The Next Generation of Theatre

Inside Hartford Stage Education, Part Four:
The Next Generation of Theatre

By Erin Rose, Education Enrollment & Marketing Coordinator

The Education Department at Hartford Stage serves approximately 20,000 students each year – more than any other theatre in Connecticut. Our programs include student matinees, in-school theatre residencies, teen performance opportunities, theatre classes for ages three through adult, afterschool programs and professional development courses.

The Education Department’s vision is expressed in four points:

  • We are committed to developing a new audience of theatre-goers by offering opportunities for students of all ages and backgrounds to see and engage with productions at Hartford Stage.
  • We are enthusiastic about nurturing the next generation of artists by providing training and performance opportunities for young people and adults.
  • We are devoted to being a leader in providing in-school, theatre-based programs to address the disparity of arts access and literacy in our community and to promote creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking, all 21st century skills that will help prepare students for the world and workforce of the future.
  • Dedicated to serving students of all abilities, ages, backgrounds, ethnic and racial groups, and socioeconomic levels, creating an audience that reflects the diversity of our community, increasing the diversity of future theatre audiences, and ensuring that students with little or no access to theatre have access to Hartford Stage.

In this article, the final in a series, we will take a closer look at the third and fourth points of the vision statement through the Education Department’s in-school programs. While many people are aware of the programs we offer that bring students in to Hartford Stage, such as student matinees and Youth Studio classes, we actually reach many students each year in their own classrooms. The reason for going into the classrooms themselves is actually simple – often schools aren’t able to come to us, either through lack of funding, transportation, or difficulty in scheduling. “There’s a big disparity in what schools have access to the arts and how much access to the arts. So we are committed to making sure that all students do have access to this kind of learning and these kinds of experiences,” says Hartford Stage Director of Education, Jennifer Roberts.

The most popular of these in-school programs is Connections, a program that uses theatre techniques to strengthen comprehension skills and build excitement about a piece of literature. Teachers select a book from a variety of grade-appropriate options, including Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, Kathleen Krull’s Wilma Unlimited, and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. The Hartford Stage teaching artist will then spend a week of one-hour sessions in their classroom, leading drama activities based on that work of literature.

A sample first day of the program might begin with teaching students how to create a tableau, or a frozen image that tells a story. “Tableaux are a great tool for summarizing,” says Roberts. “If kids can make a tableau of a scene they read in a book, we know that they understood it.” Then the students might be introduced to one of the characters from the book, played in first-person by the teaching artist, whom they can interview to learn more about that story. The teaching artist might then read a portion of text from the book and ask the students if they can imagine what happens next. From there, the students might be asked to create either a tableau or dialogue of their ideas about the next scene in the story.

Through this improvisation, role-play, dialogue, and other theatre techniques, students develop empathy for the characters and build a sense of anticipation over what happens next. “Every time we get to a crucial suspense point in the book and they just want to know what happens next,” says Roberts, “that’s when we say, ‘You’ve got to wait until you read the book,’ and then we move on to something else. So by the end of the week, they really can’t wait to read the book.”

On the final day of the program, students are each given a copy of the book to add to their own personal libraries. “It’s not uncommon to see students starting to devour the books before I’ve even finished passing out the copies to the rest of the class!” laughs teaching artist Erin Rose. Roberts concurs: “We hear a lot from teachers about students who have been reluctant readers who really come alive during the week. We ask kids to take a risk and learn in a different way, and some kids haven’t been asked to learn in that way.”

The Connections program has reached over 65,000 students since its inception in 1999. In the 2016-2017 school year alone, Hartford Stage teaching artists have reached over 6,000 students in 300 classrooms across the state through our in-school programming. “Our teaching artists put many, many miles on their cars to get to these schools each year,” jokes Roberts. And their dedication has not gone unnoticed. In May 2017, the Hartford Stage education department will be presented with the 2017 ILA Celebrate Literacy Award by the Connecticut Literacy Association, on behalf of the International Literacy Association.

But while literacy and theatre seem to be a natural fit, Hartford Stage Education also uses arts integration to teach both science and financial literacy in classrooms across the state. Aided in large part by a generous grant from the LEGO Community Fund US, these curricula were created to allow students to approach more analytical subjects from a creative standpoint. “It’s a bigger stretch to imagine how theatre can teach science or financial literacy, but it can. It engages students,and it builds empathy. If you can present students with a way to think about someone dealing with a problem, and they can put themselves into that person’s shoes, then they really experience the content in a new way,” says Roberts. For instance, the curriculum for the financial literacy program revolves around the books Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book by Nikki Grimes and Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts. Each story deals with a young person struggling with a financial situation. As the students put themselves in the shoes of the characters they are able to grasp the importance of financial matters, such as wants vs. needs, budgeting, earning money, and the value of money and positions.

There is currently a major emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning in education. While these subjects are all absolutely important for future careers, Hartford Stage Managing Director Michael Stotts suggests we might consider adding an “A” for arts and making it STEAM learning. In addition to these technical skills, students will undoubtedly be called upon to use critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and imagination in their future jobs – all of which are skills that are fostered through access to the arts. It is Hartford Stage’s hope that the approximately 6,000 students who participate in our in-school programs each year will develop these skills and use them to become leaders in their world and workforce in the 21st century.

For more information on how Hartford Stage can become involved at your school, please visit or call 860-520-7263.

All photos by Defining Studios.