Segerstrom’s Studio D — Interview with Casey Reitz and Chloe Saalsaa

segerstrom center costa mesa sped dance 2


The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, located in Costa Mesa, California, is a renowned performing arts complex that opened in 1986. It offers a broad range of world-class performances and innovative education and training programs like the American Ballet Theatre School. The Center is home to multiple performance and concert venues that incorporate a wide range of accessibility services to accommodate various disabilities. The Center offers assistive listening devices, braille programs, large print programs, binoculars, Open Captioning, ASL Interpretation, Audio Description, sensory friendly bags and weighted lap pads.

The Center broadened its community engagement in 2016 to include the School of Dance and Music for Children with Disabilities. The program continued to grow to include acting and all aspects of theatre. It is now known as Studio D: Arts School for All Abilities.

Studio D’s classes are inclusive, but specially designed for students with physical and cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, hearing and visual impairments and other complex needs. Classes can include siblings and children without disabilities. Studio D helps their students explore their full physical, creative, and social potential through dance, creative movement, music and sensory tools.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and photographer, Nancy Villere, visited The Segerstrom Center for the Arts to speak with President & CEO, Casey Reitz, about Studio D and its expansion, due in part to COVID. They also spoke with Studio D Manager, Chloe Saalsaa, about the classes and support offered to students as well as its community building benefits.

Chet Cooper: How did Studio D come about?

Casey Reitz: It predates me. I wasn’t here for it. I arrived in December of 2019.  But Studio D, which used to be called the School of Music and Dance for Children with Disabilities, and they changed the name.—They had been thinking about changing the name when I arrived, and we did switch it to Studio D at that time.—It kind of came to be, along with the creation of our community engagement department, which started in 2017, and it also was aligned with the renovation and opening of the Argyros Plaza outside. So, the Argyros Plaza’s mission is somewhat similar to Studio D in that it’s trying to remove any and all barriers from participating in the performing arts.

Casey Reitz, President & CEO
Casey Reitz, President & CEO of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Reitz: The barrier with the Plaza is by and large price. Because we do a lot of things that are free and low-cost outside, and you just come and see it. Obviously with Studio D, it was trying to say that disability won’t impede you from participating in the performing arts. Jason Holland, who ran the Department of Community Engagement at the time and a couple of board members and donors, Eileen Cirillo and Corey and Leslie Leyton, founded it with some of the seed money, and now it’s serving 500 students a year and there’s a faculty of about 19. But it started with mostly music and musical theater.

Cooper: Do you have virtual programs?

Reitz: The virtual started during the pandemic, when that was all we could do. We went out to try to connect with as many kids at home through the virtual as we could. And as we were promoting that, there were some families who arbitrarily started Googling resources and programs and came upon us. That’s why we were able to start adding them to the virtual classes that we were doing during the pandemic. I think that has continued to this day.

The idea is that we prefer in-person instruction if we can do it. So, that’s how we do it. And we try to make sure that each child has as much personal attention as we can (give). That’s why we have in the room at any one time the instructor, plus usually. an accompanist. Plus, we have these middle school volunteers. They’re usually assigned to, like, two kids at a time. Just so there’s somebody always there to support them, helping them to understand what the instructor just said. Plus, we have a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and a number of people in the room who can help in any given situation.

The nice thing about the pandemic was—There were a few. — I was always looking for the silver lining in the pandemic because, otherwise, you would crawl up in the corner and just cry your eyes out and not function. But the good news about Studio D during the pandemic was we were able to do the classes virtually, and the kids could—And it was mostly kids at that time. —do the classes at home. With so many resources being cut off from kids at that time and this being one of the few programs that addresses the arts for children with disabilities, it was really encouraging and exciting to be able to serve the kids so they weren’t lonely and sad and dealing with what so many kids were dealing with. But also, we were able to reach people outside of Orange County for the first time because there were some kids in South Carolina and Nebraska who signed up for the classes. I’m getting a little off-topic, but yeah, the program was created in 2017 with the idea of we’re trying in every way we can to eliminate barriers to attend the performing arts, whether your issues are distance or money or disability. And that’s just another one of the programs and tools that we have to address that.

