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When Big Companies Do Good Things (Hint: Montblanc Helps Empower Public High School Students Through Urban Arts Partnership)

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About six years ago, Jan-Patrick Schmitz, President and CEO of Montblanc North America discovered an interesting request on his desk. Montblanc was asked to support Urban Arts Partnership and their unique program, 24 Hour Plays. Urban Arts Partnership is a miraculous organization, which brings a variety of innovative arts programs to more than 12,000 students in undeserved New York City public schools, especially where arts programs are cancelled.

During 24 Hour Plays, talented actors (think Jennifer Aniston, Justin Bartha, Elijah Wood, Rosie Perez, Sarah Silverman, Rachel Dratch, Billy Crudup, Megan Fox, Gabourey Sidibe, Jesse Eisenberg, Kathy Najimy and countless others) and equally famous playwrights meet on a Sunday while casts are determined. Then each playwright spends the night composing a ten-minute play. The following morning, directors select their pieces, the cast rehearses all day and the shows are performed at 8 p.m. in front of a live, paying audience on a Broadway stage. This theater marathon has helped Urban Arts Partnership raise millions.

"I didn't believe that within 24 hours, you could do all this," recalls Schmitz. "But I got in touch, learned about the program, loved it and made a one-year commitment." Five years later, Montblanc is still passionately devoted to Urban Arts. "When the recession came in 2008 and 2009, I figured when the sun shines, people happily hand out umbrellas. But when the rain comes, the umbrellas go," he explains. "I believed that if we pulled our support to Urban Arts, it would be pretty devastating to the organization in the times we all were in."

So Montblanc renewed its dedication to 24 Hour Plays, increased support and directly funded some of the Urban Arts programs. "If you give these students opportunity, they can build their personality and make a difference," says Schmitz. "It all comes down to being given an opportunity to shine."

I wanted to learn more about Schmitz and Montblanc's fierce loyalty to Urban Arts Partnership.

Q: In addition to the 24 Hour Plays, doesn't Urban Arts have a Master Class program?

Jan-Patrick Schmitz: Yes. The idea is to tap into the talent of professional actors, writers and directors and invite them to go into a school, spend two hours on a master class, share some of their experience and skills and teach these young students. I remember getting my first camera when I was five years old. That had such an impact on me. I'm actually an avid photographer now. At end of the day, it all comes down to opportunity. If you're willing to learn and given the opportunity, there's no limit to what you can achieve.

Q: Were you personally involved several Master Classes?

Jan-Patrick Schmitz: I was. I invited authors and editors, including Lewis Lapham, who was the editor of Harper's Magazine. We met with high school students to go through Mark Twain's writing, including his Open Letter to Commodore Vanderbilt, and discovered how it could influence their writing. We did a contest and one of the winners, Anthony Naranjo, who subsequently finished high school, was admitted to the Elmira college, received a $50,000 Mark Twain scholarship.

On top of that, Anthony wrote a short piece for the recent 2011 Young Writers Project, and won. {That meant that Naranjo was given the opportunity to write his own short play and have it performed in the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway last year.} One of the dreams of Urban Arts is to give a chance to an alumnus of the program to be involved in 24 Hour Plays.

Q: Did you ever conduct a Master Class?

Jan-Patrick Schmitz: I actually used my photography background and did a Master Class at the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology. I talked about some of the principles of photography: light and shadow, how to manipulate light and what to look for. I shared my passion for photography and by the end of the two-hour session and the students and I were totally merged. We set up a photography studio and I worked with the kids giving them feedback on their images that they took during the day.

Q: What else amazes you about Urban Arts Partnership?

Jan-Patrick Schmitz: They use very creative approaches to memorize content. For example, Fresh Prep actually puts part of the high school curriculum into Hip Hop music {so the kids can review content tested on the New York State Regents exams}. It allows some of the kids who have difficulties just memorizing these facts and figures through normal studies to actually learn through music. Urban Arts really gives these students a stage to help them shine.

For more information about Urban Arts Partnership, visit, www.urbanarts.org