The Grace Theatre Workshop has been combining the performing arts with education in Union City for the past eight years, and as their 6th annual Theater Festival in the Park winds down, the small company that has grown so much, looks towards an even brighter future.
The Grace Theatre Workshop is a not-for-profit professional theater program, which offers children free classes in dance, singing, acting, and playwriting. It is also considered the premiere presenter of bilingual and Spanish language theater in the state of New Jersey.
Founder and Commissioner of Union City, Lucio Fernandez and his wife Megan set out in 2000 to introduce young students to the performing arts in a whole new light.
“We saw a lack of activities for kids,” said Lucio Fernandez. “These were kids not involved in sports and not doing anything else!”
As a professional actor and a professional singer, respectively, Lucio and Megan decided to share their passions and help the youth of Union City.
“You cannot attach a price to culture in the community,” said Megan Fernandez.
The Grace Theatre Workshop offers full scholarships to all of the students and every play or concert they put on for the community is completely free, like the recent “Colombia Canta” in Ellsworth Park.
If a child was interested in taking acting lessons or ballet they would spend thousands on registration, pictures, classes, videos, and shows.
“It was not okay that there are only a few kids in the city who could afford to go to local dance schools,” said Lucio Fernandez, “and we felt it was insulting that the kids were not coming out with a great knowledge of the arts.”
The Grace prides themselves on having a full staff of professional teachers, while other acting and dance schools that charge money, do not.
“You need to have experience,” said Lucio Fernandez, who had Broadway contracts and acted in many commercials when he started Grace.
Megan Fernandez has always been a professional dancer and now runs her own group, The Tap Ole A Dance Company.
Roxana Rey, one of the workshop’s professional vocal coaches, finds teaching the kids in Union City very rewarding: “I really love teaching because it is a way to help those that have an interest in music to achieve their goals. When I look at my students, it brings back memories of my young life, when I wished someone was there to guide me.”
She has been performing for crowds since she was six years old, and this is her third year of teaching for the Grace Theatre.
“The program really started from nothing,” said Megan Fernandez. “A lot of elbow grease! That’s why I loved it so much.”
They currently have about a hundred students taking classes ranging from jazz to tap.
However, when the company first started, they had seven kids studying acting with Lucio and dance with Megan, once a week.
While Lucio Fernandez is no longer involved with the program due to his busy schedule, he still reflects on Grace with pride.
“We started with the kids program and in weeks we had a waiting list of 300 children,” he said.
Improved self esteem, life skills
Union City clearly hungered for the arts, but the Fernandez duo felt it needed more than just that.
The focus is on working with the children of the community and instilling character building into their classes. The result is better self-esteem, academic improvement, stronger relationships, and better outlook on life.
Lucio saw a clear connection to acting and the skills a student would need in a classroom: “A kid who succeeds in school is one who is not afraid to raise their hand.”
The classes moved into a performance group and they also started a theater company.
Lucio Fernandez wrote and directed their first play, “Till Death Do Us Part.” Their next production, Busco Amigo, or “Friend Wanted,” was picked up by the NJ Theater Alliance and toured all over New York and New Jersey.
To bring families in the community closer together, every child who partakes in the classes at the Grace Theatre Workshop must also perform. These performances become events to celebrate, and all their families must also attend.
High school outreach
The company started working more closely with the humanities departments of two high schools, soon to be Union City High School in 2009.
They recently produced the play, “Bang Bang, You’re Dead,” an eye opening story about school violence, under the direction of Union Hill’s drama teacher, Jack O’Connor, last February.
They also host the Hudson County Kids Poetry Competition every year, which receives 5,000 entries from the area. They invite the top 40 poets to a celebration, where they all read their poem, receive a free book and a certificate, and cash prizes are awarded to the top three winners.
“We are so proud of the program and to be offering free classes to the kids,” said Megan Fernandez.
One of her success stories is Union Hill graduate and former student of the Grace Theatre dance program, Fernando Contreras.
“He started out with us learning dance,” said Megan, “and he was a really great student.”
Fernando currently attends NYU as a performing arts major and still dances professionally with Megan’s Tap Ole A Dance Company.
Registration for the free children’s fall classes will go from Sept. 22 to the 26, at Jose Marti Middle School, and a schedule of classes with more information can be viewed at http://www.gracetheatre.com/educationalprogr.html. Students can sign up for unlimited classes, and the class sizes are still kept small for personalization. They also offer Spanish acting classes for adults. Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“You cannot attach a price to culture in the community.” – Megan Fernandez.