What I think we learned during the pandemic, or at least a goal that we achieved or identified during the pandemic, was that there were opportunities here to reach outside of, if not Orange County, at least off the campus. It started almost by necessity during the pandemic, with streaming the classes on Zoom so the kids could have them at home whether they lived in Orange County or elsewhere in the country. Now we’ve started partnerships with the Santa Ana public library system, with CHOC (Children’s Hospital of Orange County), with the Santa Ana Unified System. So, we’re able to do them at public libraries and at hospitals. So, we’re starting to do it away from campus. That’s even eliminating another barrier, being that you have to be physically here at the Center to be able to attend the class. That’s no longer the case.

carly and juliet
Carly and Juliet

There’s still room to grow, and we’re looking at further partnerships and more ways to amplify it digitally. That’s the other reason why, another barrier we got rid of. One of the reasons we changed it from the School of Music and Dance for Children with Disabilities was twofold. That name’s a mouthful, and it’s not very catchy and so on. But we wanted to expand beyond music and dance, so we now have classes in acting, we’re planning on starting classes in visual arts. We were expanding beyond that. And then, we didn’t want it to just be children any more. I think our oldest student right now is like—

Cooper: Get rid of him!

Reitz: (laughs) Yeah, get rid of him! This happens with a lot of our programs for young people. We start at a very young age in general at the Center. The ABT ballet school you can start at three years old. But so many of these kinds of programs that serve either kids with disabilities or kids in general stop cold after high school or maybe college. We recognized that there was no outlet for the kids who had grown up in the school. There’s a little girl named Juliet who’s been here since 2017.

Cooper: Great stage name.

Reitz: (laughs) Her name is perfect! She’s just the cutest thing! We don’t want to just send people on their way when they turn 18; we want to still be a home. We’ll continue to serve an adult population as well.

It was time to change the name to allow us more flexibility in terms of what it can do and where we could take the program, so we changed it to Studio D.

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Cooper: What are you doing off site?

Reitz: We have a lot of associations with Disney, we do a program called “Disney Musicals in Schools.” We get the scripts and the instruction booklets from Disney. We send teaching artists into elementary schools, five schools a year, to perform “Jungle Book” or “Aladdin” or something. The idea is to create sustainable musical theater programs in schools.

We focus on elementary schools because, as you look at public funding for the arts, it’s been a problem for a very long time. If there is any public funding in the arts, it tends to be at the higher grade levels. You’ll see it in high school, but it gets cut from elementary first. So, we try to address the elementary school population. This is separate from Studio D, but I bring it up to illustrate that we like to use known properties like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” because the kids don’t have to worry so much about learning the story or the characters. They are already familiar with them, so then you can focus on what it means to act or project or emote or feel a character or feel a line or pause for a joke. You can really focus on the acting.

What we did in the public share was the older student, the 36-year-old, was Gaston because he’s a big strong guy and could do it. And then, the other kids break up the roles. Some play the chorus; some play the smaller roles, but they do the show. That’s how we taught them acting. You also teach them some prop work along the way. They have to make their own costumes, their own props for the show, a little sword or whatever it is.

We just started in the acting space. We started talking about it probably about a year or two ago, and I think in the last year we’ve started doing it in earnest with some pilot classes. The idea is to give the students options to pursue other things in the performing arts that aren’t just singing or dancing. That’s why we want to start doing the visual arts as well. It’s a good time to do that because we just got the neighbor, the Orange County Museum of Arts, so it would ideally be a good collaboration with them.

segerstrom center costa mesa studio d
Studio D dance class

Studio D

Chet Cooper: How did you get involved?

Chloe Saalsaa: It sort of all fell into place. I started working at the Center about seven and a half years ago as an admin and teaching assistant for ABT (American Ballet Theatre) plus the school, so the ballet program. Studio D was just being formed at that time. About a year or so in, they needed front-desk admin support. And I just kind of kept weaseling my way further into the program. I took on a full-time position as the coordinator in 2019 and then officially became manager in 2021.

Cooper: You’re a dancer?

Saalsaa: Yeah, and that’s what brought me to the Center and to the ABT program. I grew up dancing, ballet, predominantly. I went to UC Irvine and studied dance there as a dance major. I thought I wanted to dance on stage and go professional. But once I started working here my senior year, I learned more about arts admin and kind of found my groove better in that path than on stage. And I teach, I do teach a little bit, three classes a week for ABT. I’m still in the room leading the classes.

Cooper: Do you miss dancing?

Saalsaa: No, sometimes. I definitely get a sort of longing and sentimental feeling when I watch live dance.

Cooper: I noticed your foot started to twitch.

segerstrom studiod chloe
Chloe Saalsaa

Saalsaa: (laughs) I know, the muscle reflexes, I guess. I don’t know. But yeah, I think it was the better choice. But I do miss it. I miss the ritual of it and going to class daily and working on things. It’s just such a different lifestyle than the average life. But no regrets. I’m much more stable. (laughs)

Cooper: Emotionally?

Saalsaa: Yeah, emotionally stable. I guess so. I think my passion in dance—I always thought it needed to be channeled through performance and my own discipline and art. But I think I find more fulfillment when it’s either passing that on to my students or exposing students, who have less opportunity, to be involved in performing arts. Studio D being that new outlet for me to—I’m excited to bring dance to others. It’s a good switch.

