Skylight Music Theatr: Kids writes program turns student writing into professional music theatre songs

Free Virtual Performances begin May 3, 2021

Milwaukee, Wis. (April 14, 2021) — For 21 years, Skylight Music Theatre teaching artists have led writing workshops for students in grades 3-8, inspiring them to create lyrics and dialogue based on a theme in a program called KidsWrites. Selected pieces of writing are turned into music theatre songs by professional composers, and then performed by professional artists in a touring show. The pandemic inspired the current KidsWrites theme: Time Capsule, in which students wrote about their thoughts and feelings related to this challenging year. This year KidsWrites was completely virtual. The final show will stream online at Skylight’s website from May 3 through June 13, 2021. Tickets are free, but contributions are appreciated.

KidsWrites normally traveled in-person to MPS and other schools, reaching about 42 classrooms. This year the virtual workshop impacted almost 2,000 students in 58 classrooms from 14 area schools. The online format allowed participation to increase 38%.

The result was 1,650 pieces of student writing on topics such as how it feels to stay far apart from loved ones; wearing a mask and trying to eat and drink; the toilet paper shortage; a tribute to essential workers; a letter to the President; and a reflection on a Black Lives Matter protest.

Skylight’s Education Manager and teaching artists selected 44 pieces of writing, some of which were put to music by professional composers. Professional performers then rehearsed, performed and recorded the pieces for the KidsWrites 2020-21: Time Capsule show.

Historic Year Creates Inspired Student Writing

“This has been an unprecedented year,” said Education Manager Amanda Marquardt, who directed the show. “The Time Capsule theme encourages students to record and preserve their own history regarding current events, including the pandemic, racial injustice, and politics.”

Marquardt added, “Though these topics may be challenging, the writing workshops have been crafted in a way that encourages students to find the hope and beauty in the world around them. Children need their voices to be heard and the space to express and process their feelings.”

The Power of Words and Music

Kermit McClendon, a 5th grade teacher at Golda Meir School, has seen first-hand the power of putting words to music as a teaching tool. McClendon has been working with the KidsWrites program for six years.

“My students loved the KidsWrites performance and couldn’t wait to begin writing their own plays, songs, and poems about the life of a student in the year 2020. I loved watching their imagination come to life each week and seeing the increase in engagement and confidence,” he said.

KidsWrites shows students the possibilities the arts offer. During this virtual school time with things being so uncharted, I truly believe that having arts programs like KidsWrites has allowed our students to maintain some sense of normalcy, as well as an outlet,” added McClendon. “KidsWrites is such a benefit to every student showing them the joys of writing as well as inspiring students to become an author, screenwriter, songwriter, or actor.”

“That kind of success has allowed the KidsWrites program to flourish and inspire students for over two decades,” said Skylight Music Theatre Artistic Director Michael Unger. “It not only encourages storytelling, but strengthens skills such as writing, spelling, and self-expression. Most importantly, it becomes a real-life demonstration of how words and music can combine to create emotion, inspiration, and entertainment.”

KidsWrites Founder Joins Skylight Guest Performers

Ray Jivoff, former Skylight Music Theatre Artistic Director, started the KidsWrites program in 2000 as part of Skylight’s education program, Enlighten, to bring the arts into MPS elementary schools. Over the years the program expanded to include middle and high schools throughout the greater Milwaukee area. For this 21st anniversary production, Jivoff will be back as one of the featured performers in the cast of KidsWrites: Time Capsule. He will be joined by a core ensemble of local professional actors including Chris Adams, Ryan Cappleman, Ashley Rodriguez, Kate Sarner, and Kevin James Sievert.

The virtual format allowed KidsWrites director Marquardt to bring in special guest performers. In addition to Jivoff, guests include dancer-choreographer Molly Kiefer; The Heinrich Family, a family singing group led by Milwaukee Public Schools music teacher Meaghan Heinrich; and Gambian-Canadian-American opera singer Khadija Mbowe. Marquardt saw Mbowe perform online and sent her a note, explaining the KidsWrites project. She did not expect a reply, but Mbowe responded with enthusiasm, agreeing to participate.

For the title song “Time Capsule,” Marquardt reached out to Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT) Producing Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik. MOT had been involved in a virtual production that brought together ten independent opera companies from across the country. Ponasik suggested K. F. Jacques, a Chicago-based, hip-hop opera bass-baritone who was part of that project. Working with Ponasik, Jacques both composed and performed “Time Capsule,” which features words by 5th grader Jaden Bernal.

Professional Composers Lend Talents to KidsWrites Success

The combination of professional performers who bring students’ writing to life, and professional composers who put the words to music has created a powerful collaboration.

“It is always thrilling for the students whose stories are selected to see the transformation of their words on a page into a song,” said Marquardt.

Professional composers creating compositions for Time Capsule include Christie Chiles Twillie, who music directed Skylight’s productions of Five Guys Named Moe, Newsies, The Gospel at Colonus and From Skylight with Love: A Concert for Unity. Additional composers include Marc Chan, Meaghan Heinrich, K.F. Jacques, Katie Madison, Ryan Rosmann, Brett Ryback, and Kat Sherrell. Music director for Time Capsule is Ryan Cappleman. Audio and video production by Ryan Rosmann/Hi Five Studio.

Performance Information

KidsWrites 2020-21: Time Capsule will be available virtually for students, families and the public on Skylight’s website at www.skylightmusictheatre.org/timecapsule from Monday, May 3 through Sunday, June 13, 2021. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Contributions to support Skylight and its education programming are appreciated. Skylight’s education program, called Enlighten, served over 14,000 Milwaukee Public School (MPS) children annually before the pandemic.

Thanks to KidsWrites Sponsors

KidsWrites 2020-21: Time Capsule is supported in part by a grant from the Milwaukee Arts Board and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin. Other support provided by:

Helen Daniels Bader Fund: A Bader Philanthropy

Herzfeld Foundation

Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Gerda A. Debelak Fund, George H. and Virgilee F. Krueck Fund

Daniel M. Soref Charitable Trust

United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF) Bright Minds, presented by BMO Harris Bank

About Skylight Music Theatre

Skylight Music Theatre marks its 61st season in 2020-2021. Skylight’s mission since 1959: To bring the full spectrum of music theatre works to a wide and diverse audience in celebration of the musical and theatrical arts and their reflection of the human condition. Skylight brings fresh approaches or interesting twists to music theatre works, creating meaningful connections, not only between the characters on stage but with the audience as well. Skylight’s home is the beautiful 350-seat Cabot Theatre, modeled after an 18th century French opera house.

For media use: Please access the KidsWrites 2020-21: Time Machine press kit for photos, logos, etc. here. For interviews, please contact Susan Heymann at [email protected]