Motown Idol

When it comes to telling it like it is, American Idol’s Simon Cowell has nothing on the mentors at the Mosaic Youth Theatre. This nonprofit organization was founded in 1992 to provide free professional training — in singing, acting and technical theater — to Detroit-area youths ages 12 to 18.

“The kids say I’m worse than Simon,” says Kenneth Anderson, Mosaic’s artistic and music director.

On a warm day in late August, Anderson is auditioning singers for the Youth Ensemble’s 2004-2005 season.

One by one, the kids auditioning for the Mosaic Singers enter a large room in Mosaic’s new digs on the campus of University Prep High School in Midtown. They stand on a yellow “X” taped to the carpet and begin their solos before a straight-faced Anderson and even straighter-faced Delashea Middleton, his assistant music director. First is a classical piece in a foreign language, followed by a contemporary piece. As Middleton scribbles notes on each performance, Anderson scrutinizes the singers’ sheet music, watching for mistakes.

“It’s about professionalism, taking them to the next level,” says Anderson, who employs none of Cowell’s cruelty but doesn’t sugarcoat his comments either.

“Drop your jaw, really pronounce it. Take a deep breath. Take your hand out of your pocket,” he commands the slightly nervous Michael Hudson of Romulus High School. “Have more integrity in your art.”

After the audition, Hudson, 16, who wants to be a professional musician, says, “I love criticism so I know what I need to work on.”

That’s good, as the students get plenty of constructive criticism. Founder and executive director Rick Sperling says Mosaic’s philosophy of professionalism and high standards often entails tough love. “We’d be doing a disservice to give the kids an unrealistic sense of what greatness is all about,” Sperling says.

The mentors are particularly tough on tonight’s returning students, all vying for one of the 100 slots available. New students will get their shot a few weeks later.

The tenor of the acting auditions is intense inside the dark confines of a 150-seat black box theater. Kate Peckham is the director of the Mosaic Acting Company and a professional actress for 13 years (she had a tiny part in Almost Famous). She’s seated with then-assistant acting director Jasmine Rivera (now in New York City pursuing a directing career) and Sperling, a former actor/director in regional theater.

Students perform two monologues. One student repeatedly starts over — something that garners little sympathy when you are, after all, a returning student and should know better.

At Mosaic, the goal is not to push the kids into the arts; it’s to get them to demand the best of themselves. Sperling says 95 percent of their students — only about 20 percent are from outside Detroit — go on to college.

“It makes us just as proud to hear of alumni who are teachers, engineers and lawyers,” Sperling says.

Those who shy away from the spotlight have the option of working behind the scenes. The Mosaic technical crew is led by Neil Carpentier-Alting, who’s worked in the field here and in Chicago. The technical theater program usually gets about 10 kids a season — compared to 60 kids in the singing program, and 30 in acting. Whether the low number is due to the “less glamorous” nature of the work, or the kids simply don’t know the training exists, the fact remains: Students with these skills are the most likely to find work, Carpentier-Alting says.

“One of the big things we’re lacking in Detroit are production managers and technical directors,” he says of the folks who handle talent, coordinate rehearsals and ensure that sets are assembled on time.

In fact, Mosaic’s technical theater program is what makes the organization unique, and may even be the only program of its kind in the country, Sperling says.

“Students have complete use of a facility that’s on par with any professional black box theater in the area.”

Last September Mosaic moved to a 22,000-square-foot state-of-the-art building at University Prep, where the group also provides performing arts education to the high school’s students. Mosaic’s former home at Historic Fort Wayne had no workshop, leaving little opportunity for technical education, Carpentier-Alting says. He expects 15 students this year, who will work in the high-ceiling workshop with power saws, drill sets and chests full of tools and hardware plus computer lighting and sound systems.

Sperling, 38, got the idea to form Mosaic while running the outreach program at the now-defunct Attic Theater. In 1992, the theater auditioned kids for a weekend show. More than 300 showed up — and they had talent.

“The work these kids were doing was more dynamic than the work we were doing,” recalls Sperling, adding that the majority of Detroit schools still don’t have drama programs. Today, Mosaic’s outreach program reaches 150 students each year.

The students train a minimum of 10 hours a week, after school and on weekends, although they do not receive any extra school credit. There are numerous performances throughout the season by the singers, the actors and the entire ensemble, including an end-of-season original production. This year’s production is about young Motown artists.

Mosaic received a Michigan Governors’ Arts Award in 1998, and a Coming Up Taller Award, for the top 10 youth arts programs in the country, in 1999. Mosaic singers and actors have performed everywhere from college campuses to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to Senegal. Alumni have played on Broadway, in national touring companies and are recording with record labels, Sperling says.

Whatever the kids pursue, Sperling says his satisfaction comes from the impact Mosaic can have on young people’s lives. He recalls an alum applying for a job there. “In her interview she broke down in tears talking about what Mosaic meant to her as a teenager.” She got the job.

Mosiac also has an exciting potential new move on the horizon. The nonprofit is negotiating with the Detroit Institute of Arts to transform the DIA’s film theater into Mosiac’s permanent performance venue, but the plan is still in the formative phase. The plan would not affect the Detroit Film Theatre, as Mosiac would hold performances around the film theater’s schedule.

Now as it enters its 12th season, Sperling hopes to solidify Mosaic as a cultural treasure — and a lasting one at that.

“I want to create an organization that will be around for the grandchildren of the kids in the program now.”

610 Antoinette (between 2nd and 3rd), Detroit; 313-872-6910 ext. 4005;


Upcoming Mosaic Performances

Tesserae One-Act Play Festival
Nov. 18-21, 2004
Evening performances at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 4 p.m.
General Motors Mosaic Theatre, 610 Antoinette, Detroit
Pay-what-you-can admissions on all seats at all performances

Magnificat — Mosaic Singers in Concert
Feb. 4-6, 2005
Evening performances at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinee at 3 p.m.

The Music Box at Max M. Fisher Music Center
Tickets prices: $12-$18
(Mosaic Magnificat Gala at the Max Fundraising Event Feb. 3, 2005 starts at 6 p.m.; call for ticket prices)

Now That I Can Dance — Motown 1962
Presented in cooperation with Motown Historical Museum
School matinees Friday, May 13 & 20, at 10:30 a.m.
Sunday matinees, May 15 & 22, at 4 p.m.
Detroit Film Theatre in the Detroit Institute of Arts

Also: June 23-24 at the Performance Network in Ann Arbor

Tickets prices: $12-$18

For details and tickets, call Mosaic’s Box Office at 313-872-6910 ext. 4005 or visit

Ellen Piligian is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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