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The Program That Mary Built

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Before I’d become an usher for Park Square Theatre’s Education Program in 2014 and even as a season ticket subscriber about a dozen years ago, I had not known that Park Square Theatre has a robust and award-winning education program that now serves up to 32,000 students per year, one of the nation’s largest teen theatre audiences.  Our program not only provides outreach to school communities throughout Minnesota but even into parts of Wisconsin and as far as Iowa and the Dakotas.

Park Square Theatre’s Education Program was founded in 1994 by Mary Finnerty, who has also served as the theatre’s Director of Education for over 20 years.  Its creation story has the stuff of show business legend:  Artistic Director Richard Cook offers Finnerty a plum gig to direct Equus.  She has to decline because she’s having a baby in September and plans to leave Theater to find “a real job.”  A flabbergasted Cook watches Finnerty depart but quickly regains enough composure to stop her with a clearing of his throat, then a return of his capacity to speak.  Hadn’t Finnerty once been a teacher?  (Yes, she’d taught English and Theater for nine years, earned a Master’s degree in Directing, plus started and managed a community theater.)  Would Finnerty consider creating an education program for Park Square Theatre?  One that would impact the lives of so many youths, most certainly exposing some to their first theater experience ever?

Ultimately, Richard moves Equus to the spring so Finnerty can still direct what proves to be an enormously successful production. And she is hired as part-time Education Director.  The rest is history.

Finnerty has built Park Square’s Education Program brick by brick, laying a strong foundation with her organizational know-how, fearless experimentation and wisdom to not go it alone.  During her first year as Director of Education, she reached out to other teachers to help her design programs and study guides to be relevant and effective for teachers as well as students.  The Educator Advisory Board was thus born, initially with four teachers.  Today, the Board has grown to 18.

Just within the second year of its inception, Park Square’s Education Program had already attracted an astonishing 3,100–and by 1999, 18,000–middle and senior high school students.  For over two decades, the program has continued to steadily grow in audience and scope of service, with offerings of Immersion Days filled with workshops as varied as Improv to Stage Makeup, Build A Moment presentations for glimpses into collaborative stagecraft and post-show discussions with directors and actors, excited to spark young audiences.

Park Square’s Education Program also prides itself in offering what we call An Evening of Theatre During the Day, treating our young patrons just like our evening audience but at a lower cost, with ticketed seating by professional ushers, an unabridged playbill and, of course, the exact same production seen by evening audiences.  Teachers are even invited to an annual Teacher’s Night Out, an event designed by teachers for teachers to get a special insider’s look at the Education Program.

Middle and high school teachers bring their students to Park Square Theatre–many year after year–because they find the Education Program’s offerings to be uniquely tailored to their needs.  Because they are created with the help of highly committed teachers, the study guide for each play is so carefully designed to be age-appropriate, thematically relevant and user friendly.  The plays themselves, from such classics as The Diary of Anne Frank and Macbeth to newer offerings like My Children! My Africa! and Flower Drum Song, are also chosen to engage a wide spectrum of audiences.

It literally took my working for Park Square as a daytime usher and personally witnessing the response of school groups to discover and appreciate the priceless jewel of the Education Program that lays within the treasure chest that is Park Square Theatre itself.  Throughout this upcoming season, I look forward to unveiling to you the many facets of this precious gem–a program built by a teacher, with the help of teachers, for both teachers and, most importantly, their students.

Ting Ting Cheng

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