Think about this number: 12,661. That’s how many children and teenagers in seven area counties had the opportunity to see live arts performances during this past school year thanks to the efforts of the Southeast Arkansas Concert Association’s SMARTS (Schools Majoring in the Arts) program.
For a significant number of those 12,000-plus students, the presentations may have been their first or only opportunity to see live musicians, dancers and actors. SMARTS reached kids in every school district as well as a number of preschool and homeschool students in Ashley, Bradley, Chicot, Cleveland, Desha, Drew and Lincoln counties. The youngest students had a chance to see performances of Rumpelstiltskin featuring puppets and wooden marionettes, while second-graders got to travel to the Arkansas Arts Center to see Peter Pan and the Arkansas Festival Ballet. All area third-graders, plus some other groups, had the opportunity to see the Seark Concert-staged community musical The Wizard of Oz. That show also featured a number of area children as performers. Fourth, fifth and sixth-graders were visited by the UAM Jazz Band Combo I and junior and senior high school students got shows from the full UAM Jazz Band. “One of the things that we really wanted to focus on was providing opportunities for children to see art – music being played, dancers dancing and actors bringing stories and songs to life,” said outgoing Seark Concert Association President Susan Akin. “Through the generosity of our many sponsors and volunteers, and the cooperation of our local school districts and their dedicated personnel, we were able to do just that. We are grateful to everyone for their support, because we truly believe that early exposure to the arts may spark a passion to study music, dance or acting in some students and will help create an appreciation for those things in all students.” Tammy Healey, principal of Central Elementary in Dumas, said that she initially feared her technology-savvy students might be uninterested in the Rumpelstiltskin puppet show – which didn’t feature any touchscreens or other digital features – but was thrilled to find that wasn’t the case. “They were totally engrossed in the performance and the puppeteer had them eating out of his hand,” she recalled. “I know for a fact that most of them had not seen a live performance like this and, as I tell parents all the time, experiences are the best thing to give your child. We can give them the academics, but they need experiences to pull from to write and think.” More arts programming in area schools is just one aspect of Seark’s growth in recent years. The organization, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, has had tremendous success with recent spring musicals featuring local adult and youth performers. Starting with Seussical in 2014, and moving on to Beauty and the Beast and The Wizard of Oz, Seark has been able to provide a performance opportunity for dozens of young persons just beginning to explore the arts.