPA NewsCenter

Within the organized chaos of little flailing hands and feet, David Saphier, a teaching artist from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, raised his hands and clapped twice demanding the attention of the Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy’s third-grade classroom.

The excited students had a task. They were to create a tableau, or what Saphier called a “frozen picture,” drawing from either the Russian, French, German, Laos or Native American versions of Cinderella they had been studying for the past month. The kids used their own props and imagination to act out everything from the trees to Cinderella herself.

In the classroom across the hall, Jessica Austgen, another teaching artist from the DCPA, had the kids creating scenes from the iconic royal ball scene from the French version of Cinderella.

“The details make the story come to life,” Austgen told the enthused children.

Her students were using their bodies to create an object or character from the source story.  This was one of the many activities they participated in with help from the DCPA teaching artists, along with related reading and writing exercises.

“I’m a sparkly chandelier,” one child proclaimed. “I’m a mean stepsister,” said another. “I’m a table with a big chocolate cake,” said a third, rushing to join the scene.

The photos above follow the Cinderella project from Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, to the performance of the national touring production at the Buell Theatre, to the classroom visit and ‘tableau’ exercises back at the school with cast members. Photos by John Moore and Elizabeth Jewitt.

A grant from the Broadway League

This was not a typical school day for these kids. This unique educational experience was made possible by the efforts of the DCPA Education staff, utilizing a $5,000 grant from The Broadway League in New York.

The DCPA was one of 10 performing arts organizations around the country to receive 2015 National Education and Community  Engagement Grant “to provide arts-based learning experiences for future Broadway professionals and audiences,” said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League. “These programs successfully contribute to help students become historians, critical thinkers, ambassadors and lovers of the Broadway mission and legacy.”

It is believed this is the first time the DCPA has been awarded one of these Broadway League grants, which have been made annually for 19 years.

The DCPA Education team began working directly with third-grade teachers at Kunsmiller, located at 2250 S. Quitman Way in Denver, starting the first week of January. Together, they developed a five-session workshop series to support reading, writing, communicating, research and reasoning through the exploration of the story of Cinderella in various countries. In groups, the students then adapted and performed different versions of the story in a contemporary context. The program culminated with the opportunity to see the national touring production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella at the Buell Theatre and, later, a visit with the cast back in their school’s auditorium.

For some, the visit to the Buell was their first time setting foot in a professional theatre. After much corralling, they made their way up the stairs to be seated. The awe on every student’s face was evident, boy and girl alike.

After the show, the students were able to make connections between what they had been learning in the classroom, and the professional performance they had just seen.

Cinderella quote Andy Jones

Kunsmiller is one of the few public arts schools in the nation serving students in grades K-12. About 75 percent of the students come from neighborhoods in southwest Denver. Students must apply for admittance, and the curriculum is based on the belief that  active learning, experiential investigation and integrated arts are vital for the development of higher level thinking and the development of lifelong learners.

Cinderella quote Estella

Assistant Vice Principal Greg Issac tagged along for the performance and was impressed with the show.

“You can see the spark of hope coming from the kids,” he said. “These are third-graders, remember, but you also see our high-schoolers seeing a pathway (not only) to performance, but also to participation in the arts, front stage and backstage.

A student named Mitzi wished more students could have the same opportunity. “It would be amazing because they would get to experience the things we had: learning about the different Cinderella stories that were amazing, scary and entertaining.”

A visit from the stars

The morning after the students saw the matinee performance at the Buell Theatre, four members of the Cinderella cast arrived at the Kunsmiller auditorium to find the children warming up with the DCPA’s Saphier on the stage. The students gradually began to realize who their visitors were, and their attention was quickly diverted. There were whispers, gasps and nervous giggles. Some started jumping up and down, while others simply stood beaming. They treated the professional actors like celebrities.

The actors were divided among smaller groups of students. After a bombardment of questions about the show (“Was the kiss real?”), the actors integrated themselves into each of the group’s tableau exercises.

Cinderella quote MitziAndy Jones, who played Prince Topher in the musical, towered above the kids at more than 6 feet tall. But his childlike spirit made him fit right in.

“I was having so much fun,” Jones said. “I think a lot of people remarked on how tall I was – so that was a nice reminder. There’s something so exciting about this age range. This is how old I was when I did my first show.”

While most of the kids will not end up doing theatre themselves, Jones said, “all of them had fun today.” The larger point of the program is to foster a new generation of arts lovers.

The actors were then thrown into the ringer. Each had to work themselves into the scenes with five minutes of preparation that these third-graders had worked on for more than a month.

 “I had one little girl in my group who was in charge. When she spoke, everyone listened. She told me where to go and what to do,” said Audrey Cardwell, who performed the role of Cinderella in the performance the Kunsmiller students had seen the day before.

After demonstrating all of their tableaus, the students had the opportunity to have a Q&A with the cast. Many of the questions were technical in nature: “How did Cinderella change dresses so quickly?” “How did the trees move during the show?”

Cinderella quote ZaraOne little girl sitting quietly in the back raised her hand and asked if any of the cast members are shy.

“All of their comments were so adorable, especially hearing them talk about their favorite part of the show, and seeing them remember some of the sillier moments,” said actor Danielle Jordan, a member of the Cinderella ensemble.

Many fine-arts programs have been the target of budget cuts in schools across the country. Kunsmiller is one of the few schools that has arts education built into the curriculum. Still, it took a grant from the Broadway League for the Cinderella project to happen.

“I think a lot of times we look at education in a standardized-testing manner,” said Jones. “When you get to the end of that 16-year cycle, you’re really good at taking tests, but you can’t solve any problems in the real world. I think a lot of times we look at education more in terms of testing than in terms of, ‘What’s the most effective way for people to learn?’ ”  

Many of the professional actors said they were exposed to the arts growing up, but none had experienced anything as immersive as the Cinderella project in their schools.

“This is such a vital part of development when it comes to working with people, and creativity, and artistry,” Cardwell said. “Even if you’re not going to be a performer, this is such important information for life.” 

The Cinderella project also served as an important opportunity to show what the DCPA Education Department can do. 

“As the hub of performing arts in the Denver area, our job is to take the arts on a national level and make it accessible to kids in the community,” said Austgen. “This program was a unique opportunity to bring arts directly to these children and open their eyes to the American musical theatre.”

Additional local news coverage of this story:
TV: Kids Learn About Cinderella From the Ground Up
TV: Third-graders get up close and personal with cast of Cinderella

Kunsmiller students attending 'Cinderella' at the Buell Theatre.
Kunsmiller students attending a perfromance of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s ‘Cinderella’ at the Buell Theatre.Photo by John Moore.