City man director of arts group

Laurence Capo has the reins of Young Audiences of New Jersey.

By: Michael Redmond
   Any New Jersey arts organization that plays to an audience of 450,000 a year is clearly in the big leagues, which is why one has to wonder why Young Audiences of New Jersey is not much better known.
   An independent nonprofit agency, Young Audiences of New Jersey is the primary presenter of professional in-school arts programs in New Jersey’s schools, pre-kindergarten through Grade 12, as well as day care centers, community centers and summer camps. The reach of Young Audiences is statewide to all 21 counties. Its artists’ roster spans all art forms — dance, theater, music, language arts, visual arts — and its programs are tailored to meet local and state curriculum standards.
   Truth to tell, Young Audiences is an amazing organization. And it’s doing more than connecting artists to educators, children to artists. Young Audiences is doing something of incalculable value to New Jersey’s artistic institutions. It’s "growing" the audiences of the future.
   Founded in 1973, Young Audiences of New Jersey is one of 32 chapters and affiliated organizations throughout the United States, all under the umbrella of the national Young Audiences organization based in New York City. In 1994, Young Audiences was honored with the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest arts award, which was accepted during a White House ceremony by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a member of Young Audiences’ advisory board.
   The national Young Audiences certifies local chapters for program quality and initiates a range of services and programs, including MetLife "Dance for Life," a partnership between Young Audiences and MetLife Foundation to bring dance into the schools at 16 locations nationwide.
   Thanks to a local partnership between the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Young Audiences of New Jersey, MetLife "Dance for Life" is being presented in New Jersey with dancer Lori Katz of Randy James Dance Works in residency for third- and fourth-graders in Parkway Elementary School in Ewing.
   Through January and February, Young Audiences of New Jersey will be presenting "Dance for Life" and other in-school programs in Mercer and Middlesex, including a stop at Village Elementary School in West Windsor with Ball in the House, an a cappella singing group that has been garnering a lot of hot buzz.
   There’s news from Young Audiences of New Jersey.
   Following a long and distinguished tenure as the group’s executive director, Kristin Golden Wenger stepped down in August. She has been succeeded by Laurence Capo of Lambertville, who is no stranger to Young Audiences of New Jersey and to the state’s theater community.
   Mr. Capo — "Larry" to all and sundry — has served on Young Audiences board for 13 years. Prior to Young Audiences, Mr. Capo had served professor of theater and chairman of the fine arts department at Rider University, as administrative director with McCarter Theatre Center and as president of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, the consortium of the state’s professional theater companies. He then jumped ship to serve as chief administrator for Michael Graves Architects, then as senior associate — administrator and theater specialist — for Farewell Mills & Gatsch Architects.
   While he was at McCarter, Mr. Capo initiated the theater’s children’s series.
   "My experience was that aside from movies, there wasn’t a lot of arts events that parents could take their children to — live performances, that is — that wasn’t expensive," he said. "My idea was to provide an opportunity for families to see something worthwhile in a theater that didn’t cost a fortune. There’s such a dearth of events that aren’t sports or movies."
   Mr. Capo has carried into his new job the same conviction that already animates Young Audiences — that there’s no substitute for the live experience of art, the personal experience that simply isn’t available to youngsters on screens, whether big or little.
   Mr. Capo’s detour into architecture occurred after he had "turned 40, and they sought me out. I thought, how fascinating this would be, working in a field I had known nothing about. But I so missed the arts," Mr. Capo said.
   "When Kris informed the (YANJ) board that she would be resigning, I said, this is something I really want to do. For me, it’s like coming full circle. Arts education is really where I belong. I’ve loved all the jobs I’ve had, but this has to do with coming home."
   Mr. Capo has assumed control of an organization that is already highly regarded in its field. It’s in good shape, too, as nonprofits go, always subject to the vagaries of the economic climate.
   "YANJ is one of the best-kept secrets in New Jersey," Mr. Capo said. "We’re the vanguard of arts in education in this state. We’d like to get out the word about that."
   Mr. Capo believes YANJ’s low visibility is due to the fact its constituency is "children and educators."
   "The challenge for us is to figure out how our programs could filter up to the parents," he said. "Our new series of theater events at McCarter ropes in parents. The other benefit is getting the kids out of the classroom and into the theater so that we can get them used to going to theaters. This is something we hope that they will be doing their entire lives."
   In the schools, YANJ presents some 4,000 programs a year to approximately 450,000 children. Eye-popping numbers, indeed. A reporter who sought to double-check the number was assured, yes, that’s the ballpark for the year’s assembly programs, hands-on workshops with artists, residencies, the works.
   "What we do is of incredible value to the children, to their communities, to our state as a whole." Mr. Capo said. "The arts help children to develop as people and to understand the world better. The arts are as important to a person’s education as any other field. This country needs people with the capacity to be creative — the corporations know that. When people really come to understand that the arts are basic to education, then it’s impossible for the arts to be viewed as second-class citizens in the pursuit of knowledge."
   All YANJ performances and workshops provide knowledge or skills related to the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards. The organization adapts and retools its programs to keep them constantly in line with the content standards as the state Department of Education revises them.
   Looking ahead, Mr. Capo thinks big.
   "There are 1.6 million school kids in this state. Our goal is to reach every child," he said. "Our annual budget level now is $2 million. It’s to the board and me to figure out what’s our next level and to strategize how we’re going to get there. Where we won’t be changing at all is that we will continue to find the most extraordinary artists to go into the schools. That’s something we know how to do."
   Another important issue to YANJ is the development of ongoing partnerships with the state’s professional arts organizations.
   "This is something that could have a remarkable outcome because YANJ is mission-centered," Mr. Capo said. "We’re not territorial. We’re not competing with these arts organizations so partnerships can be a win-win situation for the state’s children."
   Asked to come up with a "pie-in-the-sky" goal for YANJ, Mr. Capo said he would love to see the day when YANJ had created "an arts incubator — a space where artists could come together to develop new programs, where we could train artists to work in the schools and train teachers to work with artists."
   At the moment, though, Mr. Capo smiled and said he feels "like I’m just getting my feet wet. What a board member doesn’t know about day to day operations is amazing."
   Mr. Capo and his partner, Jim Olson, have been together for 27 years. They recently bought a new-construction home in Lambertville, which they share with their dog, Zoe.
Young Audiences of New Jersey is located at 12 Roszel Road, Suite B-102, West Windsor. For information, call (609) 243-9000 or visit