Workspace: Artistic director Jeff Smith wants every child to have a chance to perform
Those faces are what drive Jeff Smith.
They’re rich. They’re poor.
They’re black. They’re white.
On the stages and in the studios, though, they’re stars.
Smith is the artistic director at The Performers Academy, where each week about 200 children hone their skills.
They dance. They act. They sing.
And they blossom.
“I truly believe in arts for all,” he said, “no matter what zip code.”
Smith knows the effect the arts can have on a child. When his older sister, Kim, was trying out for a middle school revue, his parents encouraged him to do the same.
When he said no, “they dragged me there.”
The New York kid was definitely nervous his first time on stage as one of the guys during “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me.”
It was a turning point, especially after a little time where Smith had hoped to become the next Donald Trump.
“I became a different kind of kid when I started acting in middle school,” he said.
Smith joined the jazz band, began singing in choir and started a high school newspaper. After graduating fourth in his class of 42, he received an academic scholarship to Long Island University-Post.
Smith, 37, initially majored in international studies because he fell in love with the idea of traveling, after meeting the ambassador to the Caribbean. A problem quickly emerged: He learned he didn’t like politics
He switched his major to music education, which ultimately fed his desire to see the world. Smith performed in countries such as South Korea, England, Scotland and Wales before graduating.
After teaching eight years in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., he took a job in Charleston, S.C., in 2010.
The two school systems were polar opposites.
In Yorktown Heights, the district spent $15,000 per student and had about 5 percent of its students on the free and reduced lunch plan.
In North Charleston, 86 percent of the students received free or reduced lunches. All of the school’s musical instruments were “beat up” and there was no choral program. By Smith’s second year, the newly created choir performed 10 concerts.
Again, he saw what the arts could do. “There was an amazing transformation of the kids,” he said.
By then, he and his wife, Rachel, had settled into their first home with three children — Naomi and her baby twin brothers, Nathaniel and Isaiah.
Then came a note from his father’s Blackberry: There was an associate director’s job open at the Cathedral Arts Project in Jacksonville. (His parents moved here after having their fill of New York winters.)
Smith got the job, which gave him the opportunity to be involved in programming, staff development, budgeting and growing partnerships. And he had an “amazing mentor” in Kimberly Hyatt.
In May 2013, he left to become executive director at City Year. Within seven months, Smith realized it wasn’t the right fit. He missed the arts.
He’s been at The Performers Academy on Beach Boulevard since January, where he’s helping build programs for children. He’s also a consultant for other nonprofits.
“I believe so much in the joy of the arts,” he said, “and in the joy of discovery.”
And those faces? He believes in them, as well.