Arts & Culture

Creative Solutions Forever Connects Christian and Diego

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Christian and Diego are forever connected through their life-altering involvement in Big Thought’s Creative Solutions summer program at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. Creative Solutions teaches art to juveniles convicted of a crime, giving them a second chance at an enriching future.

So they spend hours each day inside the Owen Arts Center – Christian exercising his muse in the performing arts theaters, and Diego creating colorful masterpieces in the visual arts workroom.

Yet one is a returner and one is a newcomer. Returners started the summer 2016 program on June 14, while newcomers commenced on June 15. Both continue through the official close of this year’s program with the culminating performance July 29.

Sitting down to gather thoughts from Christian and Diego underscored the many similarities shared between a teen who knows the ropes and one just learning the scene. They both need to be validated, they crave the opportunity to be expressive, and they relish the nurturing vibes of an encouraging environment.

Take a look at these mini profiles, and see them at work in the photos. We need to be respectful of their identities in pictures and in text. But their personalities, their will to matter, always shine.

Christian M.

Fifth year Creative Solutions student

Age: 17

Art interests: Acting, singing, dancing, poetry

What brings you back?

“The experience of being onstage, having the chance to have my work out there, be myself but at the same time be someone completely different onstage,” says Christian. “I like getting to meet new people and see some old faces. Although it feels good to have an audience, it wouldn’t matter if there weren’t one because I know the work I put into it. I know that I did it and that’s the most important part.”

What is the power of Creative Solutions?

“It gives me a backbone. There is a ton of support here and tons of love. It is freeing. It’s an open place. It lets you express yourself like you want to express yourself.”

Does this feel like family?

“Of course! Some days there is no place I would rather be than here. It’s an open place, a welcoming place. There are people here that understand me better than I understand myself. Although there are some people that annoy you sometimes like brothers and sisters, those are the bonds that never go away.”

Diego A.

First year Creative Solutions student

Age: 15

Art Interests: Mosaic, drawing, painting, ceramics

What brings you here?

“I want to express myself,” says Diego. “I like to feel independent. I like to work on my art at my own pace. In ceramics, making a cup or doing a statue, it has my print in it. It feels great because it is something that I’m doing that I can be proud of.”

What is the power of Creative Solutions?

“For me it’s an awesome experience. I thought it was going to be just one of those probation programs. It keeps me off the streets. I do what I like to do. I enjoy myself.”

Does this feel like family?

“I feel like I can relate to a lot of people here because most of us have gone through the same things,” says Diego. “We all felt pain at some point. Nobody judges you. No matter who you are or what you did, you are treated with respect. We come from the same places; we grew up in the same places.”

Big Thought’s Creative Solutions thanks the Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, Anonymous, ExxonMobil, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, TurningPoint Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund for their generous support.


Big ThoughtCreative Solutions Forever Connects Christian and Diego

Creative Solutions Lights the Way Back for 12,000 Students

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

The day is unapologetically sunny, a gorgeous early summer vibrancy tamed by the canopy of trees lining Southern Methodist University’s Bishop Boulevard. There is brightness here; a glowing hue that charts a path like a lighthouse illuminates the way back for a wayward ship.

Alonzo C., an 18-year-old student of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program, sits on a couch lining the Owen Arts Center’s second floor. Below him are the Bob Hope and Margo Jones Theatres. This is Alonzo’s fourth year in the Creative Solutions summer program at SMU’s Algur H. Meadows School of the Arts, a seven-week, arts-driven series of sessions that ends in a culminating performance July 28 and 29.

Like most of the 12,000 students embraced by Creative Solutions since the program’s inception in 1994, Alonzo found his way back after being convicted of a crime and experiencing probation.

“When I first started it was 2013, I used to be quiet and shy,” says Alonzo. “Each year helped me become more and more talkative. It made me feel like people actually do care for you. They want to help you overcome what you are going through, and they never judged me.”

Alonzo found his muse for singing, dancing and performing arts through Creative Solutions. He found his confidence. He found his empowerment. Alonzo now has a job, he stays out of trouble, and he can see a future.

“I learned that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” he says. “Creative Solutions helped me to not go back. I’m not a bad kid, but I know that without this I would probably go back. But I am serious now.”

Creative Solutions has come a long way in its 22-year existence. Back when Big Thought’s Lisa Schmidt founded the program, working closely with probation officers and the Dallas County Juvenile Department, it was all very “intuitive,” she says. “We felt it would work. We did not know the science behind it. Now with all this data, we are able to use it to redesign our programs to make them more effective and more scientifically based. They are now data driven.”

The Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS) analysis of the past two Creative Solutions summers revealed that 41 percent of youth increased their social skills by more than 5 percent, which is considered statistically significant. Also, 40 percent of youth decreased their problem behaviors score by more than 5 percent, also statistically significant.

At the heart of that social-emotional learning is Big Thought’s Program Specialist Allison Caldwell, who in 2011 became Projects Director with Creative Solutions. Caldwell, who works day in and day out with the CS students, feels deep-rooted, emotional compassion for these kids whose lives have been anything but idyllic. These are kids stuck in a potentially widening opportunity gap.

Caldwell counts on the character-building work of Creative Solutions teaching artists Alejandro Perez, Jr. and Menkiti Rice, both instrumentally involved in the CS summer program at SMU, to take these kids through a psychologically fortifying two months.

“Everybody starts in a different place and leaves in a different place,” says Caldwell. “Some kids come in more wounded than others and have more work to do. They all leave taller, more confident at connecting with others because they can’t make it through the program without improving.”

Making it through, using that beacon to find your way to a safer, more fulfilled place, remains the goal. “For many kids this may be the first thing in their lives they actually finish,” says Caldwell. “That public embrace at the end is new for them. To be seen, heard, validated and not shamed is very empowering.”

How do those seven weeks go by? With singing, dancing, playing drums on water jugs and Home Depot buckets, writing poetry, doing calisthenics, chanting motivating mantras, making mosaic art pieces, sitting at the pottery wheel, working on your eye contact and posture, learning to shake hands with adults and mentors, finding the right words to express yourself, taking the time to solve conflict, being open-minded, seeing conflicts from other perspectives. It’s all about self-exploration, connecting with others through empathy, communication and collaboration, and self-regulation.

“Don’t just do something, stand there,” says Caldwell. “We teach them to take a pause before they react. If you have been through trauma it is harder to control your emotions. That’s because they are inherent survival instincts.”

Surviving morphs into prospering and the evolution begins. Sixteen-year-old David O. is back for a second year of Creative Solutions at SMU. His specialty is acting and creative writing, so that culminating performance at the end of July is paramount. He’s grown confident with singing and creative writing. He also has a summer job now that nourishes him with healthy responsibilities.

“I like this,” says David about Creative Solutions. “I wanted to see how it would be the second year; see if it was the same. I want to be part of that performance again. It’s important that I be there. If I’m not there I’m not doing my part and everybody else suffers. If I’m there I help out and we make the play a whole lot better.”

That’s the spirit of the Creative Solutions family. These kids start as strangers verbally opposed to each other and end as friends united by the will to bond. “It really becomes this tight knit group of support,” says Caldwell. “Kids you never thought would work together are in a room working toward a common goal. There is always intolerance at the beginning and then it turns into acceptance.”

Alonzo is living proof. The loner walked in never expecting to connect, only to walk out with a new set of friends. “They opened up to me so I opened up to them,” he says. “They changed my plans.”

“We have seven weeks to trust each other like a family,” says Alonzo. “You feel pride and accomplishment about that performance. They make it easy for us to do that performance because they make the environment safe.”

And the lighthouse illuminates another path.

Big Thought’s Creative Solutions thanks the Dallas County Juvenile Department, Dallas County Juror’s Fund, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, Anonymous, ExxonMobil, Mr. and Mrs. David Chortek, Ms. Serena Simmons Connelly, Mr. Tom Connelly, Elizabeth Toon Charities, Hillcrest Foundation, The M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation, Mr. Jay Judas, Texas Bar Foundation, The Junior League of Dallas, Katherine C. Carmody Charitable Trust, Ms. Eliza Solender, TurningPoint Foundation, Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and The Ellen Wood Fund for their generous support.






Big ThoughtCreative Solutions Lights the Way Back for 12,000 Students

Big Night Fundraiser Attracts Staubachs, Guests and Feathered Friends

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

How would you plan a big night? Would it include gourmet Tapas with craft beer and wine? How about music – maybe a live band? You must have a S’mores bar outside complete with marshmallow roasting fire pit. What about a bird show?

That was Big Thought Big Night at Trinity River Audubon Center. Our version of a big night highlighted Marianne and Roger Staubach, 250 guests, and four feathered friends.

Big Thought’s inaugural Big Night raised $126,535 to help close the educational opportunity gap for under-resourced children in Dallas. The casual-attired event, with TRAC’s 120-acre nature preserve as a backdrop, featured live music by Paradise In the Sun, a stocked bar loaded with craft beer and wine, delish finger foods that tasted as good as it looked, a S’mores bar overlooking the beautifully tranquil landscape.

