Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit celebrates 25 years of excellence

Performance program expects much, gains more from area teens

You may not recall her name, but you’ll likely recognize her face. Celia Keenan-Bolger has appeared in a number of television dramas, including “The Good Wife,” “Elementary,” “Louie” and “Law & Order.” Moreover, she’s earned three Tony Award nominations (“The Glass Menagerie,” 2014, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” 2012, and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” 2005).

Celia Keenan-Bolger
Actress Celia Keenan-Bolger is a Mosaic alum.

Growing up in Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, at 6 years old, the hopeful starlet was singing and dancing in “The Wizard of Oz,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Snow White” and had no concept of the Tony Awards. In a city not known for its public transportation, her parents traveled far outside of their community to the suburbs to fulfill her love of performing.

Eventually, that wasn’t enough. “I felt like theater could be more than entertainment,” she says. “As you get older, if you’re invested in the art form, you want to do more than be silly and sing and dance."

Things changed when Rick Sperling came to town.

After spending some years in New York and San Francisco, Sperling returned in the early ‘90s to run the education and outreach ensemble at the (now-shuttered) Attic Theatre in Detroit. At 26, he wasn’t looking to develop a social issues-based theater or take youth theater and development to another level, but that’s what he did.

Rick Sperling
Rick Sperling, founder, president and artistic director of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit.

“Once I got into the schools, I was blown away by the talent and the need,” he says. “Unfortunately, this has not been improved. Less than one-third of schools have music programs and less than 95 percent have drama programs.”

Participating in Attic’s school-based residency program was “thrilling,” Sperling says. Except the enormous outpouring of emotion and tears at the end of each three- to five-week program left him drained; so, after a couple of years, he asked if they could put on a youth performance on days there wasn’t a show on Attic’s schedule.

What he didn’t anticipate, however, was the number of students who would show up to the audition. More than 300 young people from Detroit and the surrounding suburbs seemed to “come out of the woodwork” as they wrapped themselves around the block waiting for their turn to show their stuff.

“That’s when we realized that we had something really, that there was an even greater need than we realized, not just for the kids in those schools but for the entire community,” he says. “The show was so successful for this one week, the Attic invited us to come back as the first show for their regular season, which was unheard of.”

So, Mosaic held more auditions. Enter Celia Keenan-Bolger. In eighth grade, she heard a Detroit theater program was staging the musical “Runaways” by Elizabeth Swados.

“I wound up auditioning for Rick Sperling,” she says. “The cast was super diverse. The play was about super heavy stuff, about dealing with runaways dealing with their parents, grappling with drugs and prostitution. I remember thinking, this is more of what I want to do.”

Sperling didn’t want those performances to be the last; so, starting with a $5,000 loan from his parents, they raised money to do something more permanent. He also raised his standards.

Heather Ikemire, National Guild for Community Arts Education
Heather Ikemire, chief program officer at the National Guild for Community Arts Education in New York.

“Rick has told the story where when he was starting his program, he was doing everything to get these kids to show up and things weren’t working,” says Heather Ikemire, chief program officer for the National Guild for Community Arts Education. “Finally, he decided to set the expectations really high, and kids just showed up.”

“I decided I would do the kind of professional theater company I wanted,” Sperling says. “I said, ‘If I start the year with 70 kids and end with seven kids, we’ll do the show with seven kids,” he says. “But we didn’t lose anyone. Young people will rise to the bar you set for them.”

Knowing that, Sperling decided to set the bar as high as he could.

“Basically, what we’ve done is said we’re going to treat you like professionals. We’re going to have professional expectations They are more inspired and more enthusiastic to accomplish things that are hard and challenging than when the bar is lowered. They reach a level of excellence they can feel in their bones. Once they felt that, we find they apply that in every other area of their lives because of how gratifying it feels. They become leaders at their colleges… because they want to set that bar high for everybody.”

Mosaic also has a pre-professional Next Stage company where advanced young artists receive a stipend for their performances. Each level includes training in acting and singing as well as life skills and professionalism.

Mosaic is an enormous time commitment. Now in its 25th year, more than 10,000 young people have participated in Mosaic programs. More than 500 youth from more than 50 different schools participate annually. Mosaic is a multi-tiered program with First Stage beginning level programs, an intermediate Second Stage company and an advanced, Main Stage ensemble that performs for the public. Mainstage, he says, requires a minimum of 10 hours a week for production, rehearsal, tours, etc. Youth also have to rehearse and practice at home.

