A Florida Project Makes a Lasting Impact

Fourth-year drama student Mark Junek leads a group warm-up called “Peel Banana.”

 (Photo by Kristin Wessling)


From the moment I arrived at Juilliard, I was introduced to the various outreach projects that students took part in throughout the year. I had always volunteered in my community, but I never imagined it was possible to use the arts as a means to give back. Each summer I discovered more and more how arts-based outreach programs could be used to empower students and strengthen the arts in their community. Before I knew it I found myself halfway around the world teaching in Tanzania, Africa. Returning from the trip I was profoundly moved by my experience, yet I couldn’t help but feel that I was still forgetting something. As my plane landed on the runway of the Orlando International Airport, I realized what it was: I had forgotten my own community.   


I had lived in Kissimmee, Fla., my entire life, and like any high school senior I was counting the days before I would finally leave my little town behind and move on to the holy grail of colleges, located on the island that so many recently graduated 18-year-olds dream about: Manhattan. Kissimmee had always been the forgotten middle child of Central Florida. Sandwiched between Disney World and Orlando, it has never reaped the benefits of the economic and artistic wealth that borders it. There was little funding for the arts, no summer arts programs, and never a chance to collaborate with students from other schools. Juilliard was my escape. But after two years, I felt as if I was living in two different worlds: the world I had grown up in and the world I was thrust into at Juilliard. This summer I finally found the opportunity to bring these two worlds together in an artistic collaboration known as the Juilliard Project: Osceola Arts Intensive.  

For more than a year I worked with my mentor and former middle school drama teacher, Janine Cochran, to develop a program that would take 10 Juilliard students and place them in Kissimmee for two weeks. Kissimmee students would takes classes in acting, dance, movement, improvisation, theater games, singing, and poetry and at the same time be developing a small original piece that would be premiered on the last day in the school “cafetorium”—think, cafeteria meets auditorium. 

Before we knew it there were more than 300 students applying to take part. A week before we arrived, we learned that our anticipated drama intensive of 80 middle- and high-school students had evolved into a countywide arts intensive of 156 students ranging from fourth grade to graduated high school seniors. In addition to actors we had dancers, musicians, and an entire crew of nationally renowned student documentarians. The “small” original piece we were going to develop now had a full tech crew that would also design and build a movable set for the cafetorium. In short, the program exploded and the entire community used what little they had to ensure that this project would happen. The best part: the intensive was offered at absolutely no cost and food was provided for each of the students involved. 

The enthusiasm and eagerness of the students was mind-blowing. It was the first time that they were able to collaborate artistically with people from different schools, and for some, the first time they had access to these kinds of classes. After the first few days, I got a call from Mrs. Cochran. She told me that at 8 p.m. that night a mother who had been volunteering with us was driving home and saw one of our students sitting at a bus stop. After offering to drive him home, she found out that he had been waking up at 6 a.m. to catch two buses to get to the intensive and was then taking the three-hour bus ride back home each night. His mother had told him that he was not allowed to take part and that if he were going to, he would have to get there himself. That was the moment I realized how important this program had become to these students. It was a safe haven; a place where students were encouraged to speak their personal truths, to risk, to dare, to grow, to push beyond comfort, and to feel free to fail.  

I had noticed one of the little fourth graders right away. Anna was barely 4-feet 4-inches tall, and was sitting quietly on the floor flipping through her perfectly organized binder of material she had prepared for the intensive, while everyone else present ran around, getting to know each other. The day began with everyone, one by one, running to center stage and screaming, “This is my stage!” while everyone else cheered them on. When it was Anna’s turn, she mustered up her courage, took the stage and yelled, “This is my stage!” before scurrying away with an expression of shock and excitement at the power that had come out of her mouth. The next day, Anna’s mom hunted me down in the cafetorium and told me that for the rest of that night, any time Anna entered a room she would climb on top of the first thing she saw and exclaim to the world, “This is my room! ... This is my couch! ... This is my kitchen!” For a moment I thought she was angry because her little girl was running around screaming and climbing on top of furniture, but as her eyes filled with tears, she thanked us for what we were doing: “My husband kept asking who this girl was, and what had she been doing all day, because we have never seen her with so much confidence,” she said.  

Parents were so thrilled with the work we were doing that suddenly news stations were coming in to interview us. Twenty-five arts teachers from the county came in to audit classes. They even managed to get the superintendent of all of the schools in the county to visit: after 45 minutes he called his assistant and had her clear his schedule so he could stay for the entire afternoon.

As this whirlwind of attention and praise filled the intensive, it was thrilling to see my community excited about the arts. We even managed to pack 300 people into the cafetorium for the premiere of the students’ original piece,Sound Stages: The Art of Noise. Even more thrilling was that everyone walked away with a respect for the processand the work that students had been doing throughout the intensive, rather than the final product.

I could never have imagined that this project would evolve into something of this magnitude. Since the intensive has ended, a county-wide musical is being planned for next year, there will be monthly open-mic night for all of the students who took part in the intensive, the county is working on making the intensive a fully-funded annual event, and Mrs. Cochran and the drama moms are planning on creating a nonprofit arts center for the community. 

None of this would have been possible without the generosity and support of the Juilliard Summer Grant and all of the donors who were kind enough to believe in this project. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I believe now more than ever that we have a gift that can be used for a greater purpose. By embracing our role as artists who are citizens of the world, we can create positive and profound change.


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