Guests included Marianne and Roger Staubach, the evening’s Honorary Chairs; Melora and Bill Leiser, the Event Chairs; Big Thought President and CEO Gigi Antoni and her husband Dana Mullen. Also in attendance were Big Night Co-Chairs Alison and DeWitt Corrigan, Trish Parks, Giles Davidson, Emeka Anyanwu, and Irene Hosford.

We had many Big Thought Board Members in attendance including: Bill Albers, Phylecia Bare, Eric Brewer, Jennifer Chandler, Shaun Dowling, Melissa McNeil, Jeanette Johnson, Rina Parikh, Dan Patino, Pat Porter, Carol Riddick, Byron Sanders, Ketric Sanford, Kay McCallum, Terri and Steve Simoni, Joe Stout, Holly Tucker, and Larry Whitt.

Other notable attendees: Emily and David Corrigan, Maggie Corrigan, Haily Summerford, and many others.

The Window to the Wild bird show was certainly the hit of the evening. Window to the Wild co-founders Lindsey and Simon McNeny introduced us to four fine-feathered friends – a great horned owl, a black vulture, a Harris hawk and a screech owl. They flew for treats, perched on pedestals, and even landed atop one guest wearing a towering hat resembling a tree stump.

“Big Night was so wonderful,” said Melora Leiser, Big Night Chair and Big Thought Board Member. “Many people told me that they had a magical time. Roger and Marianne both said they hadn’t had that much fun at a fundraiser in a long time!”

The evening also included dancing, mingling, an Owl Prowl nighttime stroll, raffle giveaways, a student art exhibit themed to Where the Wild Things Are, naturally, and an inspirational call-and-repeat from DaVerse Lounge mentor Alejandro Pérez Jr.

“We all had a wonderful time on Friday at Big Thought Big Night,” said Deniz Usbug, Marketing Manager, IPS Advisors.

“Thank you again for the opportunity to learn more about Big Thought. The Big Thought team did a great job and every last detail was so well attended to from the food to the music.”

We would like to express deep gratitude to our sponsors Kroger, QuikTrip, Capital One, IPS Advisors, and Independent Bank for their generous support.



Big ThoughtBig Night Fundraiser Attracts Staubachs, Guests and Feathered Friends

Creative Electricity Charges DaVerse Lounge Season

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

You need 161 megawatts of electricity to light up New York City’s famed Times Square. It felt like we had that much power and more at the 11th season closing show of DaVerse Lounge.

Life in Deep Ellum was buzzing Friday night, April 1, 2016. There was so much positive energy in the air, a contagious joie de vivre that exuded from everybody walking through the glass doors. The crowd was varied, a mixture of DaVerse veterans, Lounge newbies, students, teachers, parents, artists, hipsters, young professionals and retired arts enthusiasts.

The evening’s statistics speak volumes:

  • 640 in attendance – the largest DaVerse Lounge crowd of the season
  • 41 students performed
  • 26 high schools in the house, 13 middle schools, 3 elementary schools and 2 colleges
  • 17 of those schools are outside of Dallas city limits (including McKinney High School, Mansfield High School, Greenville High School and Sam Houston High School in Arlington)
  • 13 Big Thought-supported DaVerse clubs attended

The event gave us another first: Marsh Preparatory Academy students presented an impressive singing, dancing and poetry number incorporating two songs titled “Hello” (by Adele and by Erykah Badu), original choreography and unique spoken word. It is the first time in DaVerse Lounge history that one performance features all three artistic disciplines.

“The poetry was amazing,” says DaVerse Lounge creator Will Richey about the Marsh showpiece. “The dancing was beautiful and well choreographed. The entire crowd sang with them. Marsh had the strongest facilitators there. They have some really strong teaching artists.”

For DaVerse Lounge partner and co-mentor Alejandro Perez, Jr., Friday’s show was highlighted by the kit square off of The Drummies, 10-year-old Adarian “AD” Roberts and 12-year-old James “JD” Beck, and a momentary excursion the Melody Memory bandleader took from the spotlighted stage. He slipped off to the Mokah Coffee Bar inside Life in Deep Ellum and found a student from Sam Houston High School who attended a recent DaVerse Lounge assembly and workshop led by Perez and Richey held at the school’s Black Box Theater.

“She remembered what I said about expressing myself with my body,” says Perez. “She said that dance was the best way for her to express herself; she could express herself more with dance than with words. That was so nostalgic for me because dance is my first language. I feel like you say so much more when you move.”

This is the beauty of DaVerse Lounge, particularly its nurturing partnership between Big Thought and Journeyman Ink. Big Thought champions creative learning, the need for all students to soak up real-life knowledge outside of the regimented school day. DaVerse Lounge is all about self-expression and equality. Every child, every teen has the right to get up on that stage and express themselves. At DaVerse Lounge there is no educational opportunity gap. Everybody with a message gets the mic.

