First Lady Michelle Obama Recognizes Project Discovery

By Rachell Hull

First Lady, Michelle Obama at left, and Rachel Hull at right

Shortly after completing my MA, EDTC in 2004 I applied for jobs in the wide ranging theater education, specifically within a regional theater. Ten years ago there was amazing pockets of work being done regionally, though not the pulsating hives that exist now, enough stimulating stuff for a recent grad and I was eager to put all that we had theorized and practiced to the test.

Being from Texas originally I wasn’t planning to return, thinking rather about setting sails for new horizons. But, through the interview process I found that Dallas Theater Center had been running a unique program whereby students in the surrounding public high schools were coming to the theater to see Suzan-Lori Parks and Nilo Cruz – playwrights I had just discovered in my grad classes.

How was it possible that this new work was finding its way so quickly to a high school audience, many of whom had never been to the theater before? What did that experience feel like? How was a regional theater providing this level of artistry for students at NO COST to the student? When I discovered further that these students weren’t being shepherded into a student matinee, but rather were attending evening performances and holding their own against the upper echelon of arts patrons in Dallas, I threw all expectations out the window and signed on.

That was more than 9 years ago, and it was the best decision I’ve made. Project Discovery led me through a deep exploration of community, an urban city like Dallas, a blue city in a red state, amidst a complex web of suburban and urban communities. It led me from a Manager of Education programs to the Director of Education and Community Enrichment – examining the intersection of arts education and community development. Project Discovery has shown me time and again the power of dedicated teachers and young people who demand and surpass high expectations. And it led me on November 22nd to the White House, where we received the 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

Though the experience of walking the hallowed halls of the White House was amazing and surreal! It paled in comparison to the moment Project Discovery’s name was called. This award, presented by First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama recognized the 12 out of school arts and humanities programs in the United States that are at the top of their game! First Lady Michelle Obama opened up the ceremony telling the youth award recipients of how proud she was of them, and how proud they should be of themselves. To the educators she said, “You know better than anyone else the effect that art can have on a young person’s life. Giving the child a chance to fill a canvas, or to perfect a harmony or to shine on stage, that can spark the flames of a lifelong passion. And it can teach valuable skills: skills like hard work and persistence. It can open up possibilities that young people might not realize for themselves. There are thousands of programs all across the country that are doing this kind of important work every day.”

All of us at Dallas Theater Center are humbled by the excitement, congratulations and shared joy that has come from past students, classroom teachers, actors and teaching artists. There is an amazing team of support for this program, two of which are also NYU grads – Mara Richards, NYU Class of 2000 is our Manager of Education programs and uses her passion for Augusto Boal’s work to spark civic conversations prior to Clybourne Park just a couple of months ago. And Jenci Pavageaux, one of our dedicated, fearless Dallas ISD teachers spends her off nights bringing students to the theater. This tremendous recognition will be celebrated in January with participants, artists and supporters and the ripples of the award will continue to be felt, just as the impact of Project Discovery continues throughout North Texas. Though this award only confirms what Dallas Theater Center and participating schools throughout North Texas know, that this program is essential to the social and cultural development of our young people.