"The arts (in public schools) have been cut and cut and cut, and it’s one of the most important parts of your education,” Mike Dominguez of Red House Imaginarium says. “It’s not testing scores that get you a job, it’s creative thinking, ability to think creatively and solve problems. And that comes from the arts!”
And that’s where Red House Imaginarium comes in. “We are an arts education initiative, focused in East Nashville,” he explains. Along with Emily Dodson, Dominguez cofounded Red House Imaginarium to be a local educational service offering theater training, singing and songwriter sessions, improv, and visual arts guidance in painting, sculpture, and photography. The gamut, in other words.
Students range from kindergarten-age through high school. And a concerted effort is paid to the youngest students, who too often never have the experience of being in a school play until high school, by which time their creative sides have already begun to calcify. The Imaginiarium seeks to awaken and nurture those passions in children early enough to make a difference for the rest of their lives.
Dominguez and Dodson carried around virtually the same notions in their heads for years, but they didn’t know each other and life kept getting in the way. Artist instruction for people who can’t afford higher-end academies was the common goal for them, reaching children in time to unleash what’s inside, and raising it to life in teens and any adult who might be inclined to want to learn.
“I just found my calling in teaching,” Dodson says. “I started teaching acting classes out of my house. It was a good way to supplement income and I still got to teach, and then a couple of years ago, I was homeschooling my oldest son, and that’s when I really started forming the idea of the Imaginarium. I decided to go back to school for a bit because if I was going to do this, I had to take some classes on nonprofit management and whatever else I needed to learn.”
And then she and Dominguez met — in a champion example of networking — at a funeral. Dodson had just been making conversation about her brainchild to one of the fellow bereaved. Someone overheard and said, “Oh, you need to meet Mike over there. He’s only been talking about wanting to do that same thing for the last 15 years!”
“So we went off and had a conversation,” Dodson says, “and the company that he had just started was called Redhouse. And so we just combined it. At first it wasn’t going to be a partnership, but somehow it just happened.
“We did a lot of talking and we decided to start it out at the Tomato Art Fest (last year),” Dodson continues. “I’d always wanted to do a little one-act play called Tomato Plant Girl, kind of an antibullying plot, and we cast it with some local girls and put it on at the 2016 Tomato Art Fest, and that was our start.”
Dominquez and Dodson opened for business last fall, and essentially follow the Metro school schedules. Lacking a brickand- mortar to call their own, classes were taught during the 2016-17 school year at the Eastwood Christian Church in their main meeting spaces and classrooms. (The church is expected to be the venue this coming academic year as well.) This summer they staged a two-week summer camp full of arts classes at the 3rd Coast Comedy Club in Marathon Village. They even got Radio Lightning in on the act, the station loaning the use of their offices upstairs for a mini-movie scene that needed an office setting.
Like any business, things started slowly. Lessons began with an average of three kids to a class, but soon swelled to 12 and beyond. And for the program Dominguez and Dodson envision, that’s plenty per class, so that all who approach the well can drink.
The two of them have defined their job boundaries as they naturally came to present themselves. “He (Mike) is more the technical side, whereas I am more of the programming side,” Dodson says. “I went to NYU for theater. I studied at David Mamet’s workshop. So I bring songwriting and voice and theater and costuming and makeup to the table.
“Mike brings more sound and audio and digital film, the more technological side of it. And he can play any stringed instrument. He’s a great bass player, and his wife’s an amazing writer, so she helps out with a lot of the copy work we need for our website and other things. And I have worked for a lot of nonprofits, ran an HR department at one point, and also worked for a financial firm, so the administrative side is where I thrive. We’ve got to play to our strengths.”
They’re looking forward to the new semester because, prayerfully, there will be others to come and help out with the tutelage, as the class numbers swell and mutate into two more classes, and three more classes, and so on. To date, Dominguez and Dodson have shouldered the herculean yoke of teaching them all. (Their website lists a half-dozen volunteers, including an improv comic and set builders, and more volunteers are coming on board.)
First on their priorities list is to a) secure serious funding (once they solidify their 501c3 certification) from corporations, individuals, grants, prayer, and high hopes, and b) secure permanent lodgings for their new place for learning and for students of any age discovering the artistic sides of themselves they never knew were there.
“Ultimately we want to be the first thing you think of for arts education in Nashville,” Dominguez says. “There isn’t an arts center in Nashville, which is crazy, because there are so many artists in this community! Murfreesboro has one, Dickson . . . we want to buy an old church and transform the classrooms, and turn the sanctuary into a big performance space.
“Part of why we do it is that not every kid’s a basketball player, but now I’ve had parents tell me that this is where their kids have learned collaboration and teamwork, something they’d normally get from their sports program,” Dominguez continues. “So we want to be there to encourage creative thinking and collaboration for those kids who aren’t going to play sports, but don’t get to try theater until they get to high school. It’s for those younger kids, a safe space that they can come into.”
Their ultimate endeavor is for the program to be affordable to the people in East Nashville (and beyond) who aren’t living in a tall-and-skinny and pulling down $80,000 a year.
Dominguez concludes: “There are places like this (The Red House Imaginarium) in town, but they’re not cheap. You can spend a lot of money to go into these audition schools that will fast-track you into being a Mouseketeer or whatever. There’s a lot of those in town, so we want to be here, to bridge that gap.”