The Urban Theater Project is a partnership between the Virginia Stage Company and the Friends of the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Through games, improvisation, and other exercises, our teaching artists try to help each student discover life lessons that will help them rediscover a sense of imagination and play and to become part of the larger community. At the root of the program is the idea that theatre can bring encouragement, purpose, and an artistic outlet to teenagers in trouble.
I was finishing up a Hardee’s burger when I saw a white van drive by in my rearview mirror. This was a first. It was a full 30 minutes early, which meant I’d have to abandon my dinner in my car and head into Renaissance Academy for the final session of the season. At the front door of the building, I saw that for this final class, I only had two students: Braces and Fitted Cap. Something about this didn’t surprise me. Every week of this Spring Session had been unpredictable thus far. Why should that have changed this Monday?
Considering I didn’t have much planned before my usual 7PM start time, I tried my best not to waste my students’ time while they waited for others to - hopefully - arrive. Tonight, unlike past “final nights,” I would be employing the use of a lesson plan. Normally, on the last day of a session, students would have created a performance piece, had rehearsals, and been prepared to present to their family and Parole Officers. These students hadn’t gotten that far, which resulted in a change of plans for me.
I’d intended to use tonight’s session to show families what we’ve been doing in class by sending them through class. That meant choosing my most valuable lesson: my very first one. Slowly, but surely others started arriving. My Young Lady showed up with her family in tow. She was the only person to have external support. My Parole Officer partner was also in attendance, as was my Supervisor. At 6:55PM, it became clear to me that these would be all the students I’d have for the night…and if there was anything I’d learned from this particular session (and from life), it was that “the show must go on.”
Seven o’clock on the dot, I began to brief the room on what was about to occur. Everyone in the room was told that there’d be no performance this evening. Instead, I’d take them through what a typical session looks like and invite them at various points to participate in classroom activities and discussions. The parents in attendance seemed to understand this, yet they maintained a level of sheepishness, possibly due to the fact that they were the only parents in the room. At least they were there for their daughter. I then re-iterated to everyone in the room the purpose and goals of the program, which are always listed at the top of every lesson plan:
To inspire students to find their voices
To aid in establishing a sense of purpose
To promote the idea of “empathy”
To help students become better citizens and better human beings
Upon hearing that we wouldn’t be performing, Fitted Cap seemed to be both relieved and somehow slightly disappointed about this. If I am quite honest, Fitted Cap, though initially resistant at the start of the program, was a student I looked forward to seeing. When he decided to participate in activities, he was actually very good at executing ideas and was very astute. So I always appreciated his input in discussion-based activities. Therefore, it surprised me when, upon beginning warm-ups, he did not want to participate. He insisted that he wasn’t feeling well. Granted, he’d been slow to move before, but he’d actually requested not to come onstage and join the other two students.
Unlike the first time I met him, I didn’t linger and hold up my class for his participation. I offered him the chance to join me when he felt he was ready. Young Lady, Braces, and I began our physical warm-up, followed by tongue twisters. This activity seemed to amuse the parents. I welcomed them to practice the tongue twisters from the comfort of their seats. As my back was turned to them during the activity, I’m not certain if they took part or not, but the students excelled. Once again, I reached out to Fitted Cap to see if he’d like to join us onstage for more tongue twisters, and he reluctantly came on stage. Perhaps his stage fright (or temporary illness) had subsided. The tongue twisters culminated in a surprisingly focused version of “I am a Mother Pheasant Plucker” that was met with lots of laughs and smiles.
We were getting off to a great start despite the diminutive attendance.
Now it was game time. I’d orginially intended to play two games: “Zip, Zap, Shazam” and the “Yes/No Scenes.” But something told me that the kids weren’t in an acting mood tonight. So I’d keep everything light and fun. We played “Zip, Zap, Shazam.” Fitted Cap needed briefing on how to play the game, so rules were explained. Again, I opened the activity to those in the audience who wanted to participate. Lucky for me, my Supervisor, ever supportive, joined me and the students. In the past, I’ve had various P.O.s play games with their students, but lack of attendance this time hindered their potential creation of a stronger bond.
The game was fun, and Fitted Cap was a master of deception. But his mastery didn’t stop him from being eliminated quickly during most rounds. My Supervisor kept his focus as best as he could, and we were all bested by Young Lady, who managed to remain til the end of every round. I’m certain her parents were proud of her. After around 6 or 7 rounds, we took a 10 minute break.
There wasn’t much discussion during the break, and everyone tackled what needed tackling during that time. Now was the time to unleash my favorite video on the crowd. It was time to revisit Lin Manuel Miranda’s “21 Chump Street,” the fifteen minute musical that dramatized the true story of a young man busted for selling marijuana in a Florida high school by an undercover cop. I realized that both Fitted Cap and Braces hadn’t seen the video, as they came into my class during session two. For Young Lady, I told her this would be a chance for her to pay closer attention to the storyline and watch for things she previously missed.
Fitted Cap decided to sneak a phone conversation during the video, which made me stand by where he was sitting. I personally dislike chaperoning children’s behaviors, but considering we had outside eyes in this session, I didn’t mind. Besides, standing next to him allowed me to see Braces’ wonderment with the video. Braces is an aspiring rapper. In every single class, he has asked me for help acquiring an agent or looking for information on how to start performing in venues. Before tonight’s session began, he mentioned to me that he’s made contact with some people and was trying to get himself booked to perform at open mic nights. I didn’t think I connected with him on a deep level, but I was happy that he could consider me a “sort of” mentor. It was also a beautiful thing to see that the young man had drive.
What was better was seeing him in awe at the lyrics of the musical. He stayed enthralled for the duration of the 15 minutes and immediately asked me, “Who wrote this?” to which I answered, “The same man responsible for one of the hottest musicals on Broadway right now.” Part of me wants to believe that he’s already downloaded the cast album of Hamilton. It was in this moment that I realized, I’d gotten one student to recognize the importance of art serving a purpose. And for the first time in long time during this Spring Session…I felt like a successful teacher.
Post-video, I encouraged group discussion. Oddly enough, it was like pulling teeth to get the parents to chime in, but the students pulled their weight, answering many tough questions and getting their points of view across. For those of you who’d like a reminder as to the questions for this video, here they are:
Discuss themes; why this is art? What makes good art? Performance? What moves YOU? Why does this matter?
What is performance? What contributes to a good performance? What are things that can hinder a good performance? What is an actor/performer in control of? What elements of performance are they not in control of?
How does this relate to you in your actual life? What things are you responsible for? What are you NOT responsible for? What affects how you control your decisions?
Life is not simple. Things can be complicated. But can we simplify life? Can we make things easier with our decision making? How?
While these questions served as a basis for conversation, we did veer a little to the left and right a bit. I had hoped that the parents would add their wisdom to the mix, but it seemed that they felt they were there merely as spectators and not as participants. Being present was as participatory as they wanted to be. For many, that’s all they can offer.
Such is the lesson I’m learning: people believe that showing up is the ultimate act. But one can be physically present and still manage to be invisible. I wonder how many of my students felt that way, that they wanted to exist in silence. So many people I’ve taught this past year have seemed to be content with never being called on or having to speak up or be seen. Not only do they not believe in their own voice, they don’t value it. Yet, I am lucky that sometimes in this course, I’ve gotten these students to speak from their hearts to me. How fortunate for me.
Once the discussion was finished, I thanked the students for being there, for doing their best, and for showing up. Fitted Cap thanked me for teaching him before rushing out of the room to make a phone call. Young Lady and her parents bid me farewell, her father quietly praising the program as he went. Braces was the one to stay behind and ask how he could stay in touch with me. He really wanted more information about the entertainment industry and figured I could help him. I gave him my business card, and he recognized the Virginia Stage Company logo, and something hit him.
“Oh! I know this company. I think I was supposed to see a show of theirs or they came to my school or something. I had no idea this was where you worked!”
I laughed. Maybe I didn’t do a great job of introducing myself the first time we met, but I’m glad that our organization had a great reputation and memorable logo. He left the building in conversation with my P.O. partner, asking her whether or not he could come see a show at the theater.
I reached someone. Now I know how my teachers felt when they taught me. Granted, I was an over-achieving, super respectful, lover of knowledge who valued everything adults said, so I was in a different boat altogether. But I bet that if they all knew how much they affected my life journey, they’d be proud of themselves.
I was proud of me. I’d finished teaching my third successful Urban Theater Program. It was a challenge, but after two amazing prior sessions, maybe I needed a shake-up. I needed to be uncomfortable for a bit. And boy, had I been uncomfortable. But I am still here…and the program works. It doesn’t work exactly the same for every student, but it works. That is what I needed to learn and trust.
I’ve grown a great deal over the course of this year. My goals in life have not changed, but they are enhanced by this program. Hopefully, I’ll continue to get better as a teacher, creator, and a human being. These students at times were mirrors to me. Sometimes I wasn’t my best, but that’s okay. Because when I did excel, it showed in their actions and their participation. They gave me a try. That’s all I could ask for.
For those of you who have been reading this series every week, I thank you for your attention. May you understand the value of a program such as this, even at its most challenging. May you also understand the value of arts education in the lives of your own children or students. It is my firm belief that we cannot go forward in life without empathy. Tapping into our emotional selves is a gift and lesson that art gives. I urge you all to allow that gift to continue working its magic here in Hampton Roads and the surrounding areas.
(”Ashé,” a Yoruba word, refers to the creative power of an artist to make something happen and is commonly used in African and African American communities.)