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THE WORLD’S A STAGE—ON A BROOKLYN CAMPUS

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by Susan Hodara

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  Three years ago, when Cheri Walsh accepted the position of managing director of the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, located in Flatbush on the campus of Brooklyn College, she inherited a mission: to offer the highest quality performing arts to the residents of the borough. What began in 1955 as a prestigious classical music house, serving the primarily Jewish demographic of the area, has evolved over the decades to reflect Brooklyn’s growing cultural diversity — from Caribbean, Italian and Irish, to Russian and Jewish, to Asian, African, and African-American — and its influx of young families.

For Walsh, 33, who lives in a Carroll Gardens brownstone with her husband Robert, their son Liam, age 3, and Robert’s daughter Kara, 11, that focus remains prominent, with carefully culled selections of dance, theater, music and special events — and a high priority on family programming.

Which means that during the 2006-2007 season, which begins this month, families can choose from a profusion of productions. They might start with the five shows in the Center’s FamilyFun series, including Theatreworks USA’s “Suessical” in November, Batoto Yetu’s African dance performance in February, and “A Kid’s Life: The Musical” in March. Or they can check out the Center’s World of Dance series — perhaps “Estampas Portenas in Tango Fire” in November, or “Trinity Irish Dance Company” in February. Broadway aficionados won’t want to miss “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in March, part of the Center’s Broadway series. Other offerings include the internationally derived World Stages lineup, the longstanding L’Chaim program featuring Jewish music and theater, the Caribbean Celebration series, and other events, such as the new Books on My Mind series, presenting three workshops with Brooklyn writers hosted by WNYC’s Leonard Lopate. All performances take place in the 2,400-seat, recently renovated Walt Whitman Hall.

“New York City arguably has the most abundant array of cultural activities for families, but they are not always convenient in terms of location and cost,” says Walsh. “Our goal is to make our family programming accessible to all of the communities in the borough.” To that end, starting this season, every FamilyFun series ticket is only $12.

Other family events include KidsClub workshops held after each FamilyFun performance, with activities, often onstage, that are related to the show. Last year, for example, after the Tap Kids performance, kids could take a master tap class. Tickets are $8.
SchoolTime is the Center’s arts education curriculum, with 34 presentations this season during the school day. “Classes come by bus or subway,” Walsh says. “It’s been wildly popular — last year was our most well attended ever!”

Another goal is to present programming that is not available anywhere else in the city. A former dancer, Walsh has a particular interest in the Center’s dance series. “There are so many incredible dance companies in New York,” she says, “but typically I don’t present them because you can see them elsewhere. I try to provide experiences you can only get here.” This season, these include a premiere in January 2007 by Diavolo, a contemporary dance company from Los Angeles, and Spain’s Compañia Nacional de Danza 2, coming in March.

Her children are always on her mind when Walsh is planning her seasons. “Liam was four months old when I started this job,” she says. “He is comfortable in the theater, backstage, onstage, and in the audience. I try to schedule performers I want him to see, rather than the cookie-cutter characters you find on television.”

She acknowledges that not all children are ready for full-length theatrical performances, but suggests that exposing them regularly to family-friendly productions habituates them to the theater environment. “I’ve bought overpriced tickets for big Broadway shows and Liam’s been ready to leave after only 25 minutes,” she admits. “You don’t feel so bad if the tickets only cost $12.”

As for juggling work and family, Walsh says: “Most days work very well.” She credits a supportive professional network, including the Center’s staff and Board of Directors, as well as those with whom she partners at Brooklyn College. Of living in Carroll Gardens, she says that from the start, “We fell in love with the neighborhood.” And working close by, she adds, “gives me an even greater feeling of connection to the borough.”

Looking ahead, Walsh hopes to strengthen the Center’s relationship with Brooklyn College, with the aim of creating “an incredible, unique intersection between the professional performing arts and the college.” Noting the proliferation of the arts in the northern part of the borough, Walsh says she intends to establish the Center as “the cultural home of southern Brooklyn.”

For more information about the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, a not-for-profit, and its current season, visit
www.brooklyncenteronline.org. For ticket sales, call (718) 951-4500.


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