The Essential Question that guided our projects’ focus was:
What happens when theater artists use imagination &/or learned theater skills while engaging in creative exploration/inquiry?
Theater Lab (TL) is not a traditional theater education program where students rehearse and present existing plays. Instead they collaborate to create and perform original plays. Each student served as playwright, actor and director. Students found their voices, became more confident of their ideas and abilities, and gained a better understanding of themselves and others. Each offered ideas for the piece and as a group they decided which to use. Even good ideas may not work in the context of the play. They learned when to be a champion for their ideas and when to let go. This is a level of maturity not often see at that age. When developing their characters, they considered what kind of character would fit in the world they created, what their character wanted, and their relationships to others. This helped students develop empathy and connectedness. The format of our adult acting classes was different from TL; they focused on basic acting concepts, rehearsing and performing published scenes, and techniques for auditioning. But the shared process of creating theatrical work and developing creative skills inspired a strong sense of trust, empathy, and community. The students were inspired to explore?to try, fail and succeed.
At the conclusion of the project, students responded to questions related to the identified Standards:
TH:Cr1.1.HSIc: A student who used her grandmother as inspiration for a character gained empathy for her mix of humor and protectiveness that fit the play. Another was inspired by a TV character but learned to find his own version that made sense in the play.
TH:Cr1.1.HSIb: “I learned a lot and had freedom to express myself. Writing sessions were valuable inside and outside of class and wonderful for collaboration.” Following COVID, students were more reserved and most still wore masks; they didn’t offer ideas as freely and it took time for core personalities to return. TL was a path forward. “Group activities where you HAVE to do something in front of everyone gave me confidence.” “Being back onstage was amazing and working with a team to write a play is always great for teamwork skills.”
TH:Cr3.1.HSIa: “Viewpoints [an creative technique we use] is great to warm up and develop stories and collaboration.” By generating and choosing ideas, writing, rehearsing and revising their script many times, students learned you can always make the play better but eventually have to consider it finished. Many kids during COVID didn’t have to follow through with anything, including homework; TL taught them follow-through from start to finish.
Theater Lab/Stage One/Outreach are the core of our education program, so we think of impact largely in terms of these students? experiences. Our fall sessions were the first time since COVID that students were able to perform their plays for a live audience, and they were very excited. In addition to TL’s impact relative to Core Arts Standards, it deeply affected students emotionally and socially. Many students told us that “Theater Lab saved their lives.” Being a teenager is hard enough, but loss of social connections during COVID made it worse. TL’s impact goes beyond theater-making; it’s being seen and having a safe place. We often hear stories from parents like this one, who said they tried to put their kid into sports but it wasn’t their thing. Once they were in Theater Lab, it completely changed them; they became confident and found their voice. Another student had stepped away from TL to participate in his high school’s musical, and said he didn’t find the same level of commitment and professionalism that he found in his TL cohort. Theater Lab students are as invested as professional artists, staying up nights and weekends to work on their scripts; he missed that experience.
Our education program is very successful. It’s rare that a student participates and doesn’t immediately want to do a second session.
The plan is for us to go into five Title I schools each year starting in 2022-23. We offered our first summer class ever “Teen Acting One” in June 2022 (and several more later in the summer after the grant period ended). We will expand our summer programs, as they were well received. Many parents of Teen Acting One students asked when the next class would be held and immediately signed up for Teen Acting Two. Summer programs focus on core acting skills, rather than traditional Theater Lab curriculum; this is a way to expand the skill set and knowledge of our students. Our adult acting classes were also popular and will continue. Obstacles to expanding our education program are space constraints and finding qualified teachers, but we are working to address both. We want to expand our reach and mission and build community among all ages and backgrounds.