A little Broadway trivia: What “role” have Broadway superstars Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth, Audra McDonald, Sutton Foster and Kelli O’Hara all played? Answer: they’ve all played the “role” of guest actors through ArtSpeak!, a program created, produced, and underwritten by Shugoll Research to bring Broadway stars into public schools.
ArtSpeak! will be starting its 18th year in Washington, D.C. area schools this September when Patti LuPone appears at Blake High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Ms LuPone will be interviewed about her career on stage in Blake’s high school auditorium, answer student questions, sign autographs and, best of all, sing three songs. Can you imagine if multi-Tony Award winner Patti LuPone performed in your high school?
ArtSpeak! is held four times a year in different high schools in Montgomery County, Maryland. A total of 110 artists have appeared in schools through the program. ArtSpeak! is donated to the community by Shugoll Research and is free to the public. It is held in the evening so that students (and parents) from across the whole DC metro area can attend. Any school can request ArtSpeak! for its school, but Shugoll Research seeks out schools that are diverse racially, ethnically, and socio-economically. The goal of ArtSpeak! is to excite students about theater and the arts.
How did this award winning program come to be created by Shugoll Research, a $10 million marketing research company in Bethesda, Maryland? In the early 1990′s, Shugoll Research was conducting focus groups for a major performing arts center with businesses that do not support the arts. When the moderator asked why these companies, large and small, support causes other than the arts, they tended to say that the arts are not as important as social welfare issues. Of course, it is hard to equate donating to cancer research or food for the homeless with supporting the arts. But it was clear that these companies did not have an appreciation for the value of the arts in their community. If this value was better explained to them, the research suggested the arts could become one of the several important causes these companies support.
Shugoll Research was struck by the undervaluation of the arts among some in the corporate community. As a result, we at Shugoll asked – what could we do as a small company to be a leader in arts support? We immediately adopted the arts as our lead philanthropic cause. At the time, Shugoll Research was much smaller than today and with limited resources. But we realized we could start fulfilling this commitment by donating pro bono research to arts organizations. After all, didn’t arts organizations have the same needs as fortune 500 companies to grow its customer base, assess customer satisfaction, and understand its brand image?
The research conducted for these arts organizations kept leading to the same conclusion: arts audiences were aging and students had little interest in the arts, perhaps because the arts were disappearing from their schools. As Shugoll Research grew, we asked: how can we share our passion for the arts with students and fill some of the gaps in public school arts programs? So we built our arts philanthropic portfolio by underwriting arts tickets for students, creating scholarships for students with limited means to take private lessons, and starting what we consider our “flagship” program, ArtSpeak!
Some ArtSpeak! highlights: theater composer Stephen Schwartz arriving with the words and music to a new song he just wrote on the back of an envelope while on the plane to DC and singing it for the first time to the 300 students at ArtSpeak! (that song became “The Wizard and I” from a little show calledWicked); the late composer Marvin Hamlisch teaching students how to write a song by composing one right in front of them using a suggestion from a student for the title (“Stairs to Cloud Nine” featuring the line “I hope to see you all again, when we climb the stairs to Cloud Ten”); actor Brian Stokes Mitchell announcing he was to star on Broadway in a revival of Man of La Mancha, then saying he will be singing to the students for the first time in public the show’s big song “The Impossible Dream”); Kristin Chenoweth getting a rare, mid-show standing ovation after singing “Taylor the Latte Boy” and then starting to cry and saying, “Can you guys come to all my concerts?”); husband and wife actors Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell performing when the power went out in the school, asking the audience if they wanted them to continue, and singing songs for another 30 minutes by a combination of emergency light and the spotlight of a single video camera). Of course, an ongoing highlight is when actors share their most embarrassing moments on stage, a hilarious list of costume malfunctions, scenery malfunctions, stumbles, and missed cues.
All of this makes ArtSpeak! not just educational, but by design, great fun. Shugoll Research feels each event must be engaging and memorable. But the educational issues are abundant: the importance of staying in school to maximize your skills (whatever your area of interest), the importance of following through on your dreams but realizing that you made need a “plan B” if you want to enter a field as competitive as the arts, the need to be well rounded in your education so you have diverse knowledge, the importance of preparation before any important event be it an audition, a class presentation or an exam and the fact that attending arts events can introduce you to people that are different than you and situations you might not encounter in your own life.
I think it’s clear how ArtSpeak! benefits the community and, particularly, students. But programs like this benefit the company as well. It helps engage staff, many of whom donate time to the program. It creates a sense of pride in the company, and an internal recognition that the arts are important. And it has created a positive image about Shugoll Research, which sometimes is the difference in winning a new contract. But for Shugoll Research, it starts with a passion to share something we love with a new generation.