Interview with Jordan Schwartz, founder of Children’s Bilingual Theatre

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If all the world is a stage, we nominate Jordan R. Schwartz for president. This creative, accomplished 19-year-old and Bryn Mawr sophomore is the founder and artistic producer of the Children’s Bilingual Theater in Atlanta. Not only do its productions bridge language and cultural gaps, but they also provide an outlet for self-expression for kids ranging from second grade all the way through college. Find out why Jordan and her troupe of more than 200 volunteers are truly worthy of the term “star:”

You started the Children’s Bilingual Theater when you were in just fifth grade. How did the first production come together and why was it so important to you to gather bilingual children to create art?

Jordan: I began in theatre in second grade. When my school offered Spanish in the after-school program, I had an idea to put theatre and language together. When I turned 10 in 2003, I founded The Children’s Bilingual Theater (CBT) and premiered a show in 2004. I started with raising $3,000 in donations and getting schools to host the shows, then 17 kids (second grade to college-aged) staged a bilingual play at four schools.

CBT not only brought students together, but brought community volunteers to help them make the show a reality. The project helps Spanish first language speakers to improve their English and Spanish second language speakers to improve their Spanish. All benefit from theatre, learn about public speaking and work with a diverse group while exploring Hispanic language, culture and history.

When did the theater blossom into an ongoing effort? What goes into producing one of your plays?

Jordan: At age 11, I was diagnosed with Turner’s syndrome, but as one of my theatre friends reminded me, theatre kids and adults alike bring their differences to the stage and together bring a show to life. [By that], I was encouraged to continue the theatre outreach. Along with staging the musicals, I work as a literacy advocate and lead volunteers as costumed storytellers. I have worked with over 200 volunteers, performing to over 6,000 audience members and many, many school audiences.

CBT welcomes ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) students and includes school Spanish club members and other community volunteers. With community leaders helping, CBT became a Georgia non-profit corporation with 501(c) (3) tax-exempt status and has raised over $30,000 for production costs; [we’ve also] received over $30,000 in production grants and scholarships. To produce a play, I begin by organizing, fundraising, acting as a spokesperson and producing/acting in performances, along with recruiting volunteers and soliciting sponsors.

How does the theater help children of different backgrounds understand each other better? Any inspiring stories or anecdotes?

Jordan: I encourage my community to bridge the language and cultural gap through theatre arts, and we work to exemplify and teach tolerance in our community. CBT inspires our community to support arts and humanities, along with programs that serve minorities, the underserved and projects that use the arts to be inclusive. I inspire people of all ages to stand up and participate. One of our cast members told us that she felt that the CBT experience gave her that boost that she needed to pass the CRCT, a standardized test necessary to progress to middle school. Another cast member now holds an Actors Equity card and works as an assistant stage manager at a New York theater. One of our partners has gone on to complement her own business by adapting one of my plays and presenting it as a puppet show; she dedicates those fees for those performances to animal rescue. A school that we performed at was encouraged to start a bilingual Scout troop and the stories are many and diverse. Every play, every literacy event, every volunteer, every donor, a piece of our puzzle, different but fitting together to make up the Children’s Bilingual Theater.

How do you go about getting the costumes/props and other necessary needs for your productions?

Jordan: Prior to diving in, key personnel must be selected. That’s your production staff, and you’ll need a producer to assemble it. The producer should have a position of responsibility (such as an adult—maybe a lead volunteer, mentor or board member—with some expertise or experience in theatre arts & education) and, of course, recruit community theatre locals so they can share their experience and expertise. This person or [team of] key people should review the production as a whole and set a budget.

During the first and second weeks, costumes, sets, props and community relations are set in motion so that, by the end of the second week, all is complete. Sets, props and costumes are sometimes reused from prior shows, or we find thrift shop treasures and ask for donations.

What’s a typical week or day like for you? What are your responsibilities with the theater?

Jordan: During a production, our youth coordinators read the script and do staging notes, and we confirm our facility and procure basics for set design and costumes. That way, the task groups can be divided and work can start immediately. Depending on ability and supplies, [these elements] can be as simple or elaborate as your people decide, but within the first few days, the work can start with the participants that express an interest in learning about this end of the production and design, building and painting can start. During the period not in production, I am busy writing grants and planning for our next production; I also do a seasonal newsletter. I also speak at events about our work.

It looks like you’ve gotten many grants to support your efforts. Any tips on grant writing or fundraising?

Jordan: It is all about not giving up. Be realistic about your budget and also approach local businesses that could tie in to your work. It helps that we worked to become a 501 c(3) which is a non-profit tax status that allows our donors to deduct their donations.

What advice do you have for other girls interested in making a difference through art?

Jordan: As a youth leader and social entrepreneur, I hope to educate our participants beyond the theatre arts and give them life skills. A stage performance may be the short term result but the long term rewards include interview skills and self confidence. To bring a show to life we work to bridge the language and cultural gaps and we reach for success as performers. I just say, do something you love and it¹s not necessarily the best thing you do.  I am not the best actress but I like it and coupled with being organized and motivated, The Children’s Bilingual Theater is a reality and I am here with you today.

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