By TIANA REID
For Broadway Bound Academy, which is running a week-long March Break program, inclusivity and accessibility are central. The performing arts school, founded by actor and playwright, Rachael-Lea Rickards, focuses on children of colour.
For Rickards herself, who told Share in an interview that “(she) was a chubby child – always been chubby, still chubby”, body image and self-esteem are also an essential part of the program.
Despite the calibre of the academy, professional experience isn’t a prerequisite: raw talent and enthusiasm, too, play a part in the orientation process. By offering payment plans to an already less-expensive program, when compared to other performing arts academies, Rickards hopes to give her students the experience of being exposed to something fresh – something fresh coupled with personal pride.
Many parents don’t encourage their children to go into theatre professionally because of the presumed lack of financial stability and employment opportunities. As a daughter to new immigrants to Canada, Rickards also encountered that problem.
“There’s something really personal for me to see a group of 30 children of colour doing professional theatre,” she said. “It moves me simply because I didn’t really have the opportunity of support like that when I was their age… It hits home.”
The positivity and openness at Broadway Bound creates an environment in which children feel free to come out of their shell.
“My focus is for them to get self-esteem, for them to be okay with their bodies and for them to make friends while being at a triple-treat performance program,” Rickards said. Even if participants don’t go on to become professional actors or performers (but some do), the merit of the program still stands.
“We’re finding that their grades are increasing, they command more attention when they come into a room,” she said. “They’re confident, they feel loved.”
Despite the struggles of feeling too chubby, too dark or not dark enough for certain roles, Rickards has made it her mission to inspire children to leap into the theatre scene with gusto, that is, the prowess to create and write their own roles if they’re not available. After starring in ‘da Kink in my Hair, she went on to produce, co-write and star in I am NOT a Dinner Mint with Trey Anthony.
Much like Rickards’ own endless job titles, the program itself, which is for kids ages six to 16, is rigorous. Children attend the program from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., which includes two hours of dance, two hours of music and two hours of singing. This March Break will flash back to the mid-20th century with its “Memories of Motown” theme. Think of all the greats like the Jackson Five, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. Past productions have included The Lion King, Hairspray and Grease.
“The day starts off with a morning motto or mantra to remind the children of why they’re there and why they’re important,” Rickards said. “It’s an intense program.”
Of course, time is made for theatre games, music-related videos and socializing. On the Friday, the Brampton students perform at the Toronto location and on the Saturday, the Toronto students perform at the Brampton location. It’s a collaborative performance that creates value, cultivates encouragement and spurs excitement for both the parents and the performers. “(The program) is basically a week in the life of a performer,” Rickards said.
While Broadway Bound Academy puts its emphasis on children of colour, issues of race aren’t necessarily built into the curriculum. Rickards said that a “let’s talk about being Black” segment isn’t needed but she shared a moment when, last semester, her academy had an impromptu discussion after a member of a children’s audience had made fun of one of the performer’s hair.
“After the production, we sat down as a group and talked about how our hair is beautiful: kinky, straight, locked, short, long,” she said. “We talked about our skin complexions, we talked about our body shapes, we talked about how we have to own the stage and be proud. It’s so, so important to instill this type of confidence in our kids.”
Because Broadway Bound is at the heart of Rickards’ personal and professional life, tears often play a supporting role when she’s in the house. She admitted that she cries every time she watches a performance by her students.
“You know you’re doing the right thing when you feel emotional about the work you do,” she said.
For more information about the Broadway Bound Theatre Academy and the March Break program (locations in Brampton and Toronto), visit broadwayboundacademy.com.