Cooper: You call everyone students?

Saalsaa: We call them students. We’ve settled on that label because they are learning from the program. We don’t call them kids because we have adults in the program. We started at age four and have worked all the way up to senior age groups. They come to the program here. We also have classes off-site, but the majority of our programming happens on campus, which is great.

Cooper: How often do students come out?

Saalsaa: Our students come typically once a week for an hour-long class. It’s not so—You won’t see the six-year-old turn 12 within the seven years we’ve been open, or turn 13, I guess, and see that they’re completely a different artist or person based on Studio D, as if you would go to a conservatory-style school, where you’re training every day and focusing so rigorously on this craft. But, I would say, the success for us is more building community and friendship with one another. We’ve really seen students who’ve come, once they’ve built those friendships, or they continue to come because their friends are involved. That community aspect is really big for us. That’s success.

We’ve seen our curriculum grow from our students’ interests, which is really important to us. We have always— Instead of, “Oh, we have a great pianist on faculty. Let’s do a piano-focused music class,” it’s more so that our students have really expressed interest in acting and even voiceover acting. That sort of thing. Let’s do a theater-based class that’s focused on the art of acting. That’s where we’ve invested our curriculum development energy.

Cooper: How many types of classes do you offer?

Saalsaa: We have three classes currently that we offer to our students. Each of the curriculums for the classes have been developed by our arts team. We started our original curriculum called Dance and Music; and our original faculty helped to develop it. Since then, we have also added Musical Theater and a Theater class, which is our newest.

Cooper: Are you talking about curriculum like school teachers have?

Saalsaa: No, it’s not like a school-based structure. It just creates a structure and a guide for our faculty to execute certain goals.

Cooper: Your curriculum is a guide?

Saalsaa: Exactly, yes. These are our concepts of the week and the vocabulary associated. This is our class schedule.

We’re still trying to get the word out there that we have this program for kids and adults who are curious about performing arts.

Cooper: It’s inclusive?

Saalsaa: Yes, that’s number one. It’s always when we are talking with people who are trying to get to know the program more, it’s always like, “Oh, interesting!” That’s the response to the fact that it’s an inclusive program. There are certain organizations or schools or programs that serve the disability community, but rarely is it inclusive programming. There are dance classes for kids with Down syndrome, certain resources for people on the spectrum. But it’s rare to find a program that is truly inclusive. I think it’s becoming a little bit more common nowadays, but we enroll students truly of all abilities. One group of ten students in our Musical Theater teen class might have three kids with autism, a student in a wheelchair—

We have three teachers in every room, two artistic teachers and a therapist. We have OT (occupational therapist), CT (cognitive therapist), and a speech therapist on faculty. They’re there to support the teaching artists and also to support the students and use their expertise to guide the teaching artists. Maybe, “Let’s do large print font scripts!” These students have better access to the actual play material. Or let’s bring in some noise-canceling headphones because we have one student who has a little bit of noise sensitivity. Little things like that. The therapists add a great extra layer.

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Cooper: Every class has a therapist scheduled.

Saalsaa: Mm-hmm. Off-site, it depends, but we try to have them involved in all of the classes. Our most consistent off-site partnership, if you will, currently is with Alzheimer’s Orange County. We basically deploy our teachers to one of their locations and they bring out Studio D material to their population. We’ve also worked with Easter Seals of Southern California, Unlimited Possibilities for more therapy-leaning orgs—

Some of the off-sites, like Easter Seals or Unlimited Possibilities, they have OTs on their staff who know the students, so it feels a little bit more natural to have their team a part of the classes versus ours.

Cooper: And these classes are inclusive?

Saalsaa: Yes. I would say 90% of the students do have a disability. But we do have the occasional students who’s just interested in some sort of performing arts class who have no experience in enrolling in something that’s a little bit—I don’t know, less beginner-level, less intimidating. We’re kind of a welcoming space for that. We’re also very low-cost. Our costs are highly subsidized. The cost is appealing to pretty much every family. And a lot of siblings. I would say any time we have someone who is non-disabled, they’re typically a sibling or they heard about it from someone else in the program and they’re friends with them. Here and there, not uncommon.

Yes, we call it inclusive. Open for everyone. It’s interesting because some parents reach out, “Oh, this looks great, I want to sign up!” And then we do some extra steps in order to make sure our teachers are prepared before day one to know what the students would benefit from and engage with better. We send out a pretty hearty survey asking about communication style, any common behaviors we should be aware of, participation, any medical needs that we should be aware of as well. With that, some of the parents who don’t have a disabled child, they’re like, “Oh, is this the right program for us?” And we always reassure them, “Yes, it can be if you’re open to it. We enroll everyone.” But it’s interesting what the response can be to that. But honestly, I think it’s—I’m a little biased, but I think the program is so beautifully structured in that it is inclusive, and we would love to have— We specialize in instruction for kids with disabilities, and we want this to be their place, but we do find a lot of beauty in the integration. We see that a lot with our volunteers.

