Drama at NYC performing arts school over loss of its celebrated theater program

A group of high school students in costume on stage during a production of "Kill the Messenger."
Waterwell's 2023 New Works Lab production of "Kill the Messenger" by Liz Morgan, with students from the Professional Performing Arts School. Students at the school have started a fundraising campaign to save its drama program. (Ryan Jensen for Professional Performing Arts School)

The curtain is expected to close next month on a long-running acting program at a Manhattan performing arts school serving grades 6-12, due to a funding shortfall, the program’s education and artistic director told parents this week.

But students from the Professional Performing Arts School in Hell’s Kitchen want the show to go on and launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $20,000 in less than 24 hours.

They’re hoping they can tap famous alumni, who include Alicia Keys, Britney Spears, Claire Danes, and Jesse Eisenberg. Already, Jeremy Allen White from “The Bear” shared the GoFundMe on his Instagram account (after texting a teacher there to make sure it was legitimate, a parent said).

For 13 years, the Waterwell drama program has worked with the Professional Performing Arts School, often called PPAS, offering conservatory-style acting classes led by professional actors: High school students take drama for two hours a day, five days a week; for middle school, musical theater classes run 1½ hours each day. (Waterwell’s co-founder is Arian Moayed, from “Successsion.”)

Earlier this week, Waterwell’s education and artistic director, Heather Lanza, emailed PPAS parents and students, letting them know the program would wrap up April 12 and urged families to advocate on the program’s behalf.

She blamed the program’s early departure on citywide budget cuts, but the Education Department disputed that, saying that Waterwell was charging more from the get-go than the school could afford.

“We love the students dearly, and this has been unbelievably painful,” Lanza told Chalkbeat. “We deeply believe in this training model.”

Some of the students stay in the program for seven years and have gone on to Broadway or other professional roles. Whether the students want to be professional actors or not, learning through theater helps them develop into “empathetic human beings” and helps them tap into “the power of storytelling,” Lanza said.

Lanza told Chalkbeat that the organization’s budget was short by $102,000. Based on what the school told her in a meeting last week, she said, the funding shortfall was a product of the overall cuts in the city and were tied to a midyear adjustment to the school’s budget for the current school year. The principal told families this week that the school needed about $80,000 to save the program, parents said.

Education Department officials disputed the claim that budget cuts were to blame for the program’s gap, saying that the program’s work order was above what the school could afford, and this was communicated to Waterwell in December.

The school did lose money because of an enrollment dip. But that cut only amounted to about $20,000, according to a teachers union database. The school’s current roster is about 520 students, according to public data, down about 20 students from the year before.

“A rigorous theater arts program continues to be a priority for PPAS,” Education Department spokeswoman Jenna Lyle said in a statement. “The school will host end of year performances, and dedicated staff will continue to support students in their drama education through the end of standard academic year program, which ends on April 30, while the school sources a new partner for the next academic year.”

The school is committed to ensuring the theater program will remain strong even if Waterwell leaves next month. Teachers are willing to do “double time” and “step in and fill the gap if we can’t raise the money that Waterwell needs,” said Shawn Dell, the school’s PTA president.

“PPAS is one of a kind. It’s a unicorn. There’s nothing like it,” Dell said. “LaGuardia has DOE teachers that are seeking tenure. Our teachers are seeking Broadway. That’s why we love it.”

Students crushed by news, but elated Jeremy Allen White took notice

“This program brings so much joy to a lot of people,” Tennyson Artigliere, the seventh grader who launched the GoFundMe campaign, said on her way to dance class after the school day ended. “It really brings us so much joy to be able to do what we love to do.”

Tennyson launched the campaign after texting with friends in her group chat about how to take action.

They also immediately changed the group chat name from “PPAS peeps” to “S peeps,” saying that the removal of the theater program “took the ‘PPA’ out of PPAS.” Now it was just “the school,” the students joked.

Before the school day had started, she had tagged White, the “Bear” star, on Instagram, and when she got her phone back at the end of the day, she was ecstatic to see that he had shared the GoFundMe link in his Instagram story.

White wrote: “This is where I went to high school. It’s an incredible program with some incredible teachers. Please help IF YOU ARE ABLE. I have donated.”

His support felt meaningful. “These are the people that are going to be the future of entertainment,” Tennyson said of her classmates, “the next celebrities.”

Marcus Artigliere, Tennyson’s dad, felt frustrated that parents learned about the cuts only from the theater program and not the principal, who is in her first year at the school. But he beamed about his daughter’s drive to launch the fundraising campaign.

“As a parent, I’m really proud of her collective action,” said Artigliere, an education professor at Hunter College. “It’s a public school. We shouldn’t have to fundraise … but there is a lot of beauty in being scrappy and seeing how the kids are taking off.”

Current and prospective PPAS families worry about school’s future

David Glick’s daughter travels about 1½ hours from Staten Island to PPAS for this program, he said.

“I don’t have my daughter do a crazy commute to just do academics. She could go 10 minutes away for that,” he said of his seventh grader. “She’s got this amazing voice and is talented. She was thrilled when she got in, but she also has anxiety and ADHD, and it’s been really nice for her to have these small classes.”

The news about the program has also reached prospective PPAS families.

Sarah Muir, a parent of an eighth grader at Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, was delighted to learn last week that her son was accepted into PPAS, and the family is weighing it against an offer at the famed LaGuardia performing arts high school.

“It is distressing and concerning to have gone through the lengthy and arduous application process now to find that the school he will be attending may be radically different from the one he applied to,” Muir said. “The school’s core mission and identity as a performing arts school depends on this training.”

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

The Latest

Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed statewide expansion follows a string of failed attempts, narrow votes, and court reversals.

In redrawing the maps, the board also considered the racial makeup of the proposed districts.

El gobierno de Estados Unidos prometió una FAFSA más sencilla para los estudiantes que ingresan a la universidad, pero para muchas familias inmigrantes la solicitud de ayuda financiera ha sido todo lo contrario.

The new financial aid application was supposed to be ‘faster and easier.’ For me, it has been anything but.

“This decision making was clearly rushed,” one lawmaker said. “It's not best practice, but this is where we are.”