When Fidelity Investments expanded FutureStage last year beyond New York to help young people in underserved public schools in Los Angeles, Boston, Houston and Chicago realize their potential through the performing arts, it had no idea how incredibly life-altering and ambitious FutureStage would become.

For Earnest Meadows, who wrote a play that fellow students performed for one night on Broadway, it has meant the difference between a life on the streets, having had no home throughout high school, and acceptance at Cornell, since FutureStage kept him "busy, active, happy" and interested in school.

Since its establishment in 2006, FutureStage has moved from strength to strength, with Tony Award-winning celebrity actors, directors, playwrights, musicians, sound technicians, composers and conductors joining the academic program in 2007. In New York, 10 of the plays written and produced by students at the 10 participating schools, selected by Learning through an Expanded Arts Program (LEAP), are performed on a Broadway stage for a two-evening finale that includes a documentary on how each of the plays was inspired, written and produced.

This year, Peter Gallagher hosted the event, at which John Leguizamo, Marsha Mason and Claire Daines also appeared. Chazz Palminteri and Charles "Roc" Dutton were two of the actors who coached students during the eight months leading up to the big event.

According to Jennifer Brown, EVP of communications services at Fidelity, the idea began as a bridge between client entertainment opportunities and Fidelity's community outreach program, which has existed for about 30 years but only as a "very minor" initiative.

Several Fidelity employees "got together, met in a room for two days and decided we would put professional playwrights, actors and directors into schools," Brown said. The idea is to give children "an excellent, intense drama program and have a goal to strive towards." Fidelity brought the Viertel/Baruch/Routh/Frankel Group on board to provide actors, choreographers and directors, and Samuel French, Inc. to publish the plays.

With these key partnerships in place, it is just a matter of seeing what the participants can do.

Certainly, the students' comedies and dramas that made their Broadway debut last October portrayed themes of hope, encouragement and self-identity. "The biggest change I've seen in the children is in the power of their voice," said LEAP Teaching Artist Raquel Almazan. "All of a sudden, their limitations dissipate because we've given importance to their ideas."

The experience also inspires the students, Brown noted, pointing to how Gallagher gave the students a valuable, lifelong lesson. "They asked him how he got where he is today," Brown recalled, "and he said, 'You get where I am by showing up and going to audition after audition after audition. There is no lucky break. You get there by sheer work. I got a break because the day I didn't feel like going to an audition I got up, went and got my break.'"

FutureStage has a budget, and is solely funded by Fidelity, but as Brown noted, it is the considerable effort that the people at Fidelity, and elsewhere, including the Boston Pops, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Houston Symphony, put into the curriculum that really makes it a success. Clients, teachers and theater professionals have taken note. "They are really impressed that we'd go out of our way not just to put our name on something but to actually think about how we could help give these kids a future," she said.

"Arts programs in schools raise students' self-esteem, boost math skills, provide adult role models and help lower dropout rates," Brown stressed.

"The program has two objectives for Fidelity: it raises our brand awareness, and we're hoping that our clients and our partners will care as much about what we're doing for the community as we do." Perhaps Fidelity FutureStage is also producing future clients and investors. And who knows, as Brown put it, "one of the benefits of this program [might be] to discover the next Claire Danes or Kathleen Turner."

(c) 2008 Money Management Executive and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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