Justin Tranter Gives Back to The Chicago Academy for the Arts

Justin Tranter, songwriter and activist, visits their Alma Mater, The Chicago Academy for the Arts, in celebration of recent donation.


By Sofia Hrycyszyn, Arts Reporter

Waiting in line at The Chicago Academy for the Arts annual showcase, a tall man sporting a houndstooth beret approached me. With a smile, he told me about his freshman son’s involvement in the theater department, one of the six concentrations offered at “The Academy.” Our conversation was cut short when a man in a blue suit waved everyone in line through the doors and into the Athenaeum Center, ignoring their lack of tickets. Walking into the theater, the sense of community was apparent. Groups broke off and chit chatted, exchanging smiles with the blue-suited man, Jason Patera, the Head of School. While I felt a little like an outsider, the energy was so warm and welcoming that being an onlooker wasn’t so uncomfortable. I settled into my seat and waited for the performance to begin. 

The Chicago Academy for the Arts is a private high school with a unique class setup that allows students to focus on their art department of choice–theater, musical theater, dance, media arts, music, or visual arts–while obtaining a rigorous academic education. The showcase displayed a range of the students’ art, most of it truly impressive for their ages. One particularly powerful performance was “Storm,” a contemporary routine choreographed by three time Ruth Page Award winning Randy Duncan. The dancers moved in time to Sam Harris’s 80s pop hit “Suffer the Innocent,” which opens with rhythmic percussion and soft vocals, but gradually transitions into a heart wrenching plea that “God, save the children.” With sharp movements and raised hands, the dancers entered the emotional world of the song, their faces communicating intense grief and stress. Being high schoolers, they had a personal connection to whatever was at stake, and the viewer was constantly reminded that they were begging for their own salvation. 

This being the first showcase since the start of the pandemic, parents and families hadn’t seen their children perform with the rest of the school. The excitement and pride in the room was palpable–people weren’t just proud of their own children, but of what the community had accomplished as a whole.  

The night culminated with a group rendition of Imagine Dragons hit, “Enemy.” The song was written by school alumnus Justin Tranter, who joined the students on stage for the final act. Throughout the performance, the energy rose as the number of student vocalists and dancers grew behind Tranter and their two co-lead singers, both students. The piece was dynamic, featuring what seemed to be all of The Academy’s students on stage. It showcased a collection of the costumes that had been used throughout the night, and was reflective of the show’s atmosphere—what the hosts had repeatedly called “a big group project.”  

As the song ended, Tranter stepped to the front of the stage. Facing the crowd in elegant flared black pants and a tan sweater, they explained how much the school had done for them in terms of the support network the school provided. For Tranter, attending The Academy was a turning point in their life, and they remarked that the school “saved my life and my family’s life.” They attribute the person and the artist that they are today to the community and the quality of the arts education they received at the school. Since graduating from the school’s musical theater department in 1998, Tranter has become an accomplished songwriter and activist, writing hits for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Julia Michaels among others, while earning recognition from the ACLU of Southern California for Tranter’s LGBT and climate activism.  

Ending the night with a call to action for families and alumni to open their wallets in support of the school, Justin announced that their recent $500,000 donation would be used to offer scholarships and financial aid to allow students the same opportunities that Tranter found life-altering. Throughout the showcase, students and parents glowed with excitement. There were inside jokes shared between community members, a tight connection between staff and alumni, and an astonishing amount of talent. The vibrant community fosters talent and growth, and it’s clear that The Academy is everything that Tranter claims it is.