I spoke with Rob at length about his experience founding and building the Youth Arts Center, as we reach our 10th anniversary in 2015.
Kaye Herranen: Did you always see the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center (MYAC) as something that would grow beyond First Stage and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO)?
Rob Goodman: From the very beginning, it was set up that it would be a community building. A community use center if you will. We wanted it to be used by as many other youth-serving agencies as possible. Since we use the arts to teach, to teach life skills. We wanted other organizations that do something similar.
So African American Children’s Theater, Danceworks were a natural fit. The Children’s Choir came on I think a year later. And then Festival City Symphony, they’re one of our original partners, and they do some youth programming.
But lots of other youth organizations use the building for one day events, retreats, etc.
KH: Prior to starting work on MYAC, did First Stage and MYSO have a history of working together? Or was that the first time they worked together?
RG: No, we had like zero history. We’re actually extraordinarily different organizations. From a mission perspective, especially back then. Less now than then.
KH: Was it a challenging transition to then focusing on such a deep collaboration with another organization?
RG: No. I’ll tell you why. It’s because the collaboration works extremely well. Especially in the early planning stage, because we realized that our schedules were significantly different. So when they needed large halls, we didn’t. And when we needed all 14 spaces, they didn’t do any summer programming back then.
We needed 14 spaces to do the summer theater academy, and that’s why there are actually 14 program rooms in the building.
That allowed both companies to continue to be who they are as an organization, their mission and vision. But we can still collaborate on the space and build it, create it, and have it for community use without interfering with each other. It was pretty wonderful.
KH: What was the original dream or vision for MYAC? And then do you think that’s been realized, in the ten years that it’s been open?
RG: The original vision has been overwhelmingly over realized. That’s probably too many superlatives.
We spent three years planning, so we had a major strategic plan. I said, look, we’re planning for success. And so you got to be ready, because we’re going to grow astronomically. Nobody believed me. And that’s exactly what happened.
We set up these five year goals, in terms of enrollment, growth, all kinds of things. Every year we exceeded our goals by 10 to 40 percent. The growth was huge, it was a very exciting time, trust me. [Rob laughs]
KH: It sounds like you guys were pretty busy.
RG: Oh very very busy. We were adding staff left and right. And it was okay because the need was there. The children were all coming, families were coming, the theater was growing. It was all pretty wonderful.
So I would say it’s been over-realized.
And then things happen along the way. You start out with a vision—this is your vision, right—all of a sudden you realize wait a minute, we could do this and it still fits in the mission. So we actually ended up doing a lot more without sacrificing our core values or sacrificing our core mission.
It was highly successful.
KH: Do you have a favorite memory or story related to MYAC?
RG: One of my favorite stories was during the construction phase, there was a lady who would walk by the building almost every day. We finally asked her, “Who are you, what are you doing?” And she said “I have grandkids, I’m waiting for this place to get finished so they can go here.” And she lived a few blocks away, and as soon as it opened, we got her grandkids involved and it was just wonderful.
That’s a wonderful success, that kind of neighborhood involvement. The fact that the Golda Meir school children would come over every day, and use the classrooms here, use our studios for different activities and stuff like that. That was fabulous.
I think that in the construction phase itself, once we had a site—I mean it’s hard to raise money just on a dream. We didn’t have an actual picture, we had some drawings, but drawings of what? Once we had the site selected we were able bring people into the building.
I had my production stage manager at that time, whose name was Brad Bingheim, I said Brad “You know how you tape up the floor for rehearsal? Could you take the ground plan and tape out the floor of the entire building?” And he said, “Well, you’re crazy.” I persisted, so he got one of the rolling paint things that you use on the floor, like for street lines or something. And he actually did, spent a long time painting lines all over.
So then when we had open houses and people over. We had kids lead the groups of people around the building. They would take them over to a certain space, like Mainstage Hall. They would say, “This is Mainstage Hall and this is what’s going to happen here” and they would talk about the activity that would happen in this room. All that kind of stuff.
We had a lot of different young people who did that. One of the parents was an African American inner city mother and she stayed and she helped all day too. After we were all done with things I went over and shook her hand and said “Thank you, thank you for helping out” and she wouldn’t let go of my hand, and she started crying and she said “No, no, thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. My daughter’s involvement in this has really changed her life. Now she has new friends, she goes to birthday parties in Shorewood and Brookfield. Friends come to our house.” She said her whole life had changed.
So I thought, that’s one—now think of the hundreds and hundreds more that that could happen for. And today First Stage has 330 scholarships. Back then we had like 65.
The lack of space is what generated the idea anyway. And then when we had more planning time, the idea grew bigger. Initially it was just about First Stage and MYSO getting space. But then we realized, oh wait a minute, this can be a whole resource for the community. We can have program partners, daytime use, all kinds of things. So that’s all worked out really well.
KH: I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how MYAC is really a second home for the kids who are involved.
RG: It is, it is a home. That’s very important. It’s a home.
We had Jeremy who was a student with us for 12 years, from grade one, all the way through senior in high school. I used to drive him home after classes or rehearsals or whatever. And I used to say, “Where do you live this week?” he had 6 different addresses in high school alone. And in grade school I couldn't even count them. But he always had First Stage, he always had MYAC as his home.
One of the unique things about MYAC, and I've said this before, is we bring kids from every aspect of our community's life, all different geographic areas, socioeconomic areas, genders, classes, races and ethnicities, we bring them all together and we get them involved in a common activity that they love. So we work them very hard in rigorous, highly disciplined programs, and they just thrive on it. And the fact that we can provide adult mentors, and do that well, is really important to the success of MYAC.