Janet Erlick’s Labor of Love is All About the Kids
By Leon M. Rubin
Janet Erlick could easily have become a doctor in Philadelphia.
Fortunately, her theatrical roots and a bit of wanderlust were stronger influences. They ultimately led her to Broward County, where two generations of kids have benefited from her boundless energy and indomitable spirit.
Erlick is the executive artistic director of Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre, where she oversees both the administrative and artistic aspects of the nearly 60-year-old organization. She has been in that position since 1999 and has worked at the theater since 1990. For the past two years, she’s been a member of the Broward Cultural Council by virtue of her role as chair of the Cultural Executives Committee for the Broward Cultural Division.
“Theater was always in my world,” Erlick says. “My parents met in the theater. My dad was an actor turned newspaper editor. Mom was behind the scenes. I grew up going, watching, acting and involved in the theater.”
She went to Swarthmore to study pre-med, but “took a left at organic chemistry and calculus,” she jokes. She became the first person to graduate from the Philadelphia-area college with a degree in its new theater program (with a double major in psychology). She taught and acted with a local theater company for a couple of years after college, “still thinking that I wouldn’t end up doing it forever.”
But Philly began to feel limiting, so she decided “to go somewhere where I didn’t know the roads or the radio stations.” That somewhere turned out to be Florida where, after a time, she learned that Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre was hiring part-time teachers. “It was a love connection all around,” Erlick says. She started out teaching, later became the education director and developed the organization’s highly successful outreach program that now serves more than 32,000 people each year.
It’s clearly a labor of love – and a role that she gladly plays. “I take the responsibility of introducing so many children to this art form for the first time very seriously,” Erlick says. “Sparking someone’s excitement, interest, passion and enjoyment − whether it’s onstage, behind the scenes or as an audience member – it’s tremendously gratifying to be part of that.”
Time and time again, those introductions lead to long-term relationships. “We have people growing up with us,” she points out, proudly. “They come at the age of four and stay with us through high school, intern with us. It’s amazing to be part of and to help foster those relationships through all of life’s ups and downs. It’s really special and unique.
“I love it when our kids go off and want to keep theater in their lives in some way,” she continues, “but it’s really about making creative, compassionate people who are being the best contributing human beings they can be.”
In addition, she notes, “the relationship between students and staff and family members over a long period of years creates something very special. It’s all about the kids. It becomes the community, the family. It’s becoming more difficult to find those kinds of things in other aspects of life, where you don’t know the names of the people next door. It’s a home away from home. That’s how we feel and how the kids feel.”
This human impact of the work carried out by Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre – and indeed, by all arts and cultural organizations – provides tremendous benefits to our community, but there’s more. “We’re not talking about just hanging a painting on the wall. The arts help our kids learn critical thinking and social skills that they’ll need no matter what they do,” Erlick observes
And then there are the economic benefits. “Any dollar invested in the arts shows a return of anywhere between $5 and $22 dollars,” she says. “That’s an incredibly powerful economic argument.” As an example, she cites the impact of Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre’s move to an empty storefront space in the Galleria Mall in 2009. “We’re bringing hundreds of families here every week,” she says. “They shop, they eat. It’s been a wonderful win-win for us and for the Galleria.”
Erlick has been a tireless advocate for the arts and arts education through the years. She has relished her two years as chair of the Cultural Executives Committee and her service on the Cultural Council. “The countywide efforts in advocacy, communicating to our constituents and getting artists to work together have been amazing,” she says. “We’ve seen positive change. I learned a lot and am grateful for the opportunity to be the liaison between the council and the cultural organizations in the community.”
A Leadership Broward graduate and a recipient of the City of Hope Businesswoman of the Year Award, Erlick is past president of the Florida Theatre Conference and a former board member of the Florida Association of Theatre Education and Ancestral Legacies. She currently serves as a board member and vice president of programs for the Broward Women's Alliance. She is a proud member of Funding Arts Broward and recently received awards for service to the arts from the South Florida Theatre League and the Spring for the Arts program.
Now that her Cultural Council term is ending, she’s already taken on new roles with the Cultural Foundation of Broward, Broward Days and the Broward Arts Connection.
Amidst all of this, she still directs one show a year, teaches every other year, coaches high school seniors on their audition monologues and more. “I’m still in it and wouldn’t have it any other way,” she proclaims.
“I still think I’m a healer,” she says, showing that the motivation that drove her to a double major in theater and psychology remains strong today – and that her pre-med studies have also come into play, in their own way. “There so many places that need healing − and there’s no better way than arts and culture.”