As a new MAEIA partner, I have found this a good time to reflect on my own personal arts education journey — both as an artist and an educator.
According to family lore, I announced at the age of 2 that I was going to be an actor. I’m not sure where the idea came from with no role models in my family, but clearly my family’s love of the arts signaled to me at an early age that “actor” was something one could be. At age 4, I auditioned for a program called Junior Light Opera (JLO). JLO was a 70s phenomenon where youth, teens, and adults from Ann Arbor and surrounding towns came together to create full scale musicals. So, at age 4, I acted in my first full production, The Pied Piper.
At the age of 4, I had undiagnosed ADHD. My one line in the production was, “I can’t stop my feet; I can’t stop my feet.” Truer words were never spoken. At the first script read-through, however, my parents were astonished when I sat in my chair listening intently for more than two hours. They realized that I had found my “place.” I threw myself completely into JLO for the next three years.
In my youth I also had a severe stutter; and yet, remarkably, I never stuttered when onstage. There are many possible explanations for this, but I believe having the stage as my “safe space” I felt more comfortable there than I did in “real life.” Those three years were a time of joyous abundance for me. I was developing relationships with youth and adults of all ages and I had a whole world of creativity at my disposal. This abundance allowed me to find a place where I could be myself and thrive, a place where my speech impediment and ADHD did not define me.
Then scarcity hit. For reasons I would only come to understand as an adult, JLO went bankrupt and dissolved when I was 8 years old, and there was, unfortunately, no theatre for elementary age students in Ann Arbor at that time. After constant performing, I went three years without acting. I was devastated. Again, according to Sperling family lore, I would go to bed each night asking my mom, “Am I ever going to get to act again?” My parents were heartbroken for me. Then my mom decided to take action.
My mother, Doris Sperling, was a teacher in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor for more than 40 years and she was an activist and organizer at heart. So, when my mom heard my pleas for arts education, she began community organizing. She brought together Drama teachers and theatre practitioners and the result was the Young People’s Theater (YPT) of Ann Arbor. Because of YPT, I once again threw myself at the footlights with a vengeance. Abundance again. I am proud to say that 45 years later YPT is still going strong. My 7-year-old daughter, Doris’s youngest grandchild, is at a Frozen summer camp at YPT as I write this.
This creative abundance continued through my college and post-college years. And yet, after years of training I came to a surprising recognition: I did not want to be an actor for a living. I realized that, like my mother, I was more inspired by the impact of the arts and how they could make a difference in the world. I was hired by Detroit’s Attic Theatre to lead an education and outreach ensemble of professional actors conducting residencies in Detroit public schools. Although the work was satisfying, it was difficult to accept that after our short residencies in the schools there would be no artistic offerings for Detroit students going forward. This brought back those difficult childhood feelings, being unable to engage in creative expression.
So, in 1992, at the age of 26, I founded the nonprofit organization, Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit. Like my mother founding YPT in Ann Arbor, I felt the need to create an organization where Detroit youth would have an abundance of arts education. I wanted to make sure this organization was sustainable, so I regularly worked 70-80 hours a week barely earning a living wage. I have never worked harder in my life than those first five years of Mosaic.
When I reflect on this time in my life, I think of the term “slack.” Identified by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir as “the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources.” As incredibly stressful and demanding as these years were, I can see that this slack, a clear benefit of my racial and economic privilege, was key to my success. I am grateful to my parents who were able to provide financial and emotional support for me through school and beyond. This provided me with a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity, thus creating a safe space wherein I could fail and still survive.
While starting Mosaic I also knew I had strong “social capital” to lean on. Social capital is the value of who you know, rather than what you know. As a child of privilege, I knew many influential people who, while they may not have directly funded my efforts, gave me invaluable guidance and provided me an important network of supporters.
Abundance, Social Capital and Slack in Youth Arts
In my post-Mosaic work, both as an Arts Consultant for Detroit Public Schools Community District and now in launching a collective-impact initiative to support all Detroit youth arts, I am realizing more and more the importance that abundance, social capital, and slack have played in the creative youth development of Mosaic, as well the impressive success that Mosaic alumni have been able to accomplish, including DeLashea Strawder, Mosaic’s current Executive and Artistic Director. While these concepts have benefited me due to the white privilege I was born with in this society, I have seen that these concepts can be intentionally utilized as strategies to empower all youth, including black and brown youth from under-resourced communities.
