Introducing Students to Theatre

By Kimberly Shepherd

Do you remember the first piece of live theatre you watched?

For many Connecticut students this year’s production of Hamlet will forever occupy that important milestone in their memory. Hamlet marks the beginning of the InterACT season for the Hartford Stage Education Department. InterACT is an education initiative that, thanks to corporate and foundation funding, offers the Student Performance Series, Hartford Stage’s student matinee program, free of charge to underserved Connecticut students in grades 9-12.

In order to participate, high school teachers from around Connecticut submit applications to Hartford Stage’s Education Department highlighting, amongst other things, the access, or lack thereof, their students currently have to the arts. The classes seen as potentially benefiting the most from InterACT are then chosen. Through the program these classes attend three plays together at Hartford Stage over the course of the school year. This season students will attend matinee performances of Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, and The Pianist of Willesden Lane.

The Cast of Twelfth Night
The Cast of Twelfth Night

However, this offering is not just an opportunity for a field trip. InterACT is meant to be an expansion on work already being undertaken in the classroom. In the case of Shakespearean plays like Hamlet, and last season’s Macbeth, the text itself is already a part of the curriculum in some of these high school classes. In other cases the play’s themes help to supplement the study of particular topics in the classroom, as 2013’s Breath and Imagination did in relation to civil rights. This season The Pianist of Willesden Lane will do so with the subjects of the Holocaust, the Kindertransport, and classical music. Because of InterACT, students are no longer simply reading these plays or studying these subjects in textbooks, but engaging with them in a more dynamic and multidisciplinary way.

Before students attend each performance, a Hartford Stage Teaching Artist visits each class for a 90 minute pre-show workshop. In the workshop students participate in a multitude of activities, including acting exercises, lessons on theatre etiquette, and exploration of character choices, language, and themes. This preparation primes students to fully engage with the text and story of the play and allows them to lend a more critical and sophisticated eye to the performance they see. Following each show the students can attend a post-show Talk Back with artists and Hartford Stage staff, and finally a post-show workshop brings a Hartford Stage Teaching Artist back into the classroom for students to share their reactions and thoughts on the performance.

The impact InterACT is having is readily apparent to all. Students demonstrate a deeper understanding of coursework related to the performances, actors comment on the great attentiveness and reactions of InterACT audiences, and teachers praise the level of engagement their students show with the program. “When Hartford Stage came to visit my class…students who often sat with their heads on their desks became enthusiastic leaders, guiding their groups in the creation of tableaux,” one Manchester High School teacher shared. She went on to say, “Several girls from my class sat in the front row and were lucky enough to be the audience members Macbeth approached during one of his soliloquies. These students were not only captivated; they were validated by the performance.”

It is this personal effect that InterACT aims to create. Without the program many of these students may never have had the opportunity or interest to see a live play. InterACT helps to break financial and cultural barriers that may otherwise have prevented these young people from participating in the performing arts even as spectators. By not just providing them a ticket, but educating them on how to engage more deeply with a particular text and with the experience of attending a live performance, it is hoped that students will come to understand that theatre is not an exclusive art, it is for everyone.

Education Associate for Student Audiences Aurelia Clunie notes that many students seem to be gaining this perspective. She says that as a result of InterACT, students at Hartford Journalism and Media Academy, for example, decided to start a drama club at their school. As well, students from various schools have come back to Hartford Stage to broaden their knowledge of theatre in studio classes and Young Company programs, and some have even been inspired to believe in and pursue their dreams of careers in the performing arts.

And in return what kind of benefit does Hartford Stage gain from offering InterACT? Besides a great amount of satisfaction from results such as the aforementioned, the theatre sees this program as one of the best ways to grow the love of performing arts in its community. Clunie explains, “By showing young people that Hartford Stage is their theatre too and making them feel comfortable engaging in the performing arts, we hope they will become the next generation of theatregoers and supporters for Hartford Stage.”