Educational Theatre Association, a national non-profit organization headquartered here in Cincinnati, supports theater in schools in 46 states across the country since 1929. Through a collaboration with Music Theatre International and iTheatrics of New York City, EdTA has created JumpStart Theatre, a three-year pilot program to start and support theater programs in middle schools that have none.

“It was a dream of mine that felt pretty daunting: how can we not just advocate and influence, but literally start up the program?” said Julie Cohen Theobald.

Music Theatre International, an organization that does licensing for musicals seen on stages across the country, and iTheatrics, a company specializing in creating “junior” versions of major musicals, had recently implemented a program similar to Cohen Theobald's dream. After some in-depth discussions, Cohen Theobald knew how to make her dream a reality.

Because EdTA's home base is Cincinnati, which has a long history of supporting the arts, Cohen Theobald knew it would be the perfect place to try out a pilot program. 

“Let’s try this in our own backyard, and be hands on and get good at it," Cohen Theobald said. "And then we can take that to other cities throughout our network and scale that up.”

Middle schools were selected as the pilot age range because, Cohen Theobald said, they are that “great infection point where kids are still open-minded, and they come in big numbers and they haven’t specialized yet, and everybody gets involved.”

“Theater can be one of these things that brings them positivity and joy and connects them with other kids and making friend," Cohen Theobald added, "and that is so important in middle school when it’s such a tough time.”

Schools needed to be in on the dream, too. Many schools were interested when Cohen Theobald visited, pitching the program and the idea, but the schools chosen for the inaugural season were ones that fulfilled the two criteria laid forth by EdTA: no existing theater program, and, commitment.

“We wanted to put people in the program that would be successful," Cohen Theobald said. "It’s not about putting on a musical once; it’s about creating a sustainable program.”

JumpStart includes professional development for the teachers, many of whom had never had experience with leading a musical. Teachers went through three full days training, storytelling workshops and more, said Cohen Theobald.

"Our leaders were professionals from New York City, so we literally hung onto their every word," said Sara Covert, a sixth grade collaborative teacher at Holmes Middle School and member of the inaugural JumpStart Theatre team. "The activities were fun and we were able to share many of them with our students.”

Overall, 22 students participated at Holmes Middle School. Students involved took part in every aspect of getting the production off the ground – from kids on stage to kids behind the scenes, acting as crew members, working on stage lighting, sets, marketing, box office and makeup.

“Our biggest challenge was encouraging our students to fully commit to the performance over a five-month period. ... There is no glory or physical recognition each week. Students had to be patient and focus on the goals we set for April and May,” said Covert.

After the students finally performed ‘Annie, Jr.’ for an audience, there was a collective, “Oprah 'Ah hah!' moment!”

“Everything that we had gone through and all of the challenges and set backs were worth it. They were so proud of themselves and we were even more proud of them," Covert said. "They earned the applause, the laughter, and the joy from the crowd. They earned the recognition. They really, really produced something special!”

The inaugural JumpStart schools included Finneytown Middle School, Gamble Montessori High School and Holmes Middle School. Three schools have been announced for the next school year: Felicity Frnaklin Middle School, Aiken New Tech High School and Gilbert A. Dater High School.

The JumpStart Theatre Showcase took place May 18 at Xavier University and featured performance excerpts from each school.