IN 2009, THE DALLAS THEATER CENTER (DTC) AND BOOKER T. WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL for the Performing and Visual Arts formed a partnership. DTC implemented an audition-based, college-level acting class at the school, and each year since, professional artists have been brought into the classroom to transform the space into a theater learning lab.
The rigorous program, which includes students observing professional artists, reaches its climax when the students act alongside professionals in a spring semester performance.
The students act alongside professionals in a spring semester performance.
A PROGRAM TO STIMULATE ARTS ENGAGEMENT
When DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty heard about Dallas’ GrowSouth Initiative, an program designed to strengthen the neighborhoods of South Dallas, he wondered if a program similar to the one at Booker T. Washington could stimulate arts engagement in South Dallas schools.
“We thought it would be an interesting test,” Moriarty said. “What if an institution like ours put a significant amount of resources into a public high school that doesn’t typically receive that level of engagement and support from arts organizations—or even from the city of Dallas?”
Moriarty grew up in rural Indiana, a shy kid transformed the first time his parents took him to see a play. He became a music teacher, and eventually moved to New York to pursue theater. In 2007, he came to work for DTC, where he’s directed a host of plays and has worked on initiatives to boost education and community collaboration.
South Oak Cliff High School was chosen for Moriarty’s test. He went to the principal and laid out the plan: DTC would provide the program at no cost to the school. However, the students would be required to self-select for the class.
That didn’t happen.
NOT WHAT STUDENTS EXPECTED
Due to some scheduling conflict, the kids who showed up that first morning not only hadn’t chosen to take an advanced acting class, they thought they were taking a basic theater appreciation class. Understandably, they were surprised. The students mumbled when Hassan El-Amin, a member of the Brierley Resident Acting Company and a community artist at DTC, asked them why they’d taken the class.
“It was like watching people who’d been sent to a detention camp.”
“It was like watching people who’d been sent to a detention camp,” Moriarty said.
El-Amin asked who was interested in acting. Not a single hand went up. One student spoke up only to inform El-Amin that no one was interested, and that personally, he’d refuse to get up in front of people.
This was a worst-case scenario, and Moriarty was a little worried. At the time, El-Amin had the lead role The Mountaintop, DTC’s recent play about Martin Luther King Jr.
Moriarty and El-Amin figured if they couldn’t engage the kids in the classroom, maybe it would help them to see theater in action.
Time went on, and the students each were assigned a portion of MLK’s last speech and asked to rehearse it. DTC then arranged to take the class on an evening field trip to the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. The kids would perform their speeches as pop-up performances in the lobby, and then they’d file into the theater to watch El-Amin perform.
Most of the students had never been to the Wyly before, and somehow, the assignment had surprising results—they took it seriously.
STUDENTS PERFORM AT THEATER
The young man who’d told El-Amin he’d refuse to perform was the first to present. Perhaps it was seeing El-Amin’s picture in their programs, and later watching him appear on stage as Dr. King.
Perhaps it was the understanding that a highly skilled, professional actor was invested in their learning and self-expression. Perhaps they simply didn’t want to disappoint him.
“Getting high school kids to speak loudly with confidence is an achievement.”
“They were dynamic, strong, and loud,” Moriarty said. “Getting high school kids to speak loudly with confidence is an achievement. It was an incredibly transformative moment.”
Since then, the South Oak Cliff High School students have watched plays and worked on a variety of materials, including voice and speech work, readings of dramatic texts, and physical theater work. At the end of the school year, the students will step onto the stage and perform their final scenes in front of their friends and families.
“At Booker T., the students are young up-and-coming actors,” El-Amin told me. “These South Oak Cliff students’ focus on life after high school is totally different. So, we utilize the acting as a tool to expose them to how this can benefit them in every walk of life.”
OPTIMISM IN MAKING A DIFFERENCE
For now, Moriarty said that it’s difficult to tell what the overall impact of this learning experiment will be. He’s optimistic that DTC is making a difference.
“If we fully invest in every single student in DISD for a 20-year period, I genuinely believe that the city and its politics will be better.”
A work of art is an expression of both an artist’s world and the artist herself, Moriarty said. Part of improving a city’s politics is having well-informed citizens who understand themselves as well as the world around them. And theater is a crucial part of that, whether a student aims for a life on stage or simply as a vote-casting citizen.
Said Moriarty: “If we fully invest in every single student in DISD for a 20-year period, I genuinely believe that the city and its politics will be better.”
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