Interview with Cara Winter from Arts For All Chicago

Did you know that Arts For All has a branch in Chicago?  Find out more in this interview with AFA Chicago Founder and Program Manager, Cara Winter.

What’s your artistic background?

CW:I became interested in theater at the age of 15, when I was cast as the lead in my high school musical.  After that, I began studying voice privately, singing in competitions, and (thanks at first to my grandmother’s funding, and subsequently a scholarship), I attended Interlochen Arts Camp for two summers.  By the end of my first summer at Interlochen, I knew that I wanted to pursue theater as a career.  I began auditioning for all the major musical theater training programs in the U.S., and the following spring I was accepted by New York University Tisch School of the Arts’ UG Drama department, and was awarded the Trustee Scholarship.  So, at 18 years of age, I moved from my small town of Kalamazoo, MI to New York City.

At NYU, I studied Musical Theater for two years at CAP21, followed by two years of classical training at The Classical Studio.  Upon graduating in 1997, I began directing and producing alongside some of the incredible visionaries who dominated the Lower East Side theater scene of the day.  In 2000, I landed both my first Equity acting internship at Maine State Music Theater, and my first professional gig at the Great American Melodrama in California.  I’ve worked professionally as an actress, director, producer, and playwright ever since.

While I do still perform occasionally, I’ve spent the past six years focusing mainly on writing.  In addition to having some success with my work for the stage, I’ve also started writing for the screen. Last year I placed in the Quarterfinals of Final Draft’s Big Break screenwriting competition, and then won TV Writer’s Spec Scriptacular (1st Place, Drama) with my spec teleplay “THE NEWSROOM: Brothers in Arms”.   I’m currently developing a couple plays, a couple screenplays, and now I’m working with a manager to sell a TV pilot.

How did you initially get involved with Arts For All?

I met Anna through her husband Alan, who I’d worked with on a production of The Merchant of Venice.  I was impressed by Anna’s dedication to serving children through Arts For All, and became a general supporter, sending in a donation to AFA whenever I could, keeping up with its progress via e-blasts, etc.  But I didn’t actually get involved myself with Arts For All until after I’d moved to Chicago.

Pictured below: Damon Lamar Reed & student working on the mural installation at Libby Elementary.
Photo credit:  Photo by C. Jason Brown

AFA ChicagoHow did you get Arts For All Chicago started? How long has it been running? 

I moved from NYC to Chicago in 2008, just as Chicago Public Schools had announced their Arts budget had been decimated.  So pretty much right away, I knew I wanted to help bring the Arts to kids in need in Chicago.  In 2009, I approached Anna about starting a Chicago pilot program, which I’d organize and teach; she brought the idea to the Board, they agreed, and AFA Chicago was born!

We raised almost $2,000 for a residency called “Shakespeare For All” where I taught Shakespeare-in-performance to a group of 5th graders in a struggling South Side public school.  At the end of my residency, the students presented a 45-minute abridged version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest to a small audience of fellow students, staff and parents.  The kids had a blast, learned a lot about Shakespeare, as well as how each and every person is crucial to “putting on a play.”

Who are the other people involved in AFA Chicago ( teaching artists, interns,etc)
In 2009, there was just one other person working on Arts For All Chicago – Lisa Dellagiarino – who was awesome, but has since moved on to other projects.  So right now it’s just me, and a handful of amazing Teaching Artists.

What programs are currently running? Are you currently teaching?

Last year we focused a great deal of energy on two large-scale projects:  a “Day of Art” at a South Side youth center where a group of Teaching Artists taught a rotating group of about 75 kids; and the installation of a beautiful outdoor mural at Libby Elementary, all student-designed and painted during workshops led by professional muralist Damon Lamar Reed.

This year, we have continued our ongoing residency, Creative Writing at Hammond Elementary, taught by our tirelessly creative and energetic Stacey Hall.  In addition, we have had requests from two other schools for programming, so we’re working on getting those projects implemented.

While I’ve really shifted my focus to fundraising & programming, I did teach Creative Writing for a semester last year, which was a lot of fun.  During the semester, we talked a lot about screenplays and stage plays, focusing on “Archetypes, not Stereotypes”, which the kids really got into.  Young people are exposed (over-exposed, if you ask me) to so many negative stereotypes… so it was fun for them to pick those apart, and hold them up against classical Archetypes, and talk about which ones were more universal, dramatic, positive, hopeful, etc.

What’s a highlight or a favorite story from your time running AFA Chicago?

To me, a “troubled” child is often a child who needs something different than a standard curriculum and a sit-down, be-quiet classroom.  In many cases, a troubled child (who maybe has an instable home life, a learning disability, etc) will misbehave, or act out, because their needs as a whole person just aren’t being met.  And so many, for absolutely no fault of their own, are tagged early on as “trouble”… and this label can follow them around for the rest of their lives.

After the “Shakespeare for All” performance, the Principal took me aside, and told me that many of my students had been in and out of trouble since Kindergarten.  She confided that after the performance, she was seeing these troubled kids “in a new light.”  I still get choked up, thinking about that moment.  I suddenly realized that making a change in a young person’s life was actually possible.  Making a difference… was possible.  Not just possible, but happening, and I’d been a part of that.  It blew my mind, and at the same time reinforced the importance of what I was trying to do.

What’s coming up in 2014 for AFA Chicago?

In 2014, we are thrilled to be continuing with Creative Writing at Hammond, and I’m in the planning stages of implementing a Drama workshop at McCormick Elementary (another low-income school on the South Side), as well as a few other small projects.

Are you currently seeking volunteers?

Yes!  We are seeking a volunteer to help Stacey with Creative Writing at Hammond from time to time, plus we’re seeking volunteers with Theater backgrounds to help with the Drama workshop at McCormick Elementary (once it’s up and running).  We’re also looking for a Visual Artist who might want to mentor the Gage Park High School’s Art Club, a few hours a month!

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