When organist Joshua Stafford took the stage in the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC) on Jan. 14, 2019, he sat before a very large, yet very small, audience. Stafford’s performance was a part of a long running community-sponsored event the PAC’s School Matinee Performances program and his audience was primarily composed of local students ages five to twelve.

According to PAC Outreach Specialist Andrea Castillo, the program is the largest it’s ever been.

The School Matinee program is one of the PAC’s methods of community outreach. Since the PAC opened its doors 23 years ago, its staff has been engaging local schools through the program, which offers elementary and middle school students the opportunity to encounter the arts. During the school day, teachers, parents and students file into the Performing Arts Center to watch professional performing arts events, generally 60 minutes in length and all at no cost to those attending.

During the 2018-19 season, the PAC will offer 15 performances featuring a variety of performers. More than 75 schools already have reservations for performances this season. Some schools are traveling to the PAC from as far south as Lompoc, Calif. and as far north as Cambria and San Miguel, Calif.

“For us at the Performing Arts Center, we want to continue to build our audience and to have programs that are accessible to everyone in our community,” Castillo said. “We want to start those relationships with the community when they’re young, so it’s great to have a kindergartner come to the performing arts center for the very first time. We love to have the hall all full with people whose feet don’t touch the floor.”

The program has been entirely community sponsored for the past three years. Attendees are offered free admission and transportation support made possible by the donations of a variety of sponsors. According to Castillo, the program has seen increased attendance since offering transportation support, thus removing an accessibility hurdle for some local schools.

The Foundation for the Performing Arts Center helps to facilitate all fundraising related to the program. Executive Director of the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center Leann Standish explained that the repeated generosity of sponsors has made this arts experience available year after year.

Since its inception, the program has grown to accommodate thousands of children. Reservations open the May before the upcoming season, and performances often reach capacity months in advance. This high demand occasionally prevents schools from attending, a problem Standish hopes to solve in coming years.

“Twelve thousand kids will come for free this year, and our goal is to keep growing this number until nobody needs to be turned away, so that not every show is sold out so quickly,” Standish said. “As the Foundation is growing and arts in schools is declining, we have made it a priority to fund this through our fundraising efforts each year, so it isn’t prohibited and so kids can get there.”

Since 2015, the Harold J. Miossi Charitable Trust has acted as the title sponsor for the program. Other sponsors include: Bank of the Sierra, Central Coast Funds for Children, California Arts Council, The Community Foundation San Luis Obispo, Justin Vineyards and Winery and more.

Collectively, these sponsors account for more than $150,000 in donations. These funds covers artist fees, production costs, housing, hospitality, promotion and, most recently, transportation support for the schools.

“In this community there are a large number of people who are very philanthropic and very generous,” Standish said. “They are the people who supported the original idea of the PAC, which was an accessible theatre. Those are the very same donors who, to this day almost 25 years later, are still funding things like school matinee programs.”

Perhaps the only people who love the program more than the staff of the PAC are those who attend the events for enjoyment. Superintendent of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education James Brescia said he has seen an overwhelmingly positive response from teachers and students alike.

“Any time students can have exposure to the arts and be engaged with any medium — specifically theater, music, visual performing — it’s positive,” Brescia said. “You see an increase in critical thinking skills, engagement and problem solving as well as just exposure to the humanities.”

Jillian Smith, a fourth grade teacher at Robert Bruce Elementary School located in Santa Maria, reiterated Brescia’s sentiments. Smith said the performances are an important learning tool for her students.

“The students are always entranced by the performances,” Smith said. “The cultural experiences that they get to partake in [are] invaluable. The matinees help our local schools bring music, arts and creativity into the classroom.”

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