I have spent the last two weeks working with an amazing bunch of high school students (and four fabulous faculty members) on a project for Fresno County Office of Education called STAGES. This is the third year I have worked with them and each year it gets even more amazing. The way it works (or at least the way it worked this year) is: We take the students to camp for a week. We teach them things about movement, improv, storytelling, collaboration, performance techniques and more. We make them write stories, poems, monologues and scenes. We have them work with fellow students to perform the things they wrote using the things they were taught. At the end of it, the faculty selects material that seems like it will go together and makes an evening of theatre. After camp, we return to Fresno City College, re-block material without dirt and tree stumps. We work out a show order. And… Abra Cadabra: Show.
We had our one and only run through last night. It was beautiful and poignant. Tonight is the show.
The material is largely improvised, meaning final lines, transitions and stuff are sort of approximate. For that reason, I’m running my own light board and “calling” cues to a long-suffering, quick-on-his-feet friend and sound op. We have another wrinkle to add to the show tonight. One of the performers has had a tragedy strike in her life and may or may not make the show tonight. One of the things she wrote, and was scheduled to perform, was a beautiful heartfelt song about teen-suicide (the whole play is about youth violence). We videotaped her performing it last night. If she is unable to be with us in person, her song will still be their via video.
As an arts educator I experience the tragedy that budget cuts to arts programs bring. Several of our STAGErs are going back to high schools with no arts programs this academic year. I see the difference that this program makes in students lives. I watched students grow up, and become new people over two weeks. I watched students find their voice and learn to use it. Some students made great leaps. Others are just starting to take a few tentative steps.
Math, Spelling, Vocabulary (things the SATs test for) are all important life skills, but none of them lead to self discovery and self expression. As a society, we are sacrificing the things that can make life exciting and rich so that we can test students more on fundamental skills. These skills are meaningless if the students can’t apply them to something. They are also pointless if we have terrified students so badly about spelling and vocabulary and math skills that they are afraid to try something the involves those skills for fear of making a mistake.
I hear lots of people complaining about the quality of today’s high school students. In fact, as a college instructor I often join the chorus of complaints. They can’t read. They can’t spell. They can’t think. I just spent 2 weeks working with students. They were not the academic cream of the crop (at least not intentionally as grades and GPA were not factors in accepting students to the program). What I saw was that many of these students had never been given the opportunity to use their skills. They had never been given the option of speaking the words in their hearts. They had never been asked what their story was.
Once they felt like their story was valuable what came out was an embarrassment of riches. The show put together the last few years was about half an hour. This years show is almost an hour. Stuff we cut from this years show was stronger than stuff that made it into the show in the past. (We had a slightly different process, and very different end goals this year so it is not truly and apples to apples comparison.) Our goal this year was to honor their words, their stories. I feel like we did that.
On top of that, we did it in two weeks. I wonder what kind of change we could impact on Fresno county if every high school student at an opportunity of self expression and creativity in theatre or music or art or dance for the full academic term. For some students that isn’t their thing, so we also need to provide opportunities in sports, journalism etc. High school shouldn’t be just one size fits all. But as a society we have to get away from the notion that reading, writing and arithmetic are all high schools should offer. Those skills are the foundations. But all those things relegated to “extra-curricular” are where the skills are applied. Students seem to lack the skills because they don’t understand why they need them. Give the students the skills, and give those skills a use. That’s what it takes to engage their brains.