Josephine Love, the legendary founder of Detroit’s Your Heritage House (now the BasBlue building), taught me a valuable lesson. When I was first starting Mosaic, she approached me because she was seeking drama teachers for her after-school program. When I said I thought I could find a college or older high school student, she lovingly chastised me. Josephine, a contemporary and friend of Langston Hughes, said that these young people deserve to be taught by the best and only the best. She wanted to provide her students with abundance. I left our meeting with my tail between my legs and eagerly found her a professional actor to work with her students. Mosaic’s motto is “Only the best, nothing less.” People understand that this encourages young artists to never settle for anything less than the best they can do. I realize now that this motto is also about developing a mindset of abundance, and it was apparent in the opportunities we provided: young people working with the Public Theatre in New York, connecting onstage and backstage with African Americans on Broadway, and working with Shakespeareans at Stratford and in the Royal Shakespeare Company. Abundance at its best.
I first learned of the concept of “social capital” from Dr. Lorraine Guttirez and Professor Michael Spencer from the University of Michigan when they were conducting a three-year study on Mosaic’s youth development impact (Excellence on Stage and in Life: The Mosaic Model for Youth Development through the Arts). They explained that it was the hidden hand of privilege that often trumped achievement. They helped me understand the fact that developing deep connections with people in colleges and the industry — from the Mosaic staff, partner organizations, mentors and fellow Mosaic members — was equipping our students with valuable social capital. As Mosaic reaches its 30th anniversary, we have seen countless examples of alums opening doors for other alums. This week, for instance, I learned of one professionally employed Mosaic alum helping another to secure their first national choreography job. Social capital at its best.
Slack, while generally connected to white privilege, can be intentionally provided in multiple settings. As educators, by offering an abundance of opportunities and safe chances to fail and come back, we are providing slack to students, regardless of race or economic background. While Mosaic has always had high standards and expectations for skill and professionalism, we worked hard to create a mindset of emotional abundance over scarcity where one could fail and still be able to bounce back. Under DeLashea Strawder’s leadership, Mosaic continues to allow room for slack for developing young artists.
One successful Mosaic alum, currently working professionally as a musical theatre actor and singer, recently recalled her experience of growing and learning at Mosaic. She recalled that once she refused to audition for a musical because she was too afraid to sing while facing the audition panel with her eyes open. While she wasn’t cast in a singing role, she remained in the youth ensemble and continued to grow in other ways. She also reminded me that I once kicked her out of Mosaic. She said that she knew she deserved to be kicked out. She, enamored with her own comic abilities at the time, went off-script during a performance. While loved by the audience, her ad-libbing caused chaos for the other actors onstage, as well as the youth lighting board operator and stage manager, thus forcing everyone to miss cues and appear unprepared and unprofessional. She recalled, as our process required, that she had to write an appeal letter explaining why she should be able to rejoin the company. She told me writing that letter was the best thing she ever did as a teenager. I didn’t remember any of this until she reminded me, but it was the slack that Mosaic provided that allowed her the opportunity to learn from her failings and grow stronger. Mosaic provided “the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources.” Slack at its best.
I recognize that being a MAEIA partner comes with responsibilities as an arts educator, and as I look to the next chapter of my career, trying to support the entire Detroit youth arts sector, my personal story and my experiences founding and running Mosaic Youth Theatre for 27 years have led me to focus on the concepts of abundance, social capital, and slack. I hope to bring these ideas and experiences to the MAEIA community while supporting youth arts educators and organizations to create abundant resources, countless opportunities for youth and leaders to gain social capital, and much needed slack necessary for the growth of both youth and practitioners. These forces are often invisible in our work, but their power is undeniable.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Rick Sperling has been a dynamic force for Detroit youth arts for more than 30 years. In 1992, Sperling founded Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, an internationally acclaimed creative youth development organization whose all teen theatre and music performers toured the world and were highlighted on local, state, and national news venues. Rick has received multiple honors and much recognition for his creation of Mosaic Youth Theatre. More recently Rick has worked for Detroit Public Schools Community District expanding opportunities for youth in the arts and in 2021 he co-founded Detroit Excellence in Youth Arts (DEYA) with Nafeesah Symonette and in partnership with Connect Detroit. DEYA is a collective impact initiative dedicated to systems change leading to more equitable and inclusive access to high-impact arts experiences for Detroit youth.
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