Meet Broadway Actress and Entrepreneur Denise Summerford
On this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, we chat with award-winning actor, entrepreneur, educator, radio host, and long-time friend Denise Summerford. Join us for a lively conversation that explores the impact the arts can have on preparing students for a wide range of career options, the importance of improv and being comfortable with pivoting for teachers and actors, and what it takes to launch a business like Broadway Arts Collective. We talk about the importance of strong women role models for today's girls and the power of our Gen Z daughters. And we analyze the life metaphors inherent in The Monster at the End of this Book.
Denise Summerford has appeared on Broadway in such shows as Taboo, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease. She received a Drama Desk Award for her work in the a capella musical In Transit, where she created the role of Jane. She was also in the original cast of the off Broadway musical Shout. Denise is a dynamic singer, she is a master educator, and she currently works with elementary, high school and college students both in New York and across the country, offering audition and voice master classes as well as acting. You can also hear her weekday mornings as the co host on the Hudson Valley's Energy 103.1 morning radio show.
Luck meets preparation. I have been all over the map with my career. If that's one thing I could pass on to my students, don't just keep your eyes on one lane. There's so many things in the arts that you can do with your theater training.
Broadway Arts Collective was established after the Half Moon Theatre Company folded. I had the privilege of working with Denise and her husband, John, in their Half Moon days, as they provided training and support for my own children (among many) and also visited my preschool and our local elementary schools as teaching artists, encouraging kids to. make connections to the curriculum through drama and improvisation. I admire what Denise and John Summerford are able to do with their students, because they give kids the confidence they need to succeed in any field, whether they go into the arts or not. They're developing the ability to speak, to think, to collaborate, to problem solve.. And I think that the arts is so adjacent to science and STEM, they work beautifully together, which is why we call it STEAM.
The work that John and Denise did with Half Moon Theatre Company and now do with Broadway Arts Collective influenced some of the work I'm doing today. One of the professional development workshops I do for educators focuses on the art and the drama piece of STEAM as we connect multicultural picture books to science, but use the arts as a way to do it.
How do you see your role as an educator, in terms of getting kids ready for a career, whether it's the arts or not?
Denise points out that the arts teach kids so many different things, including major life skills like problem solving, teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and leadership. "And it's kind of endless," she notes. "It's like these are skills that will carry over into whatever career they want to pursue, being able to get up in front of people and speak, all of those things. And I think that it's not being taught in schools."
It's not being taught in the schools and it's not valued in the schools. And I have a really hard time with that because not all kids are science kids and not all kids are sports kids. And there's so many ways through the arts that you can learn to teach these things using the arts, using theater. You can teach science, you can teach social studies, you can teach all of these things through acting and theater and improvisation. And I think teachers that incorporate that into their classroom, kids remember things more.
Denise pointed out that aspiring teachers should have acting and improvisation skills in their back pocket. "I wonder on curriculums in college for education, like improv should be on there," she says. "How many times as a teacher do you go into the lesson plan and you're like, this is what we're doing today. And within five minutes you're like, this is not what we're doing today. Now I have to come up with something, especially teaching the younger kids."
When Denise and John ran the Half Moon Theatre Company, they often took programming into schools that were not focused on the arts. And part of their work was to seek out curriculum connections to model for the teachers how to connect the arts to science, literature, and history. "We always tried to get a heads up about what the teacher was teaching in the classroom and maybe sort of come up with something that we were going to teach them that day that related back to what they were learning in the classroom," she says.
Why are the performing arts so important? And what should schools be doing to support the arts?
The arts teach us about ourselves. They connect us to our community. They challenge our beliefs, our values. They make us think about things or see things in a different way that we might not have thought about them before. I think that the arts help us start dialogue about problems in our society also, maybe potentially start some social change. It's so important. It's so important and vital to society.
How did the Broadway Arts Collective start and where is it heading?
When Half Moon Theater Company closed in 2015-2016, the school closed with it. That summer, Denise got a nudge to start something new. "This has happened to me so many times in my career," she says. "I just get this little, like a little drop of something. An idea comes in, and I don't know where it came from. I don't know what I have no idea. But it's just like a little whisper, I like to say. And I just heard this voice say, you need to keep going with the work you were doing. It was very important to those kids."
Denise listened to that voice and she and John created Broadway Arts Collective to be a collective of Broadway teaching artists and industry teaching artists offering workshops in the Hudson Valley. "We decided that we would do one day work immersive workshops or weekend workshops, because we found that with Half Moon, sometimes signing up for like a 13 week class didn't fit into kids’ schedules," Denise says. "But they could certainly drop in for a weekend or one day or maybe a four week class, four week intensive class. So that was the model. And we started off that way."
Their very first workshop took place during Halloween, and it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show because Denise had done that show on Broadway. "And I thought, what a fun thing to do for Halloween," Denise says. "It was open to all ages, parents, kids, and they came, and I shared all of my Rocky Horror memorabilia with them. I talked about my journey to that show, and I taught them some of the original Broadway choreography and the songs. And it just caught on. Like, forget it. From there it just snowballed."
From there, Denise and John collaborated with SUNY New Paltz to do a summer theater camp program, which has filled up quickly in recent years. They also offer voiceover workshops where they write an original radio Christmas musical and perform it on the air on the station where Denise works. They offer Broadway Breakout workshops over school holiday breaks, as well as a series called Broadway BACstory. "We have a Broadway professional come up and I interview them and they give us a little bit of their backstory. Now BAC is Broadway Arts Collective. So there's that little play on words there," Denise says. "We hear a little bit about that performing artists, their backstory, and they sing a few songs for us, and I interview them and they sing a little bit, and I sing a little bit with them. And it's about an hour long, and it's kind of just like a fun little thing for the community to come do and to sort of meet these Broadway professionals."
The Monster At the End of This Book -- Metaphor for Life
[24:29] Dr Diane: So, going way, way back, were there any children's books that influenced you growing up?
[24:35] Denise: Oh my gosh, yes. And this is going to sound crazy. My favorite book growing up was called The Monster at the End of this Book.
[25:05] Dr Diane: When I was a kid, I used to act out all the voices and get hysterically dramatic.
[25:11] Denise: Yes. When my mom read that to me as a kid, she did too. She would act out all these voices like, “I'm going to put up this wall now and you're not going to be able to get this wall down.” I loved it. I would have her read it over and over and over and over again. And then when it got to the end of the book, it was like, Grover, it's just you. And then reading it for my girls because then I passed it on to them. I never realized how vocally taxing it is, like, doing all those voices.
That message, believe it or not, carries through to life because it's like we are often our own worst enemy. It's like we have to get we are the monster at the end of our story. It's like oftentimes what holds us back is ourselves. And if we just got out of our way and stop being afraid and fearful of everything, you know what I mean, we wouldn't hold ourselves back.
[26:10] Dr Diane: I love that metaphor.
[26:13] Denise: It really has, like that message is carried with me my whole life. Like, oh, you're being the monster at the end of the book.
[26:21] Dr Diane: I wonder if Sesame Street realized how influential that book was going to be for so many of us.
[26:28] Denise: I don't know, but it is. It's just my favorite book in the whole world to this day and my girls love it.
A very special thank you to Denise Summerford for joining us on the Adventures in Learning podcast. If you'd like to hear about additional books that she has used to connect drama and the arts, follow the links below to listen to the podcast or check out the books discussed in the podcast. You can contact her via the Broadway Arts Collective webpage. You can also follow her on Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
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