As a result, Mosaic has performed at the White House, Apollo Theater, and at Kennedy Center, with Foreigner and Josh Groban, opened for the Temptations, Harry Belafonte, and Aretha Franklin, formed partnerships with Stratford Shakespeare Festival and won two gold and two silver medals at the 2014 World Choir Games in Latvia.

Mosaic group

Mosaic performers are exceeding the public’s stereotypical expectations of not only inner-city and African-American youth but of teenagers in general.

“When they really blow away an audience, it has a transformative experience not only for the young people but also for that audience because they are learning about the assets the young people have that society has not always recognized,” Sperling explains.

Participation in Mosaic is not guaranteed. Not only is it a talent-based program, youth also must turn in their report cards and either maintain or improve academic standing. Participants then receive artistic training and development, gain peer role models, embark on performance tours to colleges to learn more about the importance of academic achievement, and so forth. The results are quantifiable.

According to a three-year study from the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work and Psychology Department while most of the nonprofit’s youth participants are “disproportionately minority and from low-income families,” 100 percent of them have graduated high school and entered college for the past eight years, up from 95 percent in the preceding years. That’s nearly double the national statistics for African American students and 22 percent higher than Michigan’s public school students.

In addition, the U-M study revealed 81 percent of Mosaic alumni said they “experienced more personal growth and transformation than in any other activity they participated in as a teenager” and that Mosaic significantly impacted their ability to:

  • Conduct themselves in a professional manner
  • Effectively organize/manage their time
  • Be creative
  • Manage stress in healthy ways
  • Speak/perform in public
  • Give and receive productive feedback
  • Cooperate with others in a group setting
  • Effectively lead a group

Likewise, Keenan-Bolger says her Mosaic experience was more than about feeding her need for stage time. “It had a really profound effect. What they are doing is so different from other children’s theaters around the country. They are instilling confidence and resources to pursue whatever the students want to pursue at a time of self-doubt — when you don’t feel like you belong and being part of a community. I had that experience at Mosaic.”

Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit 25th Anniversary Celebrations

Allee Willis, Lamont Dozier and Lily Tomlin present “The Detroit Party”

Celebrity host committee (partial list): Mary Wilson, Valerie Simpson, Don Was, Jeffrey Seller, Sandra Bernhard, Telma Hopkins, Paul Riser
When: 7 p.m. April 1, 2017
Where: Willis Wonderland, built as the MGM Party House in 1937, in Los Angeles
Attire: Wild, creative, be your funky Detroit self
Tickets: Mosaic alumni, $50; general admission, $100; VIP, $250, which includes limited-edition Allee Willis-designed poster, autographed by Allee, Lily Tomlin, Lamont Dozier and other members of the celebrity host committee.

Mosaic 25th Anniversary Performance

Hosts: Oscar Eustis and Jeffery Seller
When: June 25, 2017
Where: Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York
Tickets: Invite only; however, the event will be live streamed. Check for details.

25th Anniversary Alumni reunion

When: July 2017

25th Anniversary Gala

When: October 2017

Mosaic not only has seen alumni enter the entertainment industry (an “American Idol” finalist, an Emmy nominee, a member of Broadway’s “Color Purple” cast…), but, Sperling says, many have become teachers, social workers, lawyers and nonprofit leaders. These alumni shared what they learned in Mosaic that helped them have success in their careers.

“While Mosaic is definitely for those with a passion for the arts, it gives many of them those 21st Century skills you need for any profession,” he says. Those skills include creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

“This was employers, educators and corporations coming up with what they thought the those 21st Century skills are. That’s why we think our alumni are having great success.”

According to the Mosaic Model and the standards set by Creative Youth Development, setting high expectations, empowering kids and creating a safe, supportive environment provide the skills, self-image and societal development youth need to make positive life choices.

Sperling insists Mosaic also has been successful because of the Ford Motor Company Fund. “I know you don’t want to toot your own horn, but the Ford Fund is our largest corporate sponsor, our most consistent sponsor and continued with us through the recession. They have allowed us to use the funds in the way we think can best serve the young people,” he says. “Youth development doesn’t happen in a year but over a series of years. To have that level of consistent sponsorship from the Ford Fund, which we haven’t had from any other corporation, it’s a big part of the 25th anniversary.”

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