UNION, NJ — Union High School theater students recently had a double whammy of a surprise: a $10,000 grant from NBC for the school’s theater department and the chance to meet stars from the network’s new show, “Rise.”
The theater department was one of 50 in the nation to receive NBC’s R.I.S.E. America grant, created to “recognize and inspire student expression,” according to a March 5 press release from the network.
“Once it all set in, cheers erupted, tears flowed and a general feeling of joy engulfed the room,” Jennifer Williams, a choreographer in the school’s theater department, said.
The television series “Rise,” which debuted March 13, is based on the true story of a teacher who inspired students by building up the school’s drama program. The R.I.S.E. America program’s goal in making the grants available to school theater programs is similar.
Union High School was the only school chosen to have three stars of the show — Damon J. Gillespie, Josh Radnor and Rosie Perez — visit students March 9. The show’s creator, Jason Katims, and executive producer Flody Suarez were also on hand to take questions from students.
“It is a dream come true for me that ‘Rise’ will have a genuine impact on 50 high school drama programs throughout the country,” Katims said in a press release from NBC.
NBC worked with the Educational Theatre Foundation, a nonprofit organization that strives to shape lives through drama education, to provide the grant.
“The way these dedicated educators are impacting kids’ lives, against the odds and without the necessary resources, is heroic,” ETF President Julie Cohen said in a statement. “Every school was deserving, and their stories reinforce the need to continue this momentum until every school in America has a well-funded theatre program.”
Grant applicants had to submit a video showcasing their theater program and a 500-word essay saying how they would use the grant.
Williams said student Ronin Ruste, who plans to study film in college, helped make the department’s submission video. The grant funds will be put toward infrastructure purchases to modernize the theater, she said.
UHS theater students first learned of the grant award while working on their own production of “Peter Pan,” which opened March 16 and runs until March 25.
“The arts is the place in a student’s day where they get to put all of the academics together and interact with what they have learned in a hands-on way outside of the classroom,” Williams said in a recent email. “In putting together a show like ‘Peter Pan,’ the students hit on all different subject areas; weaving real life skills with more thoughtful and academic processes.”
She added that, during the current production, students have utilized lessons in history, math and English.
The R.I.S.E America grant program received more than 1,000 applications for the grant, according to the NBC press release. Bound Brook High School was the only other school in New Jersey to receive the grant.