Michael Jones has been a presence in Oak Park. What he witnessed here, happening in youth theater, drove him to bring something similar to students at Chicago’s underserved schools and to communities of color.
While he lives in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Jones has been involved with Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School’s BRAVO theater program, is a cofounder of Ovation Academy of Oak Park and is a board member of Madison Street Theater (MST), which is Ovation Academy’s home.
His connection has roots in a friendship, which began more than 25 years ago, with Tina Reynolds, BRAVO artistic director/program manager; Ovation Academy, artistic director/CEO; and fellow MST board member.
“Tina Reynolds has been a long-time friend and colleague,” Jones said. “We were part of the same performing arts program known as the Young Americans. At an early age, we started performing together and touring the world.”
“In witnessing the BRAVO program’s success,” said Jones, who has been a choreographer, assistant director and instructor with BRAVO, “and Tina’s unwavering dedication to youth education in the performing arts, I was inspired to establish my own mission-driven organization, with the intention of bringing quality performing arts access to underserved communities of color in Chicago.”
Professional Theater and Dance Youth Academy (PTDYA) was started in 2011. Jones is the executive and artistic director of PTDYA, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary and has served “more than 2,000 students in low-income communities” of Chicago.
PTDYA offers in-school, after school and summer arts programming to Black and, during the pandemic, Brown youth in grades K through 12, and includes dance, music, voice, improv, theater, musical theater and creative writing. Funding for arts can hit roadblocks in the communities where they operate, however, according to Jones.
“Prior to the pandemic, a lot of the schools we served were struggling to fund arts programs, simply because of their zip code,” he said. “Every time a school undergoes a budget cut, the arts are the first program to be eliminated. Our organization is not immune from these cuts. Even with our subsidized rates, some schools on Chicago’s South and West side still struggle to fund arts programs. We have encountered clients who had budgets as low as $1,500 for arts programming for the entire school year.”
Once COVID hit, things took a turn for the worse. PTDYA “had several cancelled contracts and events,” Jones said. Not only did this affect the bottom line, it affected students’ morale. A performance of Beauty and the Beast that students had rehearsed for weeks was canceled and expected fundraising dollars from it were never raised. PTDYA’s in-person classes at two Chicago Public Schools were also halted.
“Our students had a sudden loss of all programming and as I followed up with them over the year, I discovered they were struggling in other ways,” Jones said. “The students we serve have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic due to food insecurity, lack of healthcare access, gun violence and the racial unrest of last summer.”
Jones and the PTDYA team pivoted to offer their programs through e-learning. Students at three Chicago schools – one near Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, one in West Ridge and one in Roseland – worked on dance, vocal training and acting with professional artists and had workshops with Broadway performers.
“We were happy to facilitate some interaction between students from different schools and provide a safe environment for self-expression during a difficult time,” Jones said.
To keep programming coming and “to keep our supporters, students and staff as engaged as possible in the new virtual world,” Jones worked to create a music video to Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” raising awareness “about this issue that plagues the Chicago public school system,” lack of arts funding.
“I was a performer before I was an arts educator,” Jones said of how he was able to attract Broadway talent to the project. “I was able to contact my friends in the industry to donate their time and talent for the video.”
And Jones’ friend network helped make another wish come true.
“My friend Nancy Severinsen, daughter of Doc Severinsen, who works as a music supervisor on Dancing with the Stars and American Idol was instrumental in helping get the rights from Sony,” he said. “I wanted to rewrite the lyrics and I needed permission from Stevie Wonder’s estate to do so. When Nancy confirmed we had acquired the rights, she said Mr. Wonder himself had blessed this project and given his approval for the rewrite.”
PTDYA hopes to raise $100,000 by the end of the summer to offer arts education to 170 students in four Chicago Public Schools this fall. The video is one piece of a campaign to reach an overall fundraising goal of $150,000 for the nonprofit.
To view PTDYA’s music video, learn more or donate: ptdya.org