One of the things that I appreciated most about how New York City Children’s Theater residencies at ARC (an afterschool reading club in homeless shelters) were structured this year is that they were designed to introduce a new book each week. As a teaching artist, I got the opportunity to read a story aloud to a group in an engaging and interactive way, and then to share drama activities with the students that were based on the themes in the book. I was so pleased that New York City Children’s Theater was focused on the process of exploring a book through theatre rather than pressuring students to create a polished performance.
When I began facilitating at my first site, there were several behavioral issues with students and the DOE teachers who were working alongside me struggled to build community amongst the students and develop structure for them during their after school time. As I brainstormed with one of the DOE teachers on how best to support him, he begged me to help the students create a play. I had my reservations; I wondered if the students could focus long enough to create dialogue, I thought they might get bored working on one story week after week, and I worried about whether or not I could actually cast a show with infrequent attendance. The DOE teacher kept insisting that what these students needed was something to look forward to and invest in.
I reluctantly agreed and we launched into two months of working on Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza. To my surprise, the students fell in love with the idea of lucha libre culture and fully invested in superhero activities that went along with the theme of the book. They each created a superhero identity and invented superhero moves. It was incredible to see these students standing tall and fully invested in telling their own adaptation of the story complete with a song that my fellow teaching artist, Diana Fox helped them create. The “performance” was not perfect. In fact, I had to restart part of the show because the audience got so rowdy that they pulled focus from the performers, but at the end, every student performer was beaming, filled with pride.
I will never forget the moment when a student was too embarrassed to say the line “I will marry you.” All of the parents jumped in to say the line with her so she would not have to say it alone.
When I began teaching at another shelter the second semester, I decided to support the students in creating a play again, this time based on Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. I was slightly concerned during our last rehearsal before our performance, as the students argued over who would play each part. I ended up putting all of the students names on pieces of paper and during the show, I drew who would play each part. Many parents showed up for the sharing. They enthusiastically responded when I drew each name, whether it was their child’s name or not. It was as if I was hosting a game show and the prize was to play a character in our sharing.
I will never forget the moment when a student was too embarrassed to say the line “I will marry you.” All of the parents jumped in to say the line with her so she would not have to say it alone. But, my favorite part of this sharing was that the students (a group that was mostly girls) decided that in their adaptation of the story, the main character would marry the king, but only if she could still keep her job as the gardener.
We ended the sharing with each student declaring what they wanted to be when they grow up, followed by thunderous applause by the parents. In the end, creating a play and having a “sharing day” promoted confidence and pride in the students and supported a sense of celebration and community in the shelters that I worked at,
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