Diana Slawson intuitively knew what countless education studies have proved: students involved in theater programs earn higher standardized test scores, are better readers, have more self-confidence, are motivated to succeed, and have higher levels of empathy and tolerance.
And it all started because she wasn’t athletic.
"When other kids were outside playing sports, I was inside listening to Broadway musicals on the stereo," said Slawson. "I always had a love for the arts."
She considered a career on the stage and even performed a bit, but her strict Italian father didn’t want her to move to New York City. Instead, she became an English teacher and taught some theater classes in the Albany area. She married, had children, and when her youngest started school, she decided to combine her love for education and the stage and open a theater school. The Children’s Academy of Theatre Arts was born in 2002 with nine classes taught per week.
The project grew quickly, and in a few short years she dropped "Children’s" from the name (her students were growing along with her own children) and changed locations. In 2016, the Academy of Theatre Arts (ATA) relocated again to a more spacious Transit Road facility which now houses several classrooms and a 150-seat performance space.
Looking back, it was a bold move for a teacher with a passion for theater and no business training, Slawson said.
"I had never taken a business course in my life. It was a leap of faith. I had no business opening up a business," Slawson said. "The worst thing that could happen was that I would fail."
She knew her impossible dream was working when she watched one of the Academy’s first productions in 2002, an original production/riff on "A Christmas Carol" called "Edward Neeberscrooge." It was a triumph "watching the kids on stage and seeing them find joy in what they were doing, and in the friendships they built from each other," said Slawson. "Then I knew I did something special."
The Academy – now with nearly 700 students — has an afterschool program for kids who just want to take classes as part of their weekly schedule, plus three theater companies for different age groups: elementary school kids ages 7-10; middle schoolers; and the Academy Encore Ensemble for high school students, with places earned by audition only. "This is their travel team, their competition team," Slawson said.
Slawson also runs Young Performers of America, a youth company in New York City, with a consortium of Broadway stars who hold conferences, workshops, and master classes. They will also travel to this area to work with ATA students. Because of this, Slawson said, "My students in Buffalo have a unique connection to Broadway that no one else in the country has."
Ben Lanfear, 14, a ninth grader at City Honors School in Buffalo, is already an ATA veteran. "I started at ATA when I was 10," he said. He explained that his experience at ATA is centering him as an actor and is also inspiring a college and career path. "For college I want to try to get into New York University or Carnegie Mellon University. I don’t have a plan B."
Just as important is that sense of working together with other actors, and developing esprit de corps and work ethic.
Sarah Anderson, 15, a junior at Clarence High School, has spent two seasons at ATA with roles in "A Chorus Line" and "Rock of Ages." "I like how committed everyone is," said Anderson. "They genuinely enjoy doing it."
Slawson contends that theater training does so much more than introduce kids to the hard-knock life on the boards.
"Theater is a springboard for so many life lessons and life skills. I have a former student who is working on Wall Street who gave an oral presentation that landed him the job. That’s his theater background."
Now more than ever, she believes, some level of theater education and participation is a must for kids. "There’s such a change in our society now, with technology in the forefront and being such a huge part of a kid’s everyday life. Kids need to find a way to have a voice. Theater allows that opportunity."