For a man who never wanted to work with kids, Rick Sperling has found his bliss in the most unlikely arena.
“I wanted to be a Broadway AC-tor,” Sperling declares, with a melodramatic flourish and knowing smile. (Sperling always seems to be smiling.) “I started acting when I was 4 years old.”
Perhaps his childhood passion foreshadowed his career as founder, president, and co-artistic director of Mosaic Youth Theatre, Detroit’s internationally celebrated troupe marking its 25th year in 2017, currently training and inspiring more than 500 young people from 51 schools across southeast Michigan. However, it’s more likely Sperling’s epiphany arrived when, after graduating from Oberlin College, he returned home to Ann Arbor and landed a job with the gone-but-not-forgotten Attic Theatre.
It was with their outreach program and “going into schools,” he recalls, grinning at the obvious paradox. “Hey, it was a job. It was a way to pay bills so I could do what I wanted to at night. But once I got involved, it was really eye-opening.
“I’d heard all the warnings, ‘Be careful about the Detroit schools,’ but I found the most incredible, excited, enthusiastic, talented young people. Then when we finished our residency, in three or five weeks, there would be this outpouring of emotion from the kids, tears, farewell parties. I thought, ‘Wow. But we get them all excited, then we leave.’ ”
Sperling and his colleagues asked the Attic management to stage a play for the students.
“We had about 150 kids audition from schools we worked in, then they ran one line in the ‘Names and Faces’ column of the Free Press and another 150 came out of the woodwork! We thought, ‘This is a real need.’ We had to admit, working with these teenagers was more dynamic than what we were doing in our adult careers.”
That revelation was inspiration for Sperling, 49, to build a world-class youth arts organization in the heart of Detroit. On March 4-6 at Music Hall for Performing Arts, Mosaic is presenting a “Dance to the Music” vocal engagement. It’s one of three major productions Mosaic stages every year, in addition to appearing regularly throughout the community.
They’ve performed for audiences from Singapore to Senegal, toured 25 U.S. states and developed creative partnerships with the Stratford Festival and the renowned Public Theater in New York City.
Yet even with its silver anniversary in sight, Mosaic seems a largely unheralded artistic treasure in its homeland. But its benefits to the thousands of metro Detroit youngsters who have participated in Mosaic are manifold — and now, quantifiable. Sperling cites a three-year study of Mosaic by the University of Michigan (“the School of Social Work and Department of Psychology, not the theater department,” he notes) intended to measure what are now called “creative youth development” programs.
“They asked new members for three years, ‘How far do you plan to go in school?’ ” Sperling explains. “Over 36 percent did not expect to get a college degree; 12 percent expected to drop out.”
He says that after one year in the program, more than 97 percent expected college degrees and half of them expected postgraduate degrees.
“That’s not because we do all this tutoring or anything. It’s because we feel once you connect a young person to their passion, other parts of their lives come together,” he says. “They set high expectations for themselves.”
“There’s a lot of negative peer pressure in the world, but not here,” adds DeLashea Strawder, Mosaic’s associate artistic director and director of music programs. “Here, it’s ‘Did you turn in your homework? You know you can’t be in the show if you don’t, and we need you!’ We focus on mastery here, because that’s how we help them excel in all the things they do.”
Mosaic is open to all students from age 7 through high school. The auditions are intense, but necessary: Youngsters not deemed ready for the theater’s Main Stage are invited to enter its introductory program, First Stage, or intermediate Second Stage.
“It helped me realize that performing is my passion,” says Chloe Davis, a 15-year-old student at Henry Ford Academy, who went from First to Main Stage after a year. “Mosaic is a priority, but I also have school and church. You have to find balance.”
Students pick a track — acting or singing — that they pursue for an entire year. Vocals are taught by Strawder, one of Mosaic’s many success stories: She is an alumna of the program and was invited back as an instructor while studying at Wayne State.
“I call her a musical genius, and more and more I’m realizing it’s true,” says Sperling. “National touring companies have come through here, watched DeLashea working with kids and said, ‘Do you realize what you have here? She has the most incredible ear we’ve ever heard. We need to steal her.’ Thankfully for us, her roots are in Detroit.”
After living like nomads throughout its history, Mosaic found a permanent home sharing space with University Prep Science and Math Elementary School on Detroit’s east side.
For its 25th anniversary next summer the troupe plans a road trip performance at Public Theater, celebrating all its alums now working in New York.
“We want to be ambassadors for Detroit,” Sperling says. “Sometimes it feels like we’re just establishing ourselves. I know this is the company I wish I’d had as a kid.”
Mosaic Singers in Concert: Dance to the Music March 4-6. For more information go to mosaicdetroit.org.