According to Paul and Sheryl Russell, founders of Christian Community Theater, research over the past 20 years has highlighted the significant role the arts can play in child development. A video on the CCT website stresses that students who are in the arts are four times more like to be recognized for academic achievement and more likely to be elected to a class office. They also have a higher rate of participation in math and science fairs, as well as higher grades, test scores and graduation rates.
“The knowledge that you learn from performing and music transfers so quickly,” Paul Russell said. “Test scores go up 40 percent when a kid is involved in the arts. It’s the way God wired us. We learn when we sing it as a song but when you have to memorize something you can’t remember it. That’s why Jesus always told parables. He didn’t give us a list of do’s and don’ts. He said, ‘I’ll teach you it through a parable and you’ll remember the story and that will teach you how to live your life.’
“We’re wired to be storytellers. We’re wired to connect our emotions with what we’ve learned. School tends to take all of that out and just say, ‘Here’s your list, learn your spelling, and we’ll test you it on Friday.’”
He said students who have participated in shows like “Schoolhouse Rock!,” which put educational information to music, retain the information much longer.
“They have learned so many basic things because they have muscle memory and a song to go with it,” he said. “If Christendom would do the same thing we would have our churches packed with kids loving the arts but also filled with His Word.”
Here are some of the programs offer by CCT/CYT:
Christian Community Theater (CCT): Christian Community Theater was established in 1980 to bring wholesome entertainment to the community while providing an avenue for the public to pursue acting and theater production opportunities. The division produces numerous shows each year, including the crowd favorites “Senior Follies” and “Traditions of Christmas.” Last year CCT brought back its popular outdoor performances at the Mount Helix Amphitheater. This year, CCT will return there with “Mary Poppins,” set for July 9 to Aug. 2.
Christian Youth Theater San Diego (CYT): Launched in 1981, Christian Youth Theater offers three courses a year at each of five regional locations. Students ages 8 to 18 receive acting and crew training that culminates with an actual production.
Although the word Christian is in its name, the nonprofit is registered as an educational, not religious, organization. Their motto is “Developing character one stage at a time.”
“We chose that specifically because we are not representing any one denomination or one church,” Sheryl Russell said. “People think because Christian is in our name we are church but we’re not. We have Jewish children and unchurched children, a variety of denominations.
“We feel the Christian part of our name is what Jesus said: to love God and love people. So by our example we’ve seen many people either get back to their faith or discover it for the first time, but it’s more lifestyle of the actions of love.”
While enrollment is open to any child, Paul Russell said students are held to spiritual values during their training. That also means that certain shows are off limits because of their content.
“A lot of youth programs and high school programs, I am blown away,” he said, adding that he sometimes finds himself thinking, “You’re really doing that?” and says, “I would pull my kid out of school.
“We want to show the parents that when their kids are involved in our programs, the shows that we do, and the values and the morals that we teach, are all biblically based and are going to be based on Judeo-Christian values.
CYT Inc.: The youth program has proved so popular that licensing agreements have been reached with 25 affiliate groups around the country, including Riverside, Santa Cruz, Tri-Valley (Pleasanton, California) Sacramento, Portland, Oregon, Spokane, North Idaho, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Kansas City, Wichita, Waco, Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Nashville, Atlanta, Upstate South Carolina, Kansas City, Fredericksburg, Virginia, and New York City. CYT Inc., the national nonprofit that handles the affiliate programs, is also developing international programs.
CYT San Diego has eight employees, plus area coordinators and 60 part-time drama teachers, specialists and directors.
CYT Inc. has three full-time employees and three-part time curriculum writers who are working out of state.
“We had no idea how to duplicate ourselves. We had duplicated locally but not out of state,” said Sheryl Russell, who with husband Paul is employed through CYT Inc. “We kind of look at San Diego now as the test kitchen. If we are going to create new curriculum or a new idea or revise a manual, we work with San Diego and then from there after we kind of test it, then we roll it out to the nation.”
CYT@School: This is an on-campus training program where CYT-trained drama specialists conduct eight-week courses that conclude with a 30-minute production at the school. Sometimes underwritten by the PTA, the program helps school administrators meet performance arts training without having to hire a teacher.
“That turned us around because we weren’t just dependent on the kid’s families to come and see the show,” Paul Russell said. “It was whole schools bringing their whole student body and all of a sudden there was a cash flow.”
Now on 25 campuses, the program has proved to be their best marketing tool.
“I went to one last week and it was packed (there were) so many video cameras trying to get a glimpse of their little kid. It was so encouraging,” he said. “The formula works.
“The little kids would see their peers up on stage. They would go home and say, ‘Mom, we want to take classes. We want to do this.’”
CYT Tour Company: Tour Company students are the ambassadors for CYT, bringing CYT to the community in smaller settings and for a variety of occasions. The CYT Tour Company performs for school assemblies, at organizational dinners and meetings, as pre-event entertainment, for community fundraisers and health fairs, for private parties, special occasions, and at theme parks. Directed by Tony Atienza and Kim Messina, this year’s company features 28 CYT veterans.
And more: In addition to its major programs, CCT/CYT offers a monthly Bible study, an annual EXPO conference that includes its Improvathon, numerous age-appropriate summer camps, and a rental service offering costumes, sets, backdrops, special effects and lighting. Among other projects in development is CYT@Church, which would provide congregations with drama kits featuring Bible stories that they could present in Sunday Schools or drama programs.