Over the 11 years that she’s been chair of the Performing Arts Department, one of the things Professor Melia Bensussen has most loved has been the students streaming into her office to tell her their stories.
But not all of the stories have been happy.
“The thing that’s most challenging for me is when kids come through here and they can’t afford textbooks; they’re not eating,” Bensussen said.
So it was fitting that when Bensussen stepped down as chair last month, her term was celebrated with the announcement of a new fund aimed at helping current Performing Arts students get the most out of their Emerson experience, and eventually, supporting scholarships so that more talented students can enroll in the College.
The Performing Arts Opportunity Fund was seeded with a $100,000 gift from Emerson College Trustee Robert Miller and his wife, Karen Klingenstein. Their son, Daniel Klingenstein, graduated from Emerson last Sunday with a BFA in Musical Theatre, so they saw up close both the value of the Performing Arts programs and the costs associated with studying and pursuing a career in theater.
An important part of Emerson’s Performing Arts program is participation in Emerson Stage, the department’s production company, said Bensussen, who will return to Emerson as the company’s artistic director following a sabbatical.
It’s through Emerson Stage that students put into practice what they learn in class, whether they’re studying musical theater, acting, design/technology, or stage and production management.
“This is beyond kids who can’t afford to come here,” she said. “Once the kids are here, they can’t participate in Emerson Stage because they’re maxed out on tuition and they have day jobs.”
On top of that, much of what Performing Arts students need to do to secure roles and jobs following graduation can present hardships for some. Professional head shots, travel to auditions, and conferences and workshops all cost money and, like Emerson Stage, require time commitments that are off the table if they need to hold down jobs.
David Colfer, executive director of Emerson Stage, said that the department is thinking about creative ways to use the fund to benefit students and performance at the College.
“[T]his has grasped a funder’s imagination and they have identified a need and value, and we hope others will follow suit,” Colfer said.
When President Lee Pelton and Provost Michaele Whelan asked Bensussen what kind of event she wanted at the end of her term, she told them she wanted whatever it was to focus on opportunity for students.
This gift, and the College, “struggles against the tides of a culture and country that doesn’t support the arts, by and large,” she said.
“No gift is too small,” Benussen said. “We mentor [students] through this community, and [they] eventually become our colleagues, and this is a desire to create a fund within our community to support each other.”