“I’m continually intrigued about the necessary implementation of young people to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged,” says Perez. “That sacred ground is DaVerse Lounge. When you walk in you become a part of it instantaneously. You can be yourself. You don’t have to pretend to be anybody else.”

Clearly the impact of DaVerse Lounge reaches beyond the four shows each season. Like all youth-driven movements of the 21st century, DaVerse Lounge has a strong presence on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Richey mentions that high school attendance this season was higher than ever. He credits social media interaction.

Richey also points to DaVerse Lounge’s recent showcase at The Dallas Festival of Ideas: The United City, where a mini-lounge performance commanded a day filled with panels about the future of education.

“It has a much deeper impact on our city and our culture in North Texas than I ever imagined,” says Richey. “So many relationships are developing in the artistic communities that are transcending culture, races and age. The partnership with Big Thought and Journeyman Ink has been incredibly strengthened by Life in Deep Ellum. Joel Triska and the dedicated, selfless people at Life in Deep Ellum have added to the beauty and the depth of the evening.”

But as always, the power of any movement is best felt in the details. There was painter Matthew Brinston onstage creating a gorgeous, evocative abstract piece he titled “Share My Light,” a phrase lifted from the DaVerse Lounge mantra. Brinston, like everybody transformed by the DaVerse Lounge ambiance, has his own potent story.

“Here’s this young guy, 23 years old, whose career has taken off as a painter,” says Richey. “I’m moved by his story, a touring musician who was in a freak accident and pronounced dead and he woke up and just started painting. He was not a painter before his accident. It’s great to highlight a visual artist along with highlighting spoken word poetry and musicians.”

That’s the DaVerse Lounge energy. Perez felt “the pot was stirring and churning” Friday night. Richey soaked up the “intergenerational electricity.” DaVerse Lounge continues to buzz, to mature, to transcend. The 12th season promises to “strongly impact the creative culture in North Texas,” says Richey.

DaVerse Lounge is no longer just a poetry reading. It has the wattage to light up New York City.

DaVerse Lounge thanks TACA, State Farm and the Dallas Mavericks for the generous support.





Big ThoughtCreative Electricity Charges DaVerse Lounge Season

Musical Theater Masterpieces Come In Every Style

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Jonathan Camacho, a music composition instructor at Septien Entertainment Group in Carrollton, got right to the point: “There is not as much of a gap between pop songwriting and musical theater as you think.”

Especially today as contemporary pop, rock, rap, Latin and country styles have been seamlessly woven into the traditional fabric of Broadway’s musical theater history. So Camacho played “Look Down” from Les Miserables, classic Great White Way material, and then cranked up Lorde’s pop-electronic hit “Royals” and Muse’s alt-rock staple “Uprising.” Here are three different songs all examining the same basic subject matter – the dichotomous struggle between upper and lower class, poverty and wealth.

For five eager students, all budding musical theater songwriters, Camacho connected the dots vividly and succinctly. Camacho and fellow Septien instructor Remington Septien spent two hours imparting invaluable songwriting knowledge during the first NEA Songwriting Challenge Workshop from 1-3 pm March 12, 2016 at Septien Entertainment Group in Carrollton.

The workshop aimed to provide high school students with professional, hands-on direction and feedback as they prepare to enter The Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge for High School Students, a pilot competition spearheaded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Playbill, with additional support provided by Disney Theatrical Group. Big Thought is managing the contest in Dallas; Seattle and Minneapolis are also participating in the inaugural challenge.

The key message of the workshop was linking the power of melody and storytelling lyrics to a musical theater composition. Septien stressed the importance of melody, and potent lyrics to back up that melody. He said that melody should evoke a feeling that is simultaneously found in the lyrics. It’s like a pop song, but bigger. The audience must feel your excitement.

“At the end of the day,” says Camacho, “whether it’s a pop song or a theater song, it’s about telling a story worth telling.”

Many well known musicals were mentioned – Grease, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Cats, and naturally Hamilton, the current Broadway sensation. “Hamilton is huge, and it’s an old story,” says Camacho. “So there’s always an interesting way to tell a story.”

That led to an interactive exercise. Each student was challenged to write a one-line summary of his or her song’s theme. Each theme was individually discussed as each student was prompted to think about these important questions: What is my story about? What am I telling? Why am I here? What draws an audience to my story?

Compelling music and lyrics draw listeners to songs. That’s always at the crux of songwriting whether it’s a pop tune, a rocker or a musical theater masterpiece.






