Skip to contents
Jefferson Park, Portage Park, Norwood Park

A Jefferson Park Nonprofit Is Helping Teens Access Higher Arts Education

Downstage Arts trains high schoolers interested in pursuing a college arts degree. It has a 100 percent college program placement rate.

Mischa Reddy, Lindsey Cummings, Jesse Hosek and Gabrielle Oliver smile for a group photo at the Chicago Music & Acting Academy's Jefferson Park studio Aug. 17, 2023
Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
  • Credibility:

JEFFERSON PARK — Musical theater student Jesse Hosek is looking forward to having their weekends booked up, because that means a head start on their dream career in performing arts.

Hosek, a student at Chicago Music & Acting Academy, is part of a high-level, two-year teen cohort program organized by Downstage Arts. The nonprofit arm of the academy was launched in 2020 by founder and studio owner Lindsay Cummings, a professional singer, actor, teacher and director who has a passion for teaching young artists

The program prepares high school juniors and seniors for the college audition process and getting into their dream school. They learn how to pick a college, prepare audition material, film self tapes and hone individual skills.

Hosek, of Galewood, is part of the fourth class participating in the program, which kicked off Saturday.

“From Downstage Arts, I hope to become better [at auditions] and learn more about different colleges that would work for me as a performer, especially someone who wants to stay in Chicago,” Hosek said.

Since the nonprofit’s inception, 32 students who’ve gone through the competitive cohort program have been accepted into top theater schools across the country with a 100 percent college program placement rate, Cummings said.

Most of these Bachelors of Fine Art schools are harder to get into than the Harvards and Yales of the world, she said.

“We have a pretty rigorous application process that kids needs to complete; it’s an application and then they have an interview with us, so we are really choosing who needs help and who is really ready for this like next step in their journey,” Cummings said.

Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
Mischa Reddy, Jesse Hosek and Gabrielle Oliver smile for a group photo at the Chicago Music & Acting Academy’s Jefferson Park studio Aug. 17, 2023.

Many of the cohort students come from all over the city and are funneled through Chicago Music & Acting Academy, which opened in 2019 and offers arts classes for kids 5-18 years old.

The grant-funded cohort program is free and aims to break down barriers to higher education and arts program training pathways for juniors and seniors that usually cost at least $10,000 per student, said Katrina Dion, the nonprofit’s grant writer, fundraising and business consultant.

“Everyone has the power to be an artist for free, so whether that’s a resource like helping with the process of college applications, voice and acting coaching … that is really where Downstage Arts came in — being in this population with a clear need, for not only arts education for youth, but also really building that bridge between [high school and college],” Dion said.

Dion has helped raise $60,000 for Downstage Arts since joining in 2020. The nonprofit is partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council Agency and individual donations and sponsorships.

Gabrielle Oliver, of Pilsen, is starting her second year in the program. Learning how to be organized and the researching the college application process were some of the lessons she learned in her first year, she said.

Oliver is a senior at The Chicago High School for the Arts and is thinking about applying to Howard, Spelman and Columbia.

“What I hope to learn this year is how to prepare for auditions, so really getting ready for that this year,” Oliver said.

Hosek wants to stay in Chicago and attend either Northwestern or DePaul.

“I really want to end up working in Chicago, so I think it’s important that I train in Chicago,” they said.

‘It Really Is About Supporting Us’

The access and affordability is what pulls so many students in, and part of what has made the program successful. Mischa Reddy, of Portage Park, joined the cohort last year and found an artistic community that they lacked from an online high school.

“I don’t think I would have been able to do the program if it wasn’t financially accessible, so I’m so grateful for that,” Reddy said. “It was all these resources that I wouldn’t even have known how to find, much less pay for. I think it was just completely so valuable for me.”

Reddy is jetting off to their top school this month: Emerson College in Boston, and credits the Downstage Arts program for helping them grow artistically, organizationally and boosting their confidence, Reddy said.

“You can tell that everyone who’s working for Downstage Arts genuinely cares about helping us because they’re not sucking money out of us,” they said. “It really is about supporting us.”

As the Jefferson Park program grows, so does its dollar signs and awareness, leaders said. That means more donations that can help hire financial advisors, dance call teachers and loan advisors to boost the arts instruction to future cohorts, Dion said.

The everlasting goal for Downstage Arts is to reach young people interested in the arts and show them there is a career pathway, she said.

This year, the program is partnering with After School Matters to bring teaching artists to Chicago Public Schools and build on that mission.

“The more grant funding, the more teaching artist time that we’re able to support, which allows us then to be able to go into schools and provide that entry point even earlier,” Dion said.

Program leaders hope the Downstage Arts cohort program can be more broadly known and change the traditional, expensive view of higher education art programs that often cater to wealthier families. And with a robust success rate and strong ties within the local and national arts scenes, students have “brilliant leaders to help guide them,” Dion said.

“I’m looking forward to meeting the new people in the program and just getting started,” Oliver said. “I am ready to work.”

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. 

Thanks for subscribing to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods. Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.

Watch our “On The Block” TV show on The U, CW26 and MeTV.

Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: