Monday was full of surprises for the students and faculty at American Canyon High School, whose theater arts program got a big boost from NBC and supporters of theatrical education.
Before a packed house in the school’s theater — which included local television news crews — officials announced that ACHS was one of 50 schools across the country to receive a $10,000 grant from NBC and the nonprofit Educational Theatre Foundation to support the growth of musical theater on campus.
The money is from NBC’s R.I.S.E. America grants, which the network set up as part of its promotions for the new drama “Rise“ about a high school theater department and its effects on a small town.
The school applied for the grant, according to drama teacher Summer Heartt, who had to keep the big news under wraps for a week.
“I was sworn to secrecy last Tuesday when they broke the news to me that we were winners,” Heartt told the American Canyon Eagle. “But I had to save the surprise for the students’ big reveal yesterday at a special assembly” on Monday.
It was during the assembly that the second big surprise was revealed. Handing over the oversized check for $10,000 was none other than the star of Rise, Damon J. Gillespie.
The young actor — who was working at a Dunkin Donuts when he got his big breaking starring in Rise — spent about an hour talking with students about his own theatrical experiences in school and since then.
The third big surprise of the day caught Heartt off-guard.
On Monday evening, she and 40 students were bussed to the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco, compliments of NBC.
There they watched a special early screening of the pilot episode for Rise — and found out that ACHS was receiving a second check for $10,000 from NBC and San Francisco-based theatrical production company SHN, which own the Orpheum and Golden Gate Theater.
Chuck Neidhoefer, arts coordinator for Napa Valley Unified School District, who was on stage at the Orpheum, said “the unexpected doubling” of the grant “left us speechless.”
Heartt said the “impact that $20,000 can have on a high school theater program is transformative.”
“We are a program that sells popcorn to raise scholarship money,” she added. “In a world where royalties for a musical can be $10,000 alone, we now have the opportunity to grow our musical theatre program offerings.”
Heartt said they intend to use the money to start producing musical theater annually at the high school, as well as hire a set designer, promote upcoming shows, and invest in the royalty fees for the 2018-2019 school year.
ACHS has already been hard at work producing its first musical ever: Bye Bye Birdie, which will run April 19-22. Tickets are available online at achsdrama.org/tickets.
“With these funds, we are sure to maintain the high level of quality the public has come to expect from our shows,” Heartt said.
To qualify for the Rise grant, ACHS had to submit a two-minute video, an essay describing how the grant would impact their program, and a letter from Principal Crystal Lopez.
“Inspired by the story of the new TV show Rise, we went for it,” said Heartt, who was “shocked, surprised and floored” after receiving all the great news on Monday.
She singled out eight of her students for helping with the submission: Lauren Summers, who wrote the essay and helped narrate the video, along with Casey Cenal, Lance Nguyen, Analysse Swaffar, Micah Scott, Aaron Lopez, Zacarah Dinkins and Chloe Quares.
Neidhoefer heaped praise on Heartt for developing the ACHS drama program.
“She has organized and motivated her students, which have doubled in number since her arrival four years ago, in such a way that they accomplish much more than a typical theatre group this size might otherwise,” said Neidhoefer.
The new TV show Rise has been described as “Glee” meets “Friday Night Lights.”
It was created by Jason Katims, executive producer and showrunner of “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” and “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller.
“It is a dream come true for me that ‘Rise’ will have a genuine impact on 50 high school drama programs throughout the country,” said Katims in an NBC press release.
“I am excited about the notion that the R.I.S.E. America grants will help support, inspire and nurture creative young minds throughout the country, especially at a time when arts in education is under-valued and under-funded,” Katims said.
The show premieres March 13 on NBC.