ACTE II (A Commitment to Excellence)
Comedian and actress Rosie O’Donnell credits the theater with providing a lifeline after her mother died when Rosie was 10. The “velvet rope of the theater curtain” was the rope she used “to climb out of the well,” she told Playbill.
Since 2003, O’Donnell has been extending that lifeline to other young people through ACTE II (A Commitment to Excellence), an intensive musical theater program that she developed with dancer Lori Klinger. It provides 164 students from lower-income New York City public schools with free, year-round, pre-professional musical theater training.
ACTE II’s participants are kids who show a special flair for that genre in an introductory program that O’Donnell’s organization, Rosie’s Theater Kids (RTKids), offers in 5th grade classrooms around the city. Kids enter ACTE II in the 6th grade and can stay through the 12th grade, receiving rigorous instruction in voice, dance, and drama. Training takes place at Maravel Arts Center (MAC), the organization’s facility, near the Broadway theater district. MAC provides a safe and supportive “second home” for students after school and on weekends.
Lessons involve more than the technicalities of tapping and singing. Students acquire teamwork skills through musical theater’s collaborative approach and build clear speaking voices and poise from stage appearances. Preparing for a show is a constant exercise: “‘Let’s learn these steps; let’s learn this song,’ and then it’s done,” explains Klinger, RTKids’ artistic and executive director. As a result, students also learn to set and achieve goals, she adds.
Thanks to O’Donnell’s show-biz connections, ACTE II’s kids have thrilling opportunities to display what they’ve learned: For example, they’ve sung medleys with Broadway stars at RTKids’ galas. And, they’ve appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, as well as on Saturday Night Live.
However, rather than turning out performing artists, early on, Klinger and O’Donnell agreed that the program’s primary focus would be developing well-rounded, college-bound students. Consequently, in addition to its staff of teaching artists, ACTE II employs a full-time “academic director” who helps students improve their schoolwork and gain admission to specialized performing arts high schools, which have higher graduation rates than neighborhood schools.
Through these varied strategies, O’Donnell’s symbolic velvet rope seems to be doing its magic: In ACTE II’s first four graduating classes, 100 percent of those seniors have gone on to college, and several have entered prestigious performing arts programs.
As I rehearsed all of those years for the stage, I was also rehearsing for life. And, by embracing Rosie’s Theater Kids’ founding values of respect and professionalism, I was presented with the tools necessary to take control of my life’s trajectory.Daniel Estrella ACTE II graduate and musical theater student, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor