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Creativity, Commitment and Community Enable Broadway Training Center to Thrive Amid Pandemic

Broadway Training Center of Westchester, one of the region's premier performing arts schools, is on a roll. Late last year, the school purchased its longtime location and the building next door in Hastings-on-Hudson, securing a permanent home. Then in early January, it hosted a highly successful and entirely virtual Winter Gala and Alumni Show, exceeding its ambitious fundraising goal of $100,000.

More recently, BTC was voted "Best Dance Studio of the Decade" in Rockland and Westchester counties by BroadwayWorld. It also earned its first-ever Platinum Seal of Transparency on GuideStar, the U.S. nonprofits database, signifying its commitment to the most rigorous standards of openness for potential donors and funders, as it plans to ramp up a multi-year capital campaign.

"It's been an intense couple of months, and we couldn't be prouder of our team," said Co-Artistic Director Jason Brantman, who has been running the school alongside Co-Artistic Director Fiona Santos for almost 17 years. "The past year has been very challenging, but we are emerging from it even stronger, thanks to the creativity and commitment of our faculty, the dedication of our students, and the incredible support of our community."

The outlook wasn't always so bright for the nearly 30-year-old school. Last spring, with the pandemic worsening by the day, BTC's ability to buy the .4-acre property at 10-12 Washington Avenue and maintain enrollment in its K-12 and adult classes appeared uncertain. Covid-19 was causing many families to defer decisions on enrollment. And even though the school had raised more than $150,000 toward a down payment at its January 2020 gala, Brantman and Santos had yet to secure a mortgage.

What a difference 10 months can make. On December 2, they bought BTC's turn-of-the-century, 4,369-square-foot loft and the two-story building next door, which had housed antiquarian bookseller Riverrun Books & Manuscripts.

On January 9, BTC held its annual Winter Gala and Alumni Show, which raised over $125,000, making it the second most successful gala behind last year's. More than 125 families bought tickets, and total estimated attendance surpassed 300 (compared with around 200 in a typical year). The event featured pre-recorded performances by more than 15 alumni, testimonials from current students, a virtual silent auction, a raffle, a unique Zoom after party for select ticket holders, and live chat to provide real-time feedback, enhancing the sense of community.

Last month's gala success came on the heels of another successful virtual event: BTC's performance program, titled Ensemble, staged The Wizard of Oz in late November and early December. Shot in person by the cast and crew in the school's expansive backyard and around the neighborhood under strict Covid protocols, the show had the feel of a play on film, and was livestreamed over multiple days. It ended up being one of the highest-grossing shows in BTC's history, thanks to a large viewership (across continents). It also marked the first theatrical piece that the school had produced virtually.

"That felt like a very big win for us," said Santos. "It required a lot of creativity!"

All of these positive developments of the past few months couldn't come at a better time. BTC is in the midst of a multi-year "Forever Home" capital campaign to raise $1.5 million toward the purchase of its permanent home and related renovations. The campaign got off to a fast start at last year's gala. But since then, the campaign has taken a backseat to bolstering BTC's day-to-day operations and ensuring the safety of its students and the community.

With greater agility than most organizations, BTC was quick to adapt its offerings to the pandemic, and that has been key to its success.

Back in March, the artistic directors transitioned to Zoom classes only one week after closing BTC's doors due to Covid.

"We took about a week to experiment with Zoom, do some research on remote teaching, and create new lesson plans," Santos recalled. "Luckily, we all are improv practitioners at BTC, so pivoting and making a strong offer without a script is second nature for us."

Santos and Brantman, together with BTC's managing director, Heather LoSchiavo, successfully ran all programming - acting, singing, and dance classes - via Zoom for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year. Some of their necessary adaptations included:

· Transitioning recital and summer programming presentations online, with Zoom and self-tape filming, so that family members could get to experience and appreciate students' class work.

· Building an outdoor stage in the backyard and equipping the outdoor classroom to allow for full open-air instruction in person, starting in September 2020.

· Upgrading the school's wi-fi and ethernet for remote teaching and live streaming, and upgrading the website to accommodate more video content.

· Equipping public indoor spaces with air purifiers, supplying masks and hand sanitizer, and doing temperature check at the front door.

To make progress on diversity and inclusion goals, they partnered with SPRING Community Partners to identify local students who would benefit from BTC and subsidized their tuition, partly with the help of a grant.

Under Brantman and Santos's leadership since 2004, BTC and its students have won 88 National Youth Arts Awards, including Outstanding Ensemble for 12 years in a row. With a faculty comprised of working professionals who have performed on Broadway and other top venues, BTC is well known for its high-quality productions and high-impact youth education work. Its motto is "Developing Character On and Off Stage."

With the spring 2021 semester now underway, the artistic directors are looking forward to a gradual return to normalcy.

In addition to 25 acting, singing and dance classes currently running for K-12 students and adults, they just launched their Junior and Senior Ensemble performance programs for the spring. Dozens of students are working onstage and behind the scenes to create full musical productions safely.

As nicer weather arrives, they plan to have in-person learning available for an even larger age range of students.

"We're in the midst of summer planning, where we intend to bring in students hungry for in-person interactions after a year of mostly virtual learning at school. Our summer programming is being planned with safety top of mind. Our backyard classroom has been specially designed for dance needs, and we're having a Dance Intensive to celebrate our BroadwayWorld designation as "Best Dance Studio of the Decade," said LoSchiavo.

With collected tuition running at approximately two-thirds of a normal year, Brantman and Santos have decided to apply the funds from this year's gala toward operating expenses, including keeping on their full team of instructors and staff. Their first main project in the newly purchased building: revamping the new space into a classroom and rehearsal space, with enough open air flow to allow for safe gathering indoors.

The Spring productions will be "Cinderella" (Junior Ensemble) and "Tuck Everlasting" (Senior Ensemble). For more information, go to www.BroadwayTraining.com.

Creativity, Commitment and Community Enable Broadway Training Center to Thrive Amid Pandemic
BTC's new forever home on Washington Avenue in Hastings-on-Hudson will double its floor space, allowing the school to offer more classes, more rehearsal space, a larger waiting area and a small flex theatre.

Creativity, Commitment and Community Enable Broadway Training Center to Thrive Amid Pandemic
Alumni perform for the Winter Gala and Alumni Show in January.

Creativity, Commitment and Community Enable Broadway Training Center to Thrive Amid Pandemic
Members of the combined Ensemble perform The Wizard of Oz in BTC's backyard.

Creativity, Commitment and Community Enable Broadway Training Center to Thrive Amid Pandemic
A TEDxBroadway speaker spoke to a BTC Teen Intensive class over Zoom last summer.Creativity, Commitment and Community Enable Broadway Training Center to Thrive Amid Pandemic
Students practice on BTC's recently built backyard stage.


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