Words Of Wisdom With Audrey Kaplan, Founder and CEO of Applause NY
I had the pleasure of interviewing Audrey Kaplan, Founder and CEO of Applause NY. Audrey launched Applause, a performing arts program on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in 1995 with the dream of helping children of all ages and backgrounds discover, nurture and celebrate their passion for theater. Applause has touched the lives of thousands of children over the past 23 years and the names of Applause alumni can be found in nearly every Playbill in every theater in New York City, and others decorate the credits of dozens of movies and television shows. But Applause measures success not by awards, roles or even callbacks, but in terms of self-discovery, the profoundly enriching experience of finding your voice and pursuing your passions with confidence — no matter what they are or and where they might lead you.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
The theater bug bit me at a very young age — and somehow tracked me down in the Deep South, where I lived until moving to New York when I was 11. My mother loved the theater and Broadway music became the soundtrack of my formative years. At home or in the car, we always seemed to be listening to and singing along to one musical or another. Mame was my mother’s favorite. She listened to it every day and I still know every single word. I staged my own production of the music my mother and I loved, entertaining the cows in the pasture next to my backyard or belting out Music in the Mirror from A Chorus Line to anyone who would listen. As much as I love New York now, I loved the South of my youth. But when my parents told me we were moving to New York City, I couldn’t believe it. I was heading to the theater capital of the world. Grease was my first Broadway show. I absolutely loved it. Then when I saw Annie a few weeks later, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was the first time I saw children my own age performing for an audience and it was mind blowing. “They are just like me,” I thought. And, to quote A Chorus Line, I said, “I can do that!” But my parents knew nothing about how to help me get started in the business. I found my way into the acting camp Stagedoor Manor through an ad I came across in The New York Times, changing my life forever. There, in this wonderful camp community, I found a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging and a collection of kindred spirits whose blood coursed with the same passion for performing as mine and who would become my lifelong friends. My resume also includes nine years as a New York City Public School teacher. I was a Model Teacher, a designation that meant my practices and techniques were shared with other teachers and principals. Combining my love for theater and passion for teaching, I created Applause in 1995 to pass on to others that sense of fulfillment and belonging that can only be realized by doing something you love. Applause was my way of paying if forward. But not just a place to nurture a love for performing, Applause would also be where a budding artist could acquire the practical skills and instruction that were not available to me at camp, but absolutely critical for launching a career in the arts. I also had a strong desire to open up the arts to children from underserved areas of the city whose talents and passions would otherwise never find an outlet.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
We started up a film program at Applause about five or six years ago, but over the past year or so it has taken off like a rocket. We post the videos produced in this program, short films that often feature some of the youngest students at Applause — kindergarten and first graders — on our YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtc-e8TUxMJASE-bqZCj7aw). We made the videos public mostly to give students a chance to see the output of their work and share it with family and friends. About a year ago, though, a few of our videos caught fire, as often happens on social media, and went viral. One of these videos, called Mean Teacher, now has nearly seven million hits. It’s staggering to contemplate that it would take a stage actor, playing before 2,000 theatergoers a night, about 3,500 performances to reach an audience that’s as big as the online crowd that has viewed that single video. In the past couple of months our YouTube Channel (Applause New York) went from 1,000 to 70,000 subscribers. Most of our videos now pull in more than a million hits, and in the fall of this year we begin shooting our videos in the YouTube corporate studios. But the program isn’t just about exposure. The students are learning every aspect of the film-making process. They come up with ideas, and then we have writers create the scripts and professionals film and edit each video. We are now sending many of these short films to film festivals around the country. It’s the well-rounded performer who has the best chance of making it these days. Not just a training ground for actors, singers and dancers, Applause has produced some of the busiest and most respected writers, directors and producers working in TV today. In addition to expanding the film program, we are always exploring ways to broaden our reach through new programs and projects. We recently developed a Master Series targeted at college hopefuls that is already highly successful.
So how exactly does your organization help people?
Applause’s mission is the same for both tuition students and those on scholarship. Objective number one is to provide our kids with the skills, discipline and confidence that will serve them well through the rest of their lives, regardless of whether that means a career in the arts or any other vocation. I strongly believe that confidence is a currency of inestimable value. A kid with confidence will go far, and nothing builds confidence like performing in front of an audience, memorizing a script, harmonies and committing to memory complicated dance choreography. My son, who was the inspiration for my baby program, is living proof of the power of performance arts. He was as shy as they come, and our pre-school program was instrumental in peeling away that shell. He is now, at 18 and about to enter college, an accomplished speaker and a persuasive advocate for the things he is passionate about. But in addition to an education in the arts and prepping children for the rigors of life, Applause is about acceptance and tolerance. At Applause, everyone is welcomed and embraced for who they are. Instead of disparaging or trying to dampen what makes us different, we celebrate those differences daily at Applause.
Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?