Big ThoughtMusical Theater Masterpieces Come In Every Style

Dallas Youth Poets Fly High on Spoken Word

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

When can paper airplanes propel teens into the wonders of poetry? When you decorate those flying sheets with choice lines from the works of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

With paper planes in hand, six teens forming the Uncle Walt and Aunt Emily teams tossed them toward a couple of octagons taped to the floor – one encircling the letter “E” and the other surrounding the letter “W.” The planes that cleared the octagons became inspiration for a poetry and prose writing assignment.

Teamwork, even in poetry, is vital. That was a key mantra of the Dallas Youth Poets workshop held Saturday afternoon, Jan. 23, 2016 at Big Thought’s Blue Room.

Dallas Youth Poets, which was founded by internationally renowned spoken word artist Joaquin Zihuatanejo, provides youth with a platform to hone their performance poetry skills and share their voice. Dallas Youth Poets is part of a partnership with Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program. DYP’s free, spoken word poetry workshops are always open to anyone under 19.

Teaching artists for the workshops comprise a group of local spoken word artists and educators, including John Oberly, Thom Browne III, who is also a DaVerse Lounge consultant, Princess McDowell, and Terry Odis, a DaVerse Lounge teaching artist.

Zihuatanejo took the lead during the recent Saturday workshop, taking the six teens on a fun yet intense ride through online poetry searches, creative writing assignments and impromptu 30-second monologues. The kids even got a three-minute stretch exercise session courtesy of Oberly’s peaceful instruction.

“We strive to find new and inventive ways for students to not only research poetry of master poets, in this case Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but we also want to find innovative ways to have students approach the blank page and not be intimidated by it,” says Zihuatanejo.

But there is also a greater goal at all DYP workshops. Students can earn points toward the ultimate aim – a spot on the 2016 slam team that will participate in local and national youth poetry competitions. Team members will be selected at an area wide youth poetry slam to be held April 8.

The participants rack up points as well as valuable experience by attending the workshop; by witnessing the upcoming DaVerse Lounge shows Feb. 5 and April 1 at Life in Deep Ellum; by winning the airplane toss (Uncle Walt’s team was the victor); and by participating in the impromptu spoken word exercises.

The students were charged with reciting on-the-spot, 30-second monologues centered on one of three topics: the best TV show currently, the worst person ever, or the worst jellybean flavor. Then it was researching and reciting an Emily Dickinson poem. Helpful critiques on vocal inflections, stage presence, pacing and posture from Zihuatanejo, Oberly and Browne followed each impromptu spoken word performance.

“These workshops not only help them write and express themselves, but literally opens their eyes to new people and experiences,” says Browne, who has taught creative writing for Big Thought through DaVerse Lounge and Creative Solutions. Browne and Oberly spearheaded Dallas ISD’s first ever Spoken Word Poetry class for credit.

For the students at the workshop, the experience was enriching and also reassuring, enlightening.

“It’s been really helpful for me because I’ve always listened to spoken word poetry but was afraid to try it,” says Mikalyn Flowers, 17, a Dallas-based student at A+ Academy. “I love writing so much. It felt so natural discussing poems. It really helps me express myself a lot.”

Aubrey Smith, a 17-year-old student at Cedar Hill Collegiate High School who lives in Oak Cliff, concurs. “I really like spoken word,” she says. “I watched it but never thought I was good at it. The feeling of reading my stuff out loud…I like it better when I read it out loud. I find that I can really express myself out loud. I used to be really critical of my work but this helps me see and hear my strengths.”

Poetry, like paper airplanes, can fly as high as the imagination. The centrifugal force that propels poetry feeds on much more than just pen, paper and words. Zihuatanejo has the bigger picture in mind.

“Yes, at DYP we are trying to make them better poets,” he says, “but in turn we are trying to make them better thinkers, readers, and speakers, all skills that go into making our students at Dallas Youth Poets not only better writers, but also better students and people.”

We thank our Creative Solutions donors for their generous support – Texas Bar Foundation; DCJD Juror’s Fund/Youth Services Advisory Board; David Nathan Meyerson Foundation; Dallas County Juvenile Department; Grant Thornton, LLP; Katherine Carmody Trust, Bank of America, N.A., Trustee; M.R. & Evelyn Hudson Foundation; W.P. & Bulah Luse Foundation, Bank of America, N.A.; Fossil Group Employee Engagement Fund; The Junior League of Dallas; Elizabeth Toon Charities; Turning Point Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; and Texas Commission on the Arts – Arts Respond. We also thank TACA for their generous support of DaVerse Lounge.

Big ThoughtDallas Youth Poets Fly High on Spoken Word