We bring on volunteers from the community, and some of them are high school students who need some community service hours or are trying to boost their college app. And we find a big switch in them as well. The empathy that they gain, the awareness of others, the care that they develop when working with the students is pretty big.

segerstrom studiod access
Assistive listening devices, braille programs, large print programs, binoculars, sensory friendly bags, and weighted lap pads.

HISTORY

In the late 1960s, a number of Orange County community leaders decided it was time to have world-class performing arts venues and a dedicated arts campus where local and regional performing arts organizations and esteemed guest artists and companies from all over the world could perform for this rapidly growing and culturally diverse region of Southern California. Businesses were headquartering here and major educational institutions were being established. Pacific Symphony, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, and Pacific Chorale needed a concert hall with seating and acoustics appropriate to their needs and the caliber of their performances. It should be a setting where those organizations, the new Orange County Performing Arts Center, and the community could grow and achieve greater prestige and recognition.

By the mid-‘70s, the Center had its site: a five-acre parcel of land donated by the local Segerstrom family along with lead financial gifts. Construction began in 1983.

The vision of the Center’s founders became reality when the Orange County Performing Arts Center opened on September 29, 1986 with a concert in its new opera house-style Segerstrom Hall. It was one of the nation’s most innovative and technically advanced homes for the performing arts. To the performances by Pacific Symphony, the Philharmonic Society, and Pacific Chorale, the Center’s leadership added celebrated international ballet companies, national tours of Broadway musicals, jazz greats, award-winning chamber ensembles, cabaret artists and children’s theater. The Center also established an ambitious education department dedicated to bringing young people to the new campus for live, professional performances and to providing meaningful arts programs to schools throughout the county.

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Expansion

The Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall opened on September 15, 2006, named for the Center’s founding chairman and his late wife. Samueli Theater, the intimate 500-seat multi-use venue included in the concert hall complex, was named for the Henry Samueli Family Foundation. And Leatherby’s Café Rouge, named for long-time Orange County philanthropist George Leatherby, added a taste of the culinary arts to the Center’s campus.

Next Act

In 2015, the Center announced The Next Act: three bold initiatives that would advance the goal of becoming a more vital force throughout the community while maintaining its recognized commitment to artistic excellence.

  • Center for Dance and Innovation supports Segerstrom Center’s flagship artistic programs, while acting as a catalyst for initiatives that celebrate innovation and creativity.  Under the auspices of the CDI, the Center established the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School and Studio D: Arts School for All Abilities. Programs also support the commissioning of new ballets, dance training in multiple genres, Center partnerships with the high-tech, bio-tech/entrepreneur community and others, offering new ways of engaging with the performing arts through a broad array of on-site, off-campus and online programs.
  • In the fall of 2015, the Center expanded its then 27-year relationship with American Ballet Theatre by establishing the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The school bears the name of William J. Gillespie, an enthusiastic and generous donor to the Center for many years and a member of the ABT board of directors. This historic partnership looks to the future to offer unrivaled opportunities for training, nurturing future generations of dancers and dance audiences as well as furthering the development and evolution of dance.
  • The Center opened its school of dance and music for children with disabilities in 2016, now called Studio D: Arts School for All Abilities. The school welcomes students ages 4–22. Classes are inclusive, but specially designed for those with physical and cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, hearing and visual impairments and other complex needs, as well as siblings and children without disabilities. The classes help the students to explore their full physical, creative, and social potential through dance, creative movement, music and sensory tools.
  • Center Without Boundaries is a program that emphasizes civic engagement and focuses on responding to needs of individual and diverse communities by forging strategic partnerships between the Center and non-cultural groups throughout the county. Among those partnerships include associations with Alzheimer’s Orange County, Camp Pendleton, CHOC Children’s Hospital, El Central Cultural de Mexico, Very Special Arts Orange County, Chapman University, University of California Irvine, Orange County Asian and Pacific Islanders Community Alliance, UCP Orange County and many others.
  • Julianne and George Argyros Plaza, completed in 2017, was designed by the renowned firm of Michael Maltzan Architecture. The existing Arts Plaza was reimagined into a welcoming public gathering place. The Argyros Plaza is enhanced with a large stage, shade trees, picnic and dining areas, free WIFI and an outdoor restaurant, George’s Café. The plaza is dedicated to the community and offers year-round free performances, festivals and community events.

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