We opened a foundation about three years ago to reach students in underserved areas of the city. Applause has produced many accomplished professionals, including Sebastian Stan, Skylar Astin, Erich Bergen and Sas Goldberg, just to name a few former students who have become headliners in the entertainment business. But I get no greater satisfaction than witnessing the transformation and blossoming of a young man or young woman who we’ve reached through our foundation, which is focused on 9th through 12th graders enrolled in charter schools, many in Harlem and some on the Lower East Side. One of our great successes is a young man named John Tomlinson, who everyone knows as John Tom. He was recommended for our foundation by one of his art teachers. He will be the first to tell you that at that time in his life he was directionless and in danger of spiraling downward. When he showed up at our summer camp, wearing a baseball uniform, he displayed almost no aptitude for singing or acting. However, his dancing was off the charts, despite having no training. At the end of the summer, we offered John a full scholarship in our dance company. He was a star, pulling other students into his orbit with his infectious smile and love-of-life attitude. It wasn’t long before his acting chops surfaced and we were thrilled to then offer him more scholarship opportunities in our theater performance workshops. He just finished his freshman year at Boston University, where he’s on a full, four-year scholarship, receiving a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts (BFA) from BU’s prestigious acting school. I couldn’t be prouder.
This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?
The John Toms and so many other successes that Applause has produced over the past two decades drive me every day to impact the lives of others. All of us at Applause feed off the success of our kids, whether that’s measured by seeing a student, who at one point couldn’t deliver a line, mesmerizing millions on the Big Screen, or witnessing a shy and introverted boy or girl blossom into a confident and outgoing young man or woman. My mission is to make lifelong lovers of the arts. I don’t care if they express that passion in choosing a career in the arts or if they simply continue to support the theater through their patronage or by assisting groups and foundations that help the arts flourish and reach as many people as possible. Applause takes great pride in helping to grow a community of people who love and support the arts in any shape or form.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Arts programs in schools, both public and private, have been under assault for years, with programs being cut at an alarming rate. I’ve seen first-hand how the arts can change lives and how music, acting and dance can instill a sense of passion and belonging. A world bereft of art is almost too sad to contemplate. We need to reverse current trends and start increasing endowments to the arts. We are already partnered with many public schools in New York City, but our hope is to bring more programming to middle and high schools where kids desperately need a safe outlet where they will learn to communicate, become part of an ensemble and learn to collaborate with others in a positive way. I’d also like to see the arts placed on an equal plain with other disciplines in the scholastic world. So much training and acquired knowledge goes into putting on a show. Participating in theater programs can provide children with new skills that will translate into future success without them even realizing it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are so many people who have supported me along the way, whether in the form of advice, emotional support, financial generosity or simply being a sounding board when I needed help with a challenge or navigating around a bump in the road. I am grateful to them all and feel confident they know how much they mean to me. But since it is my passion and love of the theater that has brought real purpose to my life, I owe a great debt to my parents, who were responsible for planting and nurturing that love of the arts. If my mother wasn’t such a lover of musicals, I’m not sure where my life might have gone. I doubtlessly have her to thank — and Auntie Mame.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
(1)Number one on the list, of course, is to ignore the doubters and stay focused on your mission. That’s true for every passion, every vocation, but I think it’s especially true of those pursuing a career in the arts. It took me a while to learn that lesson and I still regret the time I wasted feeling sorry for myself and doubting my future.
(2) Also high on my missed-advice list is acceptance that you can never make everyone happy and you should focus on what pleases you and stick to what you believe in.
(3) Another piece of advice that gave me insight that would have been valuable when I was younger is that if a customer is unhappy with something in your business, they will tell 100 people. If they are happy with your business, they are likely to tell about five people. It’s sometimes human nature to amplify the unpleasant, and, with social media, the megaphone available to everyone has never been more powerful. You can’t control what people say about you or your business, of course, but you can try to limit the ammunition you give them to think despairingly. Treat everyone with respect.
(4) Another of my favorite aphorisms is that when a door is shut, don’t be afraid to open it up and go through it. The worst that can happen is that the person on the other side will tell you you’re not ready and to go home. And that’s not the worst thing.
(5) Finally, a sort of summary of the above: Always believe in your ability to make your dreams happen.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. :-)
I’ve been so blessed to have the ear of so many wonderful people in the arts and business communities who have been so generous with their time and their financial support. I would love to grow that roster and I encourage all those who are inclined to support the arts, and particularly programs that bring the beauty and opportunity of the arts to underserved areas, to reach out to me for information about how they can help. But if I were to name one person who I would love to lobby for their support personally it would be Michelle Obama. Besides the opportunity, selfishly, to express my great admiration and respect for her service and the example she sets for young women everywhere, I’d love to present her with ideas of how the performing arts can be a lifeline to children everywhere, but especially those in underserved areas, many of whom may never even get a chance to see a Broadway play. I would love to bring Applause to the Southside of Chicago and work with the Obama Foundation.
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.