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    Arts grants add to Memphis' diverse culture

    Michael Lollar - The Commercial Appeal -

    As part of rehearsals, the crew used a sheet of metal, a drum, a tin can and a whistle to create the sound of a time machine whistling through the air into another era as part of a production of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine."

    "It is a production that wouldn't exist if not for a grant from ArtsMemphis," says Bob Arnold, executive director of Chatterbox Audio Theater. He is staging four productions of the science fiction drama at Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired to give the feel of radio dramas from the 1930s and 1940s, like the riot-inducing Wells' classic "War of the Worlds" from 1938.

    The $3,000 grant to fund the Clovernook project is one of 26 grants presented this week for educational and outreach projects by arts groups across Memphis. From the Tennessee Shakespeare Company to Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the 26 groups received $238,150, part of ArtsMemphis' overall $3.3 million grants program for 2012-13.

    At ArtsMemphis, president and CEO Susan Schadt says the educational and outreach projects are part of a program that is intended to grow. ArtsMemphis launched the program using its own grant, $750,000 from the Assisi Foundation, to broaden arts education in the area over a three-year period.

    "We are basing the first year on merit," says Schadt, who will look for "community input and measurements," including surveys, to determine which programs are funded during the next two years of the grant process.

    The Tennessee Shakespeare Company received a $19,000 grant for making Shakespeare relevant to high school freshmen. It began with a pilot program last year at Germantown High School with "Romeo and Juliet." The play about dysfunctional families turns into a vehicle for discussions about family battles, peer pressure, prejudice and violence. The play's families, the Capulets and the Montagues, can be compared to gangs, says Slade Kyle, resident artist and education manager for the Shakespeare company.

    "We're taking it off the page and putting it into their hearts, bodies and minds. It begins to become much more relatable to them," he says.

    With the grant from ArtsMemphis, Kyle says his company is expanding the program this year into Bartlett, Kirby and Ridgeway high schools and possibly one more school. Kyle says he hopes to expand it again next year as a vehicle for teaching social change, one of the project's key messages.

    "Most of the tragedy in 'Romeo and Juliet' could be avoided if the kids would talk to their parents," he says. "It's OK to talk to your parents. That's what they're there for."

    The variety of projects funded through the grants program is part of what ArtsMemphis Education & Outreach Program Director Barb Gelb calls a "collective impact effort of arts and culture organizations across the community." Those receiving grants will hold projects in such diverse places as community centers, parks, libraries, Church Health Center, MIFA, the Child Advocacy Center, Girls, Inc., Caritas Village, the Rise Foundation, Bridges, Girl Scouts, the Urban Child Institute and the National Civil Rights Museum.