A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry called “Breaking Barriers with STAR Theatre Classes” about our new STAR (Student Theatre Artists in Residence) program at River Park Community Center. As promised, this is an update on that program!
To recap, the STAR program at River Park is what we call “inclusive”, meaning that it includes both children with a variety of disabilities—mental, emotional, and physical—as well as children without disabilities. There are a couple dozen children participating in this program, ranging in age from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and are largely from low-income households.
At first, I was a bit daunted by the idea of crafting a program that could provide meaningful experiences to such a large and diverse group of children—though, as always, up to the challenge! Now that we have been running this program for a few weeks, I am starting to fully understand just what theatre can mean to these children: Theatre is a way that these students—and any students!—can both fit in, and stand out.
What do I mean by that? I’m sounding a little bit contradictory. To illustrate, I will present an anecdote from last week’s session.
Last Friday, the students were just about bouncing off the walls of the River Park Community Center auditorium. Though I had prepared a lesson plan for the day, I had to scrap it and think on my feet—as educators so often do—to accommodate the energy level of the group. These students were just not going to be able to take turns as actor and audience that day—they needed an activity that would accommodate all of them at once.
With some difficulty, I sat the twenty-some students down at the foot of the stage. I explained to them that, as a group, we would choose a location for our scene. Then, one by one, I would call on students to join the scene as whatever character they chose—provided that it made sense with the location! Their hands eagerly shot up before I even had a chance to ask for ideas.
“Castle” seemed to be a crowd-pleaser, and so away we went. I asked for the first volunteer to start the scene. I called first on the very youngest student, a kindergarten-aged girl with special needs.
“She should be a princess,” said one of the older boys.
The little girl shook her head violently from side to side.
“What do you want to be?” I asked.
“I don’t want to be a princess. I want to be the queen!” And with that, she regally took the stage, surveying her kingdom, with all eyes upon her.
From then on, it was pure joy. A great number of the boys wanted to be heroic knights, of course. There were several princesses, a king, and even a dragon. The students worked together to create the castle scene, which ended in an untimely—but highly comedic—death for the dragon.
We went through a number of scenes that day. Though some students were hesitant at first, eventually all but one had joined in. Regardless of disability, personality, or any other barrier, all of the students had found a way to become part of the whole. Many took turns commanding the scene—a star quarterback’s game-winning touchdown, or a wizard’s powerful spell—while others were happy and content to join their friends in smaller roles.
But one student, a boy of about ten, remained on the sidelines. Scene after scene I tried to get him out of his shell, suggesting different parts for him. He was just too shy to join the others. But during what must have been our sixth or seventh scene—a basketball championship game—this quiet little boy had a sudden and burning desire to jump in.
“Great! What do you want to be?” I asked, thrilled that he was finally participating.
“The ball!” he answered, grinning from ear to ear. He hopped up on stage, wrapped his arms around his knees, and bounced around as the other children pretended to be basketball stars, announcers, coaches, and cheerleaders.
He didn’t care about any of that. He was the ball. As far as he was concerned, he was the star.
Sometimes, children need to feel special. They want to stand out and be noticed. Theatre is a wonderful opportunity for any child to try on someone else for size; to see what it’s like to be the queen, or the heroic knight, or the basketball star. That can be valuable and empowering. But others just want a chance to fit in; to be part of a larger whole. And the art of theatre, so inherently collaborative, can provide that opportunity for community.