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Mosaic Youth Theatre

2251 Antietam Ave
Detroit, Michigan 48207

Rick Sperling

By MJ Galbraith
August 22, 2013

Rick Sperling is quite candid when he says that it was never his dream to work with kids, which sounds funny coming from the founder and artistic director of one of the most successful and awe-inspiring youth theaters in the country for over 20 years now. It was 1990 and Rick was a young actor in Detroit, performing at the now-defunct Attic Theatre. His dream was to open his own theater company for adults, a group with a political bent to it. He would end up on a far more rewarding and inspiring path.
While working at the theater, Rick ran a program that brought professional actors to schools in Detroit and Pontiac, the vast majority of which were missing arts and music programs altogether. After two years of this program, Rick decided that the Attic would produce a play featuring the students he'd been visiting. Over 300 kids came out to audition for the 1970s Broadway musical Runaways.
"The show ended up being better than any of us professionals imagined it would be," says Rick. "It was so powerful and so dynamic that me and these other professional actors who were doing this had to sheepishly admit to ourselves that this work was more dynamic than what we were doing in our adult careers. And then the Attic Theatre asked us to bring the show back as the first show of its professional season the next year, which we ran for five weeks in a professional theater with an all-teenaged cast. I don't think that has ever happened before ot has ever happened since."
For Rick, that was it. Identifying an opportunity to fulfill a need in the community, Rick launched Mosaic Youth Theatre in 1992. Since then, the group has performed for Presidents, received distinguished awards, and has toured the world, performing in Africa, Asia, and Europe. They've twice been selected as the sole representatives for United States children's theater, once at the 1996 World Festival of Children's Theatre in Denmark and then again at the 2000 World Festival of Youth Theatre in England. Graduates of the program have gone on to perform on Broadway while others have returned to work at Mosaic in administrative roles. Rick says that in its twenty-one years, 95 percent of Mosaic students have gone on to college.
Rick is even beginning to see the first generation Mosaic graduates' children enroll for classes. That's a good sign for Mosaic, since the majority of arts organizations can hardly make it past 10 years, let alone 20. In that time, however, Mosaic has had five different performance spaces and six different administrative offices. If the group was going to survive to see the grandchildren of the first generation graduates, Mosaic was going to need to stabilize its facility situation. And now they've done exactly that.
"We have this great program, we know it's working for kids, we have the data, we have the alumni success stories, we have all these things. But then, how do you make it last? And one way to make it last is if you know you have a sustainable cuts-operating-costs facility that you have for the next twenty years. That's huge."
Mosaic is partnering with the Thompson Education Foundation to anchor a wing of Detroit's historic Miller High School. Miller was the city's African American high school from the 1930s through the 1950s and claims a number of distinguished alumni, including former mayor Coleman Young and Michigan's first African American congressman, Charles Diggs. The building is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation.
Under their new partnership, Mosaic will still offer the same evening and weekend classes and still perform three shows a year at the Detroit Institute of Arts. That won't change. They will, however, partner with the University Prep Science and Math Elementary School, which is also moving into the building. Mosaic will incorporate the arts into the school's science and math curriculum.
All this growth and security means that Rick and his team will be able to continue to bring the arts to the city, a passion that has not dwindled in over twenty years.
"Once we started realizing that we were having an impact, we were driven to achieve excellence," says Rick. "I think that for teenagers, especially teenagers from cities, there's very low expectations for them. And we felt—and we're not alone in this—that something incredible and exciting happens when you take young people who have had low expectations and give them ridiculously high expectations and give them support to get there, not setting them up to fail. We set college- and professional-level standards for kids in middle school and high school. And we want to blow away people's perceptions of what teenagers are capable of doing."

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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