Naperville is known for its rich, artistic culture, with outlets for theater, fine arts, and music alike. However, for those looking for training in the performance arts, the closest options reside in the city. Enter the Academy of the Arts — a nonprofit educational institution that serves the Naperville area, coupling high-level arts and high-achieving academics. With a diverse portfolio of classes in dance, theater, and music, the aim to is offer quality programming worthy of big city recognition.
“We offer programs in visual arts, media arts, music, dance, theater, and technical theater. Our teachers are a combination of local arts professionals, national arts professionals, collegiate faculty, as well as highly qualified educators. Our students need to learn from a variety of perspectives to be able to truly have a well-rounded arts education,” said Executive Director and Co-Founder Dylan Ladd.
The Studio is the Academy’s evening and weekend program for adults and children that offers four 10-week sessions each year. Classes beginning October 25 include ballet, jazz, songwriting, voice, theater design, and acting. The Academy’s summer program, IMPACT, is for students ages 10–18 and provides training in Broadway masterclasses: dance, acting, and voice. And, finally, the jewel in the crown, the Academy’s K-12 day school that will start its pilot in Fall 2023.
Ladd explained that in starting the Academy, the mission was clear — to provide career-specific training that is often hard to hone in a traditional public school setting. “As public schools work to support the needs of as many students as possible, it becomes very difficult to provide career-specific training. In the arts, there are many skills that students can begin working on at a very young age, but they do not receive these resources in most schools. By specializing our curriculum, we have the opportunity to offer classes that students might not see elsewhere such as music technology or ballet.”
With only one other independent arts high school (located in Chicago), the proximity limitation for suburban kids was tangible. The Academy will strike a balance between academics and arts to create well rounded students ready to tackle this competitive field without the hour-long commute.
“One way we plan to achieve our goals is through the incorporation of Arts Integration, where our teachers take standards from arts subjects as well as core subjects and teach both in the same lesson. An example that I love to share is one that my Co-Founder, Julie Hindenburg, uses in her 8th grade language arts class. Julie’s students work on narrative writing by creating and producing their own stage play. They also direct and perform their works for their peers, taking theater and language arts standards and placing them in the same lesson plans.”
Much research and logistics went into conceptualizing this unique Academy and choosing Naperville as its hub. The brainchild of three educators determined to create something different for young artists, the Academy sprung from an in-depth examination of needs. In Spring 2021, the team hired a consultant firm Connor Associates to complete a ‘location feasibility study.’ They looked at all of Illinois and Wisconsin to see where this type of school could find the most success. Ladd shared, “After researching locations with families that support the arts, high-growth rates in student populations, access to higher education, and great public transit, Naperville was the number one city in their study. In fact, they identified over 170,000 families in a 45-minute radius around Naperville that checked all of those boxes.”
The success that the students at the Academy have found this summer during the IMPACT Summer Series speaks for itself. Some of the biggest Broadway names trained students in dance, acting, and vocals. Students concluded the program with a field trip to see a Broadway show and a student performance for family and friends.
It was there that participant Layla Cummings was given the opportunity to audition for a Broadway show based on her performance. Her mother Laura recalls, “The theatre community is so special, and this group seemed to bond very quickly. Layla loved learning from the Broadway talent, especially Erica Henningsen. To have a chance to sing in front of her was incredible, and she truly gave Layla notes that improved her audition song. Finally, the experience with Merri Sugarman was a dream come true. We signed up for the camp in part because of Merri’s amazing background and reputation, and we knew she would give Layla really important insight and feedback. We never dreamed she might actually scout Layla and ask her to go to New York City to audition for a national tour, but that is what happened. Due to IMPACT, Layla got to go to New York and audition for the national tour of Les Misérables. We’re blown away that Merri is keeping Layla in mind for future opportunities, and Layla had a truly dream-come-true first time going to New York City. The Academy is connected to legitimate talent in the theatre industry. The experience, role models, and talent they bring is invaluable to area kids who are interested in theatre as a career.”
The Academy is actively fundraising to build its state-of-the-art academic and arts school with 50 classrooms. Having a direct connection with the professional arts world is important to the Academy’s mission, which is why they brought in a brilliant team of Artistic Advisors including Alex Lacamoire (Music Director and Orchestrator for Hamilton/In the Heights) and Taylor Dayne (Pop Star). Taylor Dayne is joining the Academy for a special event in Naperville on Friday, February 10th to support Academy of the Arts. Tickets are on sale now at IllinoisArtsAcademy.org/taylordayne