Above, Ivan Odiver and castmates portray rioters in ‘Twilight: Los Angeles.’ (Photo by Miriam Sills)
When Kim Bruno made the move from New York City to L.A. Unified, she brought with her a long legacy in arts education.
She was the founding performing arts director of the Professional Performing Arts School and then worked 12 years at famed Fiorello LaGuardia High, which was honored for producing more YoungArts scholars than any other school in the nation and for its support of the American theater community.
“We reached a point at LaGuardia where over 99 percent of students were graduating and the school had received numerous important honors for what the students were achieving,” Bruno said. “I felt at that point that I had done what I needed to do and was ready for new challenges.”
Bruno is now in her third year as head of arts education at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, also known as Grand Arts, overseeing the development of its theater, music, dance and visual arts programs. In recent weeks, she also produced a new adaptation of “Twilight: Los Angeles,” a play about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
Originally conceived and performed by Tony-nominated Anna Deavere Smith as a one-woman Broadway show in 1994, the Grand Arts production involves 19 actors. During a recent production in the Cal Arts’ Black Box Theater, videotaped interviews conducted by students with people who were in Southern California during the riots were shown as audience members took their seats.
“The kids have been doing a great deal of research on the real people portrayed in this production,” Bruno said. “They are learning about who they are and what their experiences meant for the culture of Los Angeles. They worked hard bringing various characters to life on the stage, sometimes portraying people with different ages and ethnicities and genders rather than their own.”
“Twilight” actor Michael Aghasaryan talked about the complexity of telling the story of real people and real events through the medium of theater.
“We have carefully studied these individuals and gotten to know them really well,” said Aghasaryan, a junior at Grand Arts. “We are not limiting ourselves to just imitating them on the stage. We have a responsibility to bring their characters to life and make them accessible to the audience.
“My goal is not to convince the audience that I am a 73-year-old man, but to tell the story of his experience and get his message across,” he said.
An intimate and emotionally gripping production, “Twilight” represents key elements of Bruno’s approach to arts education: community partnerships, multiple pathways and integration among core content areas.
“We have students who are serious about careers in the arts, and we provide what they need to be prepared for that,” Bruno said. “Thanks to our many partnerships, these kids are getting valuable exposure to casting directors, critics and other industry professionals who are passionate about mentoring students.”
Among the school’s partners are the Center Theater Group, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the Colburn School. Grand Arts also has a partnership with director-actress-choreographer Debbie Allen – known for her work in TV’s “Fame” – who choreographed the video “Dream It! Do It!” – which was produced by Bruno and features L.A. Unified students.
Bruno admitted that managing the resources needed to offer a professional grade arts program is not easy. “We have to manage very carefully and stretch our budget in order to make this possible,” she said. “One strategy is to seek and work with those who are dedicated to mentoring students who really want to learn.”
Shelby Saelens, who joined the “Twilight” team to guide costume design and wardrobe management, for instance, spent a great deal of time mentoring junior Sophie Halac, who aspires to a career in costume design.
“At some point, I would really love to design costumes for a professional ballet company,” Halac said. “I am so lucky to have been learning with professional costume designers like Shelby. They’ve taught me so much about what I need to know to be prepared.”
The partnerships supplement the high-caliber instruction students receive from the many seasoned professionals on the Grand Arts faculty. Joel Daavid – who has years of experience in stagecraft, lighting, and sound – teaches courses in those areas at Grand Arts and was one of the main faculty advisers on the set of Twilight.
“Before, I didn’t really understand how all of these sets and lights and everything come about, and I was amazed,” actor Aghasaryan said. “And, now I have actually been a part of creating all of these set pieces, and I have a real appreciation for all of the hundreds of things that happen behind the scenes to make a production like this possible.”
This year, the school is piloting a dual-mission program that provides alternative pathways for students depending on their career aspirations. The Renaissance track is designed for students who have a passion for the arts but who do not plan to make a career of it. The Conservatory pathway supports students who want an entertainment career and includes courses in audition techniques and career management, and workshops on preparing resumes and head shots.
“If we want these kids to be successful, it cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach,” Bruno said. “We need to help place each student on a pathway that he or she is interested in and is comfortable with. With most academic subjects you have remedial, general education, and Advanced Placement courses. We offer that same range of course types in the arts to provide every student with what he or she needs to be successful.”
Drama teacher William Goldyn, who assisted with the direction of “Twilight,” agreed.
“All of the students in the theater department are exposed to rigorous instruction in dramatic arts,” he said. “You have students who are very serious about becoming professionals in arts careers learning side-by-side with students who are just looking for some exposure to the arts, and you see amazing things happen. Sometimes students develop new ambitions for what they want to do post-graduation, and sometimes, students just end up pursuing a non-artistic area of study but excel in those areas because of the foundations in arts education they acquire while they are here.”
Bruno explained academic rigor can dovetail with the arts, which is why it was important for students in the “Twilight” to understand the nuances of events that occurred in the 1990s. The students were also able to make connections between the historical content portrayed in the show and events they are witnessing today.
“The themes from ‘Twilight’ are more relevant now than ever,” Bruno said. “Race relations continue to be significant to these kids. There is a definite connection with what is happening in the world around them right now, and that comes through in their work.”
Grand Arts is renowned for the high caliber of artistry among its students. They recently won 250 awards – more than any other school in the Western U.S. – in the annual National Scholastic Art competition.
“These students are incredible,” said La Moin Gerrard, a visual arts teacher from Grand Arts. “The best exhibits from the Western Regional competition are honored at the national level and showcased in an exhibit at Carnegie Hall. One out of 10 student works from the entire state of California is from this school.”
Amid all the talk about arts education, professional partnerships, and national recognition, Bruno stresses that the school’s focus remains on student achievement.
“What defines each kid’s pathway is where he or she wants to go,” she said. “We don’t require students to audition to be part of this school. The No. 1 requirement is that they have a genuine passion and love for the arts. Their success at doing something they love will carry over into all levels of their education. What ultimately happens is that they show up every day excited to be at school, they excel in all of their courses, become better prepared for the world, and graduation rates go up. And, isn’t that why we’re all here?”