New era at Detroit's Mosaic Youth Theatre

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit executive director Stephanie Worth, left, and artistic director DeLashea Strawder are the new creative forces behind the theater.

Rick Sperling, the artist and educator who created Detroit's Mosaic Youth Theatre, may be retiring in August, but he's already put in place the new brain trust to carry his creation well into the future — Stefanie Worth and DeLashea Strawder. 

Which is a good thing, as Mosaic — created to fill the gaps as arts were cut from public schools  — has built up an enviable reputation over 29 years for top-notch performances and working wonders with kids, often from highly distressed neighborhoods. Indeed, that's why "Hamilton" producer Jeffrey Seller dropped $1 million on the nonprofit a couple of weeks ago. 

The Detroit News recently sat down with Worth, the new executive director, and Strawder, recently named artistic director, to talk about the theater's past and future.  

"I'm an alum," said Strawder, a young woman with a beguiling smile, noting that she started performing with the group in late high school, and shortly thereafter became a teacher in Mosaic's southwest Detroit program.

"It's been an amazing journey," Strawder said, "learning about myself as a young artist, and understanding that my voice matters." As an adult, she added, "I’ve had even more experiences like that — finding new ways to communicate with the next generation, empowering their voices."

And that, of course, is what Mosaic is all about — empowering the "artists," as all the kids are known, whether 8 or 18, and nurturing talents they may not have even known they had. 

Working with about 500 kids a year, Mosaic currently has performance residencies in nine Detroit middle schools, summer camps for elementary-age children, and signature after-school programs for high-schoolers who specialize in acting, dance, singing or tech theater. 

They've performed at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Redford Theatre, and, last year, Manhattan's prestigious Public Theater. 

Strawder has been with Mosaic 17 years, though she only stepped into her new post in early December. By contrast, Worth — who came on board eight months ago — is the Mosaic newcomer. 

"I came from the American Heart Association, where I was senior director of community health," said Worth, who's been in the nonprofit world 30 years. "But I've always had an affinity for art and children, so when this job came along, it just seemed like the perfect culmination." 

If Strawder sees her role as helping young artists find their voice, Worth is charged with keeping the lights on, morale high and the money flowing into a small organization with an annual budget of about $1.5 million.

And while everyone at Mosaic was buoyed by the recent $1 million windfall, that's already allocated for special programs, leaving plenty for her to do. 

"We’re small," Worth said, adding, "What’s the word? 'Scrappy' isn’t quite right — let's say we're resourceful." 

Artistry, she notes, is Mosaic's product. "So my job is maintaining continuity, making sure we’re sustainable, that we run as efficiently as possible, and build a culture where employees thrive as much as our artists."

Both recognize the gap that will be left when Sperling, 52, take his leave later this year to pursue other opportunities connected with kids and the arts. ("I'm not," he said a couple weeks ago, "going to sit on a beach.")

"Rick's a visionary," Strawder said, "with a passion for making the artistry and energy of Detroit's young people visible to the entire world."

Worth's word for Sperling is "optimistic," she said, "which is very important in a world that continues to cut something as vital as art in young people’s lives." 

Worth says she's been particularly impressed by Sperling's relentless persistence, particularly in the challenging funding environment all small arts nonprofits face.

"To continually believe," she said, "that this place can thrive, and our children can thrive and be Tony winners?" She shakes her head. "That takes a lot of energy."

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 


Mosaic Night at 'Hamilton'

Mosaic Youth Theatre has acquired a block of tickets for "Hamilton" at the Fisher Theatre. Part of every purchase will benefit the youth-arts nonprofit.

8 p.m. April 9 


Questions? Call (313) 872-6910