Writers Theatre in Residence for Full School Year
“To be or not to be” echoed through our hallways in January as the seniors of Ida Crown Jewish Academy found joy in studying Hamlet. Because our dual curriculum necessitates a demanding class schedule, we struggle to find time for drama and arts; our study of plays is limited to the English curriculum. This year, we received the Shay Endowment Fund, a grant awarded to a department that seeks to enrich the secular studies at our school, and we looked for ways of bringing in the arts. We decided to partner with Writers Theatre after learning about their excellent educational work in area schools. As Chair of the English Department, I wanted to find a way to bring the arts into every student’s life and contacted Nicole Ripley to see what her Education Department could offer us. The results of this connection have transformed the way our students approach texts.
In order to reach every student, we decided to devote the first quarter to the sophomore study of Antigone, the second quarter to the senior study of Hamlet, the third quarter to the junior study of The Great Gatsby, and the final quarter to the freshman study of The Odyssey, each culminating in an evening performance. Under the guidance of Stephanie Chavara, a gifted actor and WT teaching artist, students have participated in close readings, choral recitations, group tableaux, vocal training, and other experiential exercises to make these texts come to life. English teachers work with Ms. Chavara to implement her lesson plans and bring the students to their feet. Every session starts with warm-up activities focused on team building and collaboration. Then, Ms. Chavara adds text so that by the end of each quarter, students memorize key passages.
Each of the four sophomore classes presented newly adapted versions of Antigone using news reporting, staging, and echoed choral reading. The performance in November allowed the sophomores to showcase their understanding of this classic text, and how pleased I was with their work!
Tackling Shakespeare was our next goal, and each of the five senior classes was responsible for a different Act. After seven weeks of immersion, Elsinore came to life for both students and audience. Some students focused on the soliloquys, others on dialogue, while some performed the sword fight complete with stage combat and blood! For most of our students, this was their first experience with theater, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. With exercises teaching voice and gesture, text analysis and in learning text-driven character choices, each student found a new level of understanding of Shakespeare’s words. One student commented that “experiential learning” really lifted the text off of the page.
This spring, Ms. Chavara brings her enthusiasm and expertise in elevating the text of two literary classics. I can already hear the buzz in the hallways about Gatsby “believing in the green light” and I cannot wait to see how they bring their ideas to the stage.
Our partnership with Writers Theatre will impact these students for years to come. When asked to evaluate the program, the seniors commented on their appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare, and they now want to study Shakespeare in college. Every time they read a play or approach a new text, they will remember to look for repetition, to focus on punctuation, and to use their own voices to find meaning. I am so grateful for working with these fine professionals. Bravo! ■