The Art of Learning

Althea Izawa-Hayden
November 25, 2002

In 1973, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts: Riverfront (NOCCA/Riverfront) was founded by a group of artists, educators and community leaders. They believed that New Orleans, with its rich local arts culture, should be able to provide high-quality arts instruction for talented youth. The program opened its doors in a former elementary school building—a temporary home that wound up lasting almost thirty years. Now, the staff, faculty and students are teaching and learning in a new 136,000 square foot facility that includes rehearsal studios, performance theatres and up-to-date technology.

Ballet dancers

Rod Daniel, director of the International Network of Performing and Visual Arts Schools, has visited NOCCA/Riverfront several times over the past six years. He recalls the run-down conditions inside the old building—and the contrast with the beautiful work being practiced and polished inside. "You knew the strength of the center stemmed from its students and faculty," says Daniel. "People travel from all over the country to see how the program runs the way it does."

"The center serves as one of about six model schools for high school arts programs across the country," says Patricia Mitchell, long-time director of the Fillmore Arts Program in Washington, DC. "The standards set for its student body, faculty base, community relations and business partnerships within Louisiana and nationwide are all factors that make the center spectacular." She continues, "The center has absorbed the culture of the city of New Orleans and state of Louisiana to make it attractive to students, practicing artists and local and state community leaders."

"I Didn't Think I Had a Chance"
Chris Latzke graduated from the center in June 2002. He remembers that when his mother told him about the program, he was sure he would never be accepted. Nonetheless, he tried out in ninth grade, and was accepted to begin in tenth grade. Latzke recalls, "Honestly, I didn't think that I had a chance because there were so many other people wanting the same thing I wanted."

A performance

Prospective students must complete a comprehensive application that requires submission of an essay, teacher recommendations and a high school transcript, as well as a nerve-wracking audition process.

Latzke recalls, "Before I even came to audition, they gave me a list of Shakespeare monologues to choose from, of which I would use one for the audition. As soon as I entered the waiting area, a whole group of current students were there. They told personal stories about their experience. By just going to audition, they assumed that I took my craft seriously enough to want to be part of such a program in order to perfect it."

He continues, "All the people I met had their different ways of acting. Some didn't even know why they were accepted because they felt their acting wasn't good enough. I saw, though, by the time they left, their spirits were lifted, their heads were on straight, they knew where they were going in life."

Faculty That Can Do, and Teach
Latzke says, "One major thing that convinced me to attend was the fact that the program allows the teachers to still be working in the field so that the students may catch a small glimpse of what the 'real life' of acting is about. Also, the teachers came to know each student on a personal level. Everyone was treated fairly and with high respect."

A student recording

He fondly recalls his voice teacher Janet Shea as a major influence. Latzke says, "When someone had a problem, she was right there making sure that we could get through the day and feel comfortable. She was very rigorous, but that is because she knew what it took to get into the world— the acting world."

"In line with the historic master-apprentice tradition, the professionally active faculty of 'artist/teachers' is the foundation of NOCCA/Riverfront's intensive curriculum," says June Hall, the center's communications coordinator. "The program tests students' commitment to serious study so they can experience what will be expected of them in professional arts careers."

A Flexible But Demanding Approach

NOCCA/Riverfront's students come from public, private and parochial schools in and around Orleans parish. Many are from low-income families. The NOCCA Institute, a non-profit organization founded in 1982, has raised money to help provide student aid for necessary equipment, transportation, private lessons and summer art programs.

A painter

The Center's curriculum includes dance, music, theater (both musical and technical), creative writing, media and visual arts. Students can choose morning, afternoon, late day, Saturday or summer attendance options, giving them flexibility to create a schedule that suits their needs.

Latzke chose the afternoon program. He attended four morning classes at his high school, and ate lunch in the car to get to the center by 1 pm. Each afternoon he attended two classes, each about an hour and a half long. Each year, students receive up to three honors-weighted credits at their high school for their coursework at the center.(Honors-weighted credits are worth more that regular class credits; an "A" in a regular class translates to 4 points, but in an honors course, an "A" translates into 5 points.)

More than 95 percent of the Center's graduates continue their education at various colleges and arts programs, such as The Julliard School, New York University: Tisch School of Arts and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. About 80 percent of those students receive scholarships and grants.

NOCCA/Riverfront's Dean of Instruction Ray Vrazel says, "The students are not concerned with the usual teenage pursuits. Rather they have chosen a path of challenge and inquisition toward the goal of becoming an artist."

Changing With the Times
Though the old school that initially housed the program was considered a temporary home, it was not until the 1990s that a move was seriously considered. "The goal was to provide a proper training facility and enhanced opportunities for young people," says Hall. "In the process, the region's entire educational system would be strengthened."

A violinist

The NOCCA Institute engaged in successful lobbying for state aid from Louisiana. They also obtained funds from private sources. The final result, Hall says, is "a 136,000 square-foot facility that provides the rehearsal studios, performance spaces, and state-of-the-art technology students need to become arts leaders of the 21st century."

"The ability of the Center to raise close to $30 million for a new facility from both the public and private arena is pretty extraordinary," comments Daniel. "It reflects the fact that the Center carries a lot of weight among not just the local business organizations, but private individuals, as well."

Fillmore's Mitchell, a veteran of 20-plus years of finding public and private support for quality arts education, says the center benefits from a strong community of people who believe in its mission. "What enabled this move is that the Center is run and supported by individuals and leaders who can not only put together a package, but have the vision and power to put the package into effect."

"Since I was part of the first class to be transferred from the old building to the new, I could see how some people wished we had stayed put," says Latzke. "The old building was run-down, the floor was peeling up, but it was small enough to have that 'home' feeling." But, he continues, "The new facility boosted everyone's energy because the spaces were bigger, more high-tech and had a professional feeling."

The new facility served as a catalyst for the addition of the media arts, musical theater and technical theater programs, according to Executive Director John Otis. "Our musical theater initiative developed partly in response to the prominence of the local culture," Otis says.

"While the new facility has certainly been a joy, the real star of center is still the instructional program itself. And that has not changed," says Hall.

A student classroom

Art: Part of the Learning Experience
"When a child is young, it is important that the child have as much freedom to experience their imagination, whether it be in music, writing, drawing or even dancing their bums off," says Latzke "I hope that arts education in regular school as well as arts conservatories will always remain part of a child's journey into adulthood and beyond."

"I know for a fact that I am more organized with my time. I am more creative than I was three years ago," continues Latzke. "I can communicate a lot more easily with strangers' I have a better understanding about the art of acting and its meanings."

Even though some students opt not to pursue the arts as a career, their training will benefit them no matter what they decide to study, Hall notes. "The creative thinking, discipline and determination that students gain at the center will also help them become successful doctors, lawyers or teachers."


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Althea Izawa-Hayden is an intern at Connect for Kids.