NBCU Recognizes Vanguard Theater For Flipping The Script On Race

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By: Apr. 23, 2024
NBCU Recognizes Vanguard Theater For Flipping The Script On Race
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NBCU Academy, an award-winning education initiative for aspiring journalists and media professionals, recognizes Vanguard Theater for its groundbreaking efforts in challenging traditional theater norms, by transforming the stage by promoting diversity and inclusion.

Founded in 2015 under the visionary leadership of Producing Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark, Vanguard Theater of Montclair, NJ stands apart as a beacon of both professional excellence and educational empowerment. Vanguard places equal emphasis on staging captivating mainstage professional productions and nurturing young talent. Education isn't just an ancillary program—it's woven into the very fabric of the company's mission. 

At Vanguard, the stage becomes a sanctuary for authentic self-expression, fostering an environment where artists of all backgrounds feel seen, heard, and valued. Freeman Clark, drawing from her own journey of confronting typecasting and marginalization as a young black woman in the industry, instills a philosophy that transcends conventional role boundaries. Central to her vision is the concept of 'conscious casting'—a deliberate and thoughtful approach to selecting actors that ensures representation and diversity on stage. “Conscious casting is about being mindful of the impact that casting decisions have on the story, the audience, the performers, and the broader cultural landscape.” Freeman-Clark says.

Vanguard Theater Company's commitment to breaking stereotypes and fostering representation is evident. In recent performances such as "Legally Blonde the Musical," Gabby Beredo and Nia Rodriguez, both of Asian and Afro-Latina heritage respectively, shared the role of Elle Woods. Rodriguez's reflection on the significance of representation underscores the power of inclusive casting, highlighting that characters like Elle Woods can authentically embody various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Similarly, in Vanguard’s professional productions like "Next To Normal," the company tackled taboo topics such as mental health within the Black community by casting a Black woman in the lead role. By defying gender norms in casting, such as having a woman play the traditionally male role of the Dr., the company created opportunities for nuanced exploration of character dynamics and themes. Post-show community discussions with mental health experts about the stigma of mental health in certain communities were both vibrant and informative.

Vanguard's commitment to diversity extends beyond the stage to its audiences, as seen in productions like "Spring Awakening." The company cast the show so diversely that it allowed most audience members to see a version of themselves represented on stage, which is rarely ever seen. This beautiful display of diversity sparked many post-show conversations about identity and societal pressures, encouraging meaningful post-show community exchanges.

Furthermore, Vanguard promotes works by up-and-coming playwrights of color, such as the recently staged "Spiritrials" by Dahlak Brathwaite. This powerful piece delved into issues such as addiction, religion, and the criminal justice system, sparking post-show discussions that allowed attendees to engage in meaningful exchanges about systemic racism, implicit bias, police-community relations, and strategies for fostering trust and accountability.  "Spiritrials" was brought to Vanguard Theater Company through their Illuminating New Voices - New Works Festival, made possible by a generous grant from Michael Jordan and Jordan Brand’s Black Community Commitment.

Driven by Freeman Clark's mission to address challenges faced by underrepresented theater artists, Vanguard Theater Company is dedicated to educational excellence. Through a range of programs, they instill a profound sense of value and belonging for young people within a vibrant community of creativity and growth.

Education Programs:

  • VTC Next: Trains the next generation of "behind-the-scenes" artists, including writers, directors, producers, choreographers, designers, and more.

  • The Broadway Buddy Mentorship Program: Offers one-on-one mentorship for artists aged 12 to 24, providing invaluable guidance from accomplished Broadway performers.

  • VTC Kids: Teaches young actors, ages 8–13, to believe in their creative ideas, express them bravely, and support their peers, skills essential for both the stage and life.

  • VTC Teens: Designed for ages 14–18, builds upon the foundation of VTC Kids. Through immersive workshops and rehearsals, teens delve into advanced acting techniques, character development, acting through song, and dance training. They also emphasize teamwork and communication, fostering a supportive environment for self-expression and collaboration.

  • DREAM Summerstock VTC: A comprehensive sleep-away program for serious musical theater performers aged 12–19, offering intensive arts training while addressing issues of racial inequity. Led by professional actors and directors, students receive tailored training, preparing them for success onstage and off. During the three-week program, participants explore a comprehensive curriculum covering vocal training, college prep, and more, bonding through recreational activities and creating lasting memories. Vanguard Theater Company's DREAM Summerstock nurtures emerging talent, offering a safe space for discussions about race and bias, empowering students to succeed in competitive theater programs and diverse college environments.

  • Project Harmony: Provides piano and vocal ensemble instruction for autistic children, promoting artistic expression and community engagement in a supportive environment.

Their programs prioritize accessibility, offering payment plans and financial aid on a case-by-case basis, supported by nearly $100,000 in scholarships from grant funding and generous donors annually. Vanguard Theater Company's excellence is widely recognized, evidenced by 25 Broadway World award nominations last year and Janeece Freeman Clark's Tony Nominee for Excellence in Education in 2022. Additionally, VTC implements specialized programs, such as personalized piano sessions and group vocal training tailored to neurodivergent individuals for students with autism.

In the heart of Montclair, New Jersey, Vanguard Theater Company stands as more than just a cultural institution—it's a beacon of hope and progress. By challenging traditional theater norms and championing diversity and inclusion, Vanguard sets a standard for the transformative power of the arts. Through conscious casting and bold storytelling, they redefine what it means to truly represent the rich tapestry of human experience on stage. Vanguard Theater Company's approach serves as a catalyst for social change, empowering audiences to see themselves reflected onstage and fostering understanding and connection within the community. Through inclusive practices and thought-provoking educational programming, Vanguard creates spaces where important conversations thrive, ultimately promoting empathy and greater unity.


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