Spotlight On: the Student Performance Series

By Erin Frederick, Education Enrollment and Marketing Coordinator

The cast of Hamlet discusses the play with students.
The cast of Hamlet discusses the play with students.

Each year, Hartford Stage welcomes thousands of young people to our Student Performance Series. These young people come to us from all over Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. For many of them, it is their first time seeing live theatre.

“Student matinees are a great way to complement curricula in school,” says Aurelia Clunie, Hartford Stage Education Associate for Student Audiences. “Many of this year’s students prepared for the performances by reading the plays in class (in the case of Hamlet), or reading holocaust survivors’ stories (for our upcoming production of The Pianist of Willesden Lane). “These living, breathing [live theatrical] experiences can provide valuable context or a window into a unit at school.”

To enhance their experience, many school groups opt to participate in pre- or post-performance workshops. In this program, a Hartford Stage teaching artist visits the school and works individually with each classroom either to prime the students for the production or reflect on the show they have just seen.

“The workshops are a fun way for students to explore the plays on their feet, wrestle with themes the plays present, and get to know major characters and plot points,” says Clunie. “I love seeing students recognize moments they’ve explored in workshops when talking about the show.”

There’s a very specific energy to student matinees. The cast feels it immediately in the students’ engaged response to every moment. For some actors, the student matinees are among their favorite performances. Hartford Stage actor Curtis Billings, who recently featured as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Fred/Young Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, explains why student matinees are important to the actors themselves. “[When I was a student],  it used to mean the world to me when actors would take an extra 20 minutes after a show to spend time with the audience,” says Billings. “To see the King and the Queen as regular people in jeans and sweatshirts – it made me realize that theatre was not some ethereal dream; it was simply practical magic put on by some very cool people. I love being able to give that back now and to try to answer the kids’ questions as best we can. And often, we learn more from them than they do from us. They help keep us honest.”

Dancing: Gillian Williams and Curtis Billings. Above: Johanna Morrison and Bill Raymond in A Christmas Carol. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Dancing: Gillian Williams and Curtis Billings. Above: Johanna Morrison and Bill Raymond in A Christmas Carol.

All school groups are invited to attend a special post-performance talkback with the cast and crew. Here, they are able to learn about everything from how an actor learns his lines to how the apparition characters from A Christmas Carol are able to fly. These talkbacks are some of the most meaningful moments of the student matinee for many of our young audience members. Afterwards, we often see teachers trying to herd their groups back on the buses, as several students linger to ask “just one more question” or take “just one more selfie” with their favorite cast member.

The students who attend Hartford Stage matinees develop a sense of ownership of the space and of the art produced here. In fact, many of our current audience members say their love of theatre was inspired by a formative experience at a student matinee as a child.