On our first visit to Asbury Park Middle School in the summer of 2019, we waited in the library for several administrators. There was a shelf labeled Plays, but it was clear this shelf was mislabeled. It should have been called Play because Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was the only book on it. (There are Shakespearean scholars who rarely read that play, let alone 5th graders.) It was in that moment, in that library, that Boardwalk Theatre Company’s ambitious education program was conceived.
Our program launched that October, with four distinct goals:
- Introduce the students to theatre. Many, if not all, had never seen play and most did not know what defined theatre.
- Bring professional performers and work into the classroom. BTC’s musical, Rosa Parks, served as the perfect vehicle to speak to this predominantly African American student body.
- Get the kids on their feet! Improvisational theatre games make students part of theatre, part of the action, part of the story.
- Fill the shelf! Our endgame was to have these students each create their own short play/scene and create a bound version of the collection to knock Coriolanus off its lofty perch. Imagine a decade from now, students turning to that shelf and seeing the work of the students who came before them, not the second-rate work of dead English writers.
Our first year was an incredible learning experience. We made plenty of mistakes, but we learned plenty of lessons. The primary one being that this was not a program to be executed with monthly or bi-monthly visits from our team. These students required consistent contact. They needed to know and trust us. And once they did, they would freely and exuberantly come along for the ride.
Just as we were preparing to get into the writing phase, Covid-19 struck. Everything came to a halt. But this summer we received an email from Justin Artenant, Director of After-School Programs for the Asbury Park School District. It contained this incredibly moving passage:
Our students have never been so enthusiastic about an after-school program. Every week that went by without Jeff in the room was a disappointment to them. They can’t wait to see you again this fall.
On December 1st, 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus and forever altered the history of this country. In the coming academic year, BTC will take our musical about this moment in time – winner of the 2009 Richard Rodgers Awards for New Musical
Theater – and build our education curriculum around it.
We will be teaching students about every element of theatre creation – writing, acting, dancing, costumes, lighting, etc. – but doing so with an eye on this historical moment and with social consciousness driving every lesson.
Two Sample Sessions.
Session One. Action.
So much of what drives a good piece of theatre is dramatic action. During this session we will have the students recreate that fateful bus sequence using schoolroom chairs, reenacting the actions Rosa took in those historic moments. Many do not know that not only did she refuse to give up her seat, but she moved one seat closer to the window. That choice, that action, had remarkable power. Our session will allow students to understand that moment by living it “on the stage”.
Session Two. Conflict.
Rosa Parks believed in a reasoned approach to change. As secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, she believed change could be achieved through incremental, political, diplomatic means. Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old arrested for refusing to vacate her seats on a bus six months prior
to Rosa, believed in throwing rocks in the street. “Shouting at the Rain” presents the conflict of these views in one of the musical’s early duets.
During this session, the song will be presented by a professional performance team, who will then speak directly to the students before involving them in the number.
Over the course of the curriculum, BTC will be encouraging students to develop their own piece of theatre inspired by the events of December 1st, 1955 and the lessons they have learned. That piece might be a short scene, a monologue, a song, a dance, a puppet show…anything they want. At the final session, we will present those pieces for the group and any invited guests the program wishes to have in attendance.
• Each in-person session is roughly 60 minutes. (If there is a need for remote work, those sessions are executed on a reduced, 30-minute timeframe.)
• To maintain continuity of the program, BTC would like to meet with students once a week.
• There is no work required of the students outside of the sessions. Everything is done in the room.
• The program is ideal for middle school students – grades five through eight – but can also be effective for high school-age students.
• BTC likes to work with larger groups but to ensure we have the most impact on each student, we try to limit our sessions to 25 students max.
• Our sessions can take place in a variety of space – libraries, classrooms, cafeterias…etc. But often through the year the sessions require a piano.