March 16, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 12

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    University students make a dramatic difference in lives of schoolchildren

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    The circle of College and middle-school students was silent as the menacing third-year ordered a 12-year-old to smile. [theater] by jason smithThe 12-year-old did not budge, but the rest of the circle exploded in laughter that rang through the University’s Francis X. Kinahan Theater.

    This duel is in fact a warm-up exercise for weekly acting rehearsals that will culminate in a performance by College mentors and their younger students this spring. They all are members of the Mentorship Program, a drama and creative-writing workshop offered by University Theater’s School Partnership Program.

    “The School Partnership Program’s mission is to provide schoolchildren with an opportunity to learn drama skills with our College students,” said Zannah Bradley, Managing Director of UT. “Our assistance ranges from creating after-school drama clubs to helping stage productions in schools. We will provide drama programs where they don’t exist, and we can enhance those that do.”

    The program, recently sponsored by the Hyde Park Bank Foundation, is in its eighth year. What began with two University students and one local school now involves more than 120 College students and reaches approximately 1,500 schoolchildren in Chicago Public Schools, private schools and community organizations in Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn.

    Fourth-year Rebecca Hamlin, School Partnership Coordinator, matches the needs of each school with College students’ talents, from lighting design to improvisation classes. “The schools often don’t have arts programming, and what we do is most often free to the schools,” said Hamlin, who also participates in the Mentorship Program and co-teaches John Fiske Elementary School’s drama club. “So we’re definitely increasing our visibility. In some of the schools where we began with the Mentorship Program, we now have a drama club that culminates in a year-end performance.”

    In just the last two years, the School Partnership Program added six of its 12 partner schools thanks to funding from the Regents Park Fine Arts Partnership.

    In addition to drama clubs and acting workshops, UT actors bring a touring show to elementary schools each spring. Directed this year by Curt Columbus, Director of UT, College students will perform Greek myths and lead follow-up discussions in the grade schools.

    The School Partnership Program also invites younger students to the University’s campus for UT matinees. This spring, area students will