School Bus to the Arts
With a ten-year run as a world-class arts and entertainment fixture in Las Vegas, The Smith Center is not dropping the curtain any time soon. Its 2022-2023 Broadway Las Vegas® Series will be its biggest one yet, with 11 shows including the highly anticipated Hamilton, To Kill a Mockingbird and Annie, according to Myron Martin, president and chief executive officer of The Smith Center.
March commemorated the anniversary of the $470 million performing arts center, which has welcomed more than 4,500 shows and provided education and outreach initiatives for more than one million students and teachers in Southern Nevada.
Situated in the 61-acre Symphony Park development in downtown Las Vegas, The Smith Center, which houses three indoor performance spaces, began its integration into the Las Vegas community long before the Art Deco-inspired building even opened.
The nonprofit introduced arts and educational programming resources when Candy Schneider, after spending 33 years at the Clark County School District, joined the leadership team in 2006. As the Vice President of Education and Outreach, Schneider says she borrowed space to house workshops for teachers and built relationships with community partners that solidified education as a focal point of The Smith Center’s mission.
Her tenacity paid off. According to Schneider, over the past ten years, more than 7,300 teachers have been impacted in a variety of educational content areas.
The Smith Center joined the Clark County School District (CCSD) in the Partners in Education Program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in order to bring in national teaching artists to lead after school workshops and summer institutes for educators. The program, which is offered at no cost to teachers within CCSD, charter, and private schools, identifies arts integration strategies in math, language arts, science, social-emotional learning, and more.
Wendy Payer, a teacher-librarian for kindergarten through fifth grade at Helen Anderson Toland International Academy, says the professional development seminars offer tools to use art in ways that inspire kids to become more motivated to learn.
“One of the strategies they teach you is to use Tableau, and that’s when children are making, basically, a picture with their bodies,” says Payer, who has attended 14 professional development workshops since 2010.
She says she implemented the technique to help her students understand how words are used to express different meanings after they read the book If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t!
“A light bulb went on to the shade of meaning and you could see it on their faces,” she says. “Begging is different than demanding and our facial expression is going to change, and our body gesture is going to change, and they would freeze it for that Tableau, and you’d really be able to see it.”
A CCSD employee for 22 years, Payer says she discovered many of the strategies help reach kids who might have behavior problems or who are bored.
“It helps children think more critically and problem solve because it’s not just answering a simple question,” she says. “They have to figure out how they’re going to use this art form to express what they learned and that also involves, often times, a lot of collaboration with other kids. So, it teaches them to work with each other in a meaningful way and to compromise on things, which are also really important social skills.”
Schneider says it’s beneficial if teachers from each school come as a team to the workshops.
“Whether it’s two people from a grade level, a learning strategist or someone in special education, so they can share that experience together,” she says. “And then, when they go back to the classroom and implement those strategies, they have somebody to bounce those ideas off of whether they had great success or a challenge.”
According to Martin, the educational component of The Smith Center fills a gap in the community.
“There’s not an expectation that commercial venues will do education events and hold workshops and master classes,” he says.
Teachers aren’t the only ones reaping the rewards. More than 70,000 students attend live matinee performances during the school year, at no cost to the schools. The matinee performances are adapted from acclaimed literature and performed by local, regional, national and international artists. A classroom guide for teachers is offered for each show, with tips on how to prepare students for the theatre visit and discussion and curriculum topics for extended learning.
Rebecca Boyd, senior program manager for the Education & Outreach Department, helps coordinate the student matinees that are held inside the 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall. Boyd says there’s something special about being in the same room with students when they see a live performance for the first time.
“It’s especially relevant for them if they can see themselves on the stage or see a performer speaking a language that they speak at home that maybe they don’t speak in the classroom all the time with their teacher,” says Boyd, who began her career at The Smith Center in 2010 as a receptionist. She transferred to the Education & Outreach Department in 2012. “I think that those moments are the most impactful for students. Not only is the curriculum that their teacher’s teaching in the classroom coming alive in front of their eyes in a way that is engaging as well as entertaining, but it also reflects who they are as a person.”
Boyd says that over the last ten years, her department has become more mindful of making sure the matinees are not just providing entertainment for the students, but offering a solid educational experience. This includes making sure teachers receive the classroom guide that goes with the show.
As one of the center’s first employees, Boyd says some of her most memorable moments include watching the children getting off the school busses to attend a matinee.
“Especially if you see a kid who has never, ever been here before and they look up and they see the bell towers and they’re like ‘Wow what is this place?’” she says. “And then when they’re leaving, they’re like ‘Wow that was really something special.’ It’s not the same as going to a movie.”
For season ticket holder Allison Bonanno, movies don’t hold the same value as live performances.
“In five years, I maybe go to five movies, but I’ll go to 75 shows at The Smith Center, including the Las Vegas Philharmonic and the Nevada Ballet Theatre,” says Bonanno, a decade-long supporter of the center. “I really enjoy live performances because there’s no safety net. A movie never changes, but a live performance can change based on audience reactions and behaviors.”
Bonanno, who came to Las Vegas from New Hampshire in the mid-1990s, says The Smith Center is vital in children’s art education.
“Children need the arts for the development and to support a creative mind for a well-rounded future,” she says.
According to Schneider, children who attend today’s shows are the next ticket buying audience.
“We always talk about the fact that The Smith Center was built for the future, but that future is coming faster than we thought and I imagined,” Schneider says. “They (the children) will be our future leaders and elected officials, and it’s the idea that The Smith Center should be a part of their lives as they progress in this community. We are definitely investing in the future.”
The future snuck up on Schneider when a former student who had visited the center on a field trip became an employee.
“She came over and said she had come when she was in middle school on a field trip and it was a realization that I hadn’t thought about,” Schneider says. “But I don’t know where the ten years went to be adults and become employees. It’s an amazing thing.”