Donny Williams, Jr. and teacher Gretchen Frazier. Frazier, a violist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and Eastern Connecticut Symphony among others, is one of the teachers at the new Westville Performing Arts Center (WPAC). Lucy Gellman Photos.
The long-silent school building at the corner of McKinley Avenue was coming to life.
In a second-floor classroom, Gretchen Frazier grabbed a purple dry erase marker, and sketched out four thick music notes floating down a scale. Through the wall, the faint refrain of “Hot Cross Buns” started up for the third time in 10 minutes. The sound of drums drifted over the hallway, singing on the downbeat. Back in Frazier’s classroom, 8-year-old Donny Williams, Jr. came over to the board and read every note.
It’s a normal scene at the new Westville Performing Arts Center, where Arts In CT has set up shop one one floor of the former St. Aedan/St. Brendan School on 351 McKinley Ave. Saturday, the arts incubator marked its grand opening with a day of Covid-cautious classes, from masked string, dance and singing lessons to tutorials on Shakespeare and contemporary movement. Read a previous Arts Paper article on the organization's move to Westville here.
Arts In CT Founder Barbara Alexander bounced from room to room, often in song. Bursts of piano spilled out of her corner office every few minutes. Meanwhile, teachers rolled in and chatted with each other beneath crisp masks, waiting for potential students to arrive.
Top: Barbara Alexander with 12-year-old Kaylee George. Bottom: The scene in Denise Vosburgh's art class.
“I like Arts In CT because I get to express who I am on a constant basis,” said Earl Ali-Randall, a longtime teacher at the organization who is in charge of WPAC’s West African and jazz dance curriculum. “I feel like it’s a family. I’m with the vision.”
In the few months since the move to Westville last year, Alexander has recruited over a dozen teachers for the McKinley Avenue space, which sits on the second floor of an old, imposing stone building on a quiet block of the neighborhood. There are dancers including Ali-Randall and Wes Yarbor, string instructors like Frazier, yoga geeks, opera singers who have performed in New York and Italy, and actors who eat the Bard for breakfast and Greek tragedy for lunch and dinner. Because of the pandemic, the organization has also continued to offer virtual classes in addition to in-person ones.
Saturday, reminders of the building’s former life kept bumping into its new one. Gentle, cartoon-esque renderings of saints and apostles shared space with crafting tables and pint-sized easels. Yarbor set a boom box down on a floor that, not so long ago, housed neat rows of desks and hushed, squirming students. West African drums pounded through classroom number two—Alexander calls them suites—as the Virgin Mary kept watch in pearlescent blue and white at the end of the hall.
10-year-old Sophia Torrens and her stepdad, Joshua Gharis.
Nobody seemed to mind. In the art room, 10-year-old Sophia Torrens cut out a series of construction paper hearts, labelling each of them carefully as she slipped them into a see-through Valentine’s Day ornament. Love, read one. Mom, read another. When she labeled a third with the word Hatred, she explained that “you gotta put some love on all that hate” in the world, as a way to stop it in its tracks.
A student at Seth Haley Elementary School in West Haven, she and stepdad Joshua Gharis came out to the grand opening after spotting it online earlier this month. For Gharis, a professional photographer, it’s a way to pass his love for art down to Sophia. For Sophia, who started making art as a toddler and never stopped, it’s a way to relax in a world that doesn’t always feel relaxing. She said she’ll likely be back for classes in the spring.
“Now I’m calm,” she said. “When you’re angry, you can just doodle your feelings away. It helps my mind to not think of the bad and think of the good.”
8-year-old Leah Dobin.
Across the table, 8-year-old Leah Dobin filled a matching ornament with neat red hearts, debating the merits of decorating the outside with her mom Rachel. Teacher Denise Vosburgh checked on her progress, then checked on the watercolor supply as students squeezed globs of yellow, blue and green onto their palettes and began to mix. When an abstracted canvas caught her eye, she stopped to watch a student paint for a while. Sun streamed through the window, illuminating both of them.
Based in Hamden, Vosburgh is a very new member of the Arts In CT family—she signed up to teach after a phone call with Alexander the night before the grand opening. After two years of teaching largely online, she said she was excited to be back in the classroom. She squirted her hands with sanitizer, rubbing it between her palms as she spoke.
“It’s so much fun to see them finding a technique that fits their desire to express themselves,” she said. “The more you accomplish, the more you know what you want.”
Top: Art teacher Denise Vosburgh. Bottom: Dr. Lisa Bryce during her lesson with Naomi Rivers, who did not want to be photographed.
Three rooms over, Dr. Lisa Bryce welcomed 8-year-old Naomi Rivers to the keyboard for a voice lesson. Born and raised in New York City, Bryce met Alexander years ago, while both of them were studying opera in Italy. During the pandemic, she began teaching Arts In CT courses from her Brooklyn apartment. Saturday, she took the grand opening as a chance to visit New Haven (“it’s so peaceful,” she mused between lessons) and give a few master classes in person. As Naomi stepped up to the keyboard, Bryce beamed beneath her mask.
“We are going to laugh with a lot of energy at these notes!” she said, She placed both hands gingerly on the keyboard and began to play. Standing directly across from her, Naomi lifted one foot barely off the floor, just enough to set off a series of flashing pink lights in her sneakers. She began to laugh-sing in time with Bryce’s notes. Her mom, Jane Rivers, watched quietly from the corner.
“Now that you have such energy in your voice, let’s sing ‘Hot Cross Buns!’” Bryce said, her eyes bright over a grey mask. Naomi’s voice filled the room, rising to the ceiling. She later said that singing “makes me feel good,” whether it’s the soundtrack to Encanto or Bryce’s warmups.
Teachers Earl Ali-Randall, Matthew DeCostanza and Jeannie-Marie Brown. DeCostanza, who grew up in Connecticut and is a playwright, will be teaching Shakespeare.
In the hallway outside, Ali-Randall chatted with fellow teachers Jeannie-Marie Brown and Matthew DeCostanza. Born and raised in New Haven, Ali-Randall started teaching with Arts In CT almost six years ago. For him, it’s the chance to give back to a community that raised him, from classes with Sheri Caldwell and Elaine Peters to his current work with Hanan Hameen and the Artsucation Academy Network. He added that he’s grateful for the work in the pandemic, which has pushed some of his dance classes online. When he's not dancing, he is a paraprofessional in the New Haven Public Schools.
“The potential for development is huge,” Brown chimed in. “The liftoff part is often complicated, but we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Strains of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” cut through their conversation, bobbing into the hall as a door opened somewhere. Inside a sunlit classroom, Frazier handed a violin to Donny Williams. “We can hold the violin like a guitar,” she said as he accepted the instrument tenderly, as if it were a newborn baby. As he placed it horizontal between his hands, his mom, Samantha Williams, pulled out her phone and began to record.
The founder of 628 Digital Design and the Collective of Minority Women Professionals, she later said that she has known Alexander for some time through work, and was excited to “support and amplify” the brainchild of a fellow Black woman.
Top: Wes Yarbor teaches a contemporary class. Bottom: Donny Williams, Jr. and teacher Gretchen Frazier.
Frazier put down the violins, and walked over to the whiteboard. Donny took a beat, and then came over to where she was standing. She drew out a treble clef that matched the color of her sweater, and then labeled each line with a note. He read them almost as quickly. Over a child-sized N95 mask, his eyes crinkled and rose just a little at the edges, enough to show that he was smiling.
“Ooh, you’re fast!” Frazier said, walking back over to the violins. “Good job!”
In her corner office, it appeared that Alexander hadn’t had a chance to sit down at her desk all morning. She jogged from the hallway to the piano in the corner of the room, where 12-year-old Kaylee George was learning to play the keyboard. Alexander pulled the bench out, straightened her back, and demonstrated careful form. She played a scale, and then stopped on D.
“D is the doggie with the two black ears,” she said, turning the bench back over to George as she watched her hands float up to the keys. “That’s how I always remembered it."
For both teacher and student, it was a full circle kind of moment. When George was five, she acted in Arts In CT’s first-ever performance, a production of Beauty and the Beast. Even as a villager ferrying eggs around the stage, “Kaylee was a star,” Alexander said. Then the two lost touch. When George and her mom spotted an announcement for the grand opening, they were excited for the chance to reconnect.
“It’s fun, but scary,” George said of performing. “I didn’t really know how to do it. I definitely want to learn more.”
The Westville Performing Arts Center (WPAC) is located at 351 McKinley Ave. in New Haven. Learn more about upcoming classes and a 2022 summer camp here.