On a crisp summer Portland evening, Jenny Stine and her daughter Eliza Wright arrived at Antoinette Hatfield Hall in matching red dresses. They sat together in the atrium, chatting while they waited for the doors of the Newmark Theater to open.
They were there for a special pre-opening night performance of “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” hosted by Portland’5 Centers for the Arts and Pixie Dust Productions. The performance was part of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts’ Education Show Series, which makes it easier for students and educators to experience high-quality arts programming at Portland’s premier arts venues.
The program, its organizers say, eliminates barriers to participation in the arts for select schools and youth programs. Portland’5 provides free tickets and bus passes to students and teachers from Title-I schools, which enroll a high proportion of low-income students. They have also extended invitations to Job Corps enrollees, Department of Health Services foster families, and Urban League families.
Shows are generally scheduled during school days, ensuring entire classes are able to experience the performances together. “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” however, was scheduled as an evening performance for the benefit of students’ families. It was the only show this season to begin after work hours.
Nike Greene, director of Education and Community Engagement programs at Portland'5, says that the Education Show Series upholds Portland'5 mission of changing the world through the arts. She said that culturally relevant programming is important for empowering young audiences.
"We want our young audiences to see themselves represented on stage and have shared experiences, engage in a new art form and be empowered through our shows," she said.
When asked if they frequented events at Portland’5 venues, Stine responded: “when we get free tickets,” and laughed. Eliza, who loves musicals, said her favorite part was the singing and dancing. Luckily for her, there is no shortage of singing and dancing in “Billy Elliot”.
“Billy Elliot” is essentially about the power of artistic expression in the discovery and development of identity, but this particular performance took on a new meaning. The presence of so many diverse families at the Newmark on the evening of Sept. 14 brought the theme of family to the forefront of the story. Billy’s turbulent relationship with his father and brother, and the loving memory of his dead mother especially resonated with the audience.
Greene scheduled this show so that families could come because "it exposes many families to musical theater for the first time, with relevant content surrounding family expectations, identity, community, and grief."
Though “Billy Elliot: The Musical” is the only show this season to accommodate students’ families, Portland’5 Centers for the Arts hopes to create the feeling of family amongst everyone who participates in the Education Show Series.
Portland’5 strives to build up communities and spark interest in the performing arts. The Education Show Series brings together students of all ages and backgrounds - especially those who would generally not have easy access to high quality arts programming - and allows them to experience the magic of music and theater together.
Future shows in the series include “Hip Hop Nutcracker” in November and the interactive “Incredible Journey of Jazz” in February 2018.