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‘Fame’ schools struggling to survive recession

Schools for the performing arts are relying on fundraising and  celebrity alumni to drum up financial backing in time of recession.
Lifestyles Fame Schools
Nik Spayne from Elgin, Ill., practices modern dance at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in Chicago. Spayne, 17, is one of nearly 1.5 million aspiring student actors, dancers and vocalists nationally who seek spotlight of fame.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nik Spayne wakes just before 6 a.m. on school days at his suburban Elgin home, in time to take an hour-long train ride and a bus to the Chicago Academy for the Arts.

It's regular classroom work in the morning for the 17-year-old senior before three hours of dance and vocal training. By the time he's finished with another few hours of rehearsal and has commuted home, it's 8 p.m. — more than 14 hours since he woke up.

"Then I still need to do my homework and learn my lines and not have a social life and go to bed and do it all again," Spayne said, sitting in a science lab after finishing his modern dance class. "But it's worth it."

Spayne, an aspiring musical theater performer, is one of nearly 1.5 million students around the country who attend one of about 1,670 performing arts high schools, colleges or other instructional programs, according to the nonprofit group Arts School Network. After seeing the 1980 movie "Fame," which follows New York City performing arts students, Spayne thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to go to a school like that?"

Nearly 30 years later, an updated remake of "Fame" is to debut Friday. The movie's trailer has one student asking: "Somebody's gotta make it out there. Why can't it be me?"

Schools feel strain
The competitive drive and quest for success is still present at performing arts schools, which are private, public and charter, but officials say the recession has left them with less money and more to do. They educate students in the classical arts, but also have modern offerings, such as hip-hop dance and pop vocals. In addition, the schools have started teaching business courses to help budding artists learn to make a living.

Enrollment has fallen at some private performing arts schools and endowments have lost value, said Roger Shoemaker, associate head for the arts at the boarding school Walnut Hill in Natick, Mass.

He said families under financial pressure can no longer afford the tuition, which at private schools can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. Some students can receive scholarships or other financial assistance.

The school's endowments have lost 25 percent, said Shoemaker. Other schools say they've had to cut arts teachers and budgets.

"Across the board it makes it much more difficult," he said. "The environment for fundraising is pretty difficult. We made our fundraising goal last year, but not everybody can say that."

‘In love with classic arts’
School officials said they've had to become more creative in how they raise money, with some institutions putting on benefit shows featuring famous alumni or current students.

The schools also have responded with new courses that include digital filmmaking, music engineering and electric and acoustic guitar. The classes help find common ground with students who may not be as interested in the classical arts, like ballet or opera, said Ralph Opacic, executive director of Orange County High School for the Arts in Santa Ana, Calif.

"We're trying to use those more current art forms to get them to explore and expand and then hopefully fall in love with classical arts," Opacic said.

Flash and glory
Schools have begun exposing students to the business side of arts and entertainment as well, offering courses that equip them with the skills needed to become entrepreneurs.

"It's important for them to realize today you've got to be incredibly versatile," said Isidore Rudnick, artistic director at The School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, home of the recent MTV reality show "Taking the Stage."

"You've got to have a savvy business sense. It's not good enough to be a good actor or a good musician," Rudnick said.

Coursework aside, there's a stronger reason students are attracted to a performing arts school.

"They're all looking for a place where they can be really passionate as well as becoming a well-rounded person," said Lauren Williams, a 17-year-old senior and oboe major at Chicago Academy for the Arts. "The classes are so incredibly structured and formulated. They're so engaging and so interesting because they connect to your art."

The school's alumni include actress Lara Flynn Boyle, dancer Tom Gold of the New York City Ballet and film composer Alex Wurman.

While "Fame" may be the movie version of what happens in the halls and rehearsal rooms, it does show the true spirit of a performing arts high school, said Rory Pullens, head of school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington.

‘Sweat and the work ethic’
"'Fame' captures that beautifully and we see that manifest in the students every single day," Pullens said. "They look at the celebrity and the flash and the glory and all of that."

But he said when they enter the halls with "the sweat and the work ethic they need to possess, they come out appreciating the work they've put into this and the skill they develop."

For Spayne, the 25 hours a week of rehearsals will go on. He's applying to colleges to study musical theater and says even if he has to wait tables it will all be worth it if he can have the chance to perform.

"It's almost sacred, in a way, that feeling that you get when you're on stage," Spayne said. "Once you've gotten it, then you keep striving for that feeling again and so you just immerse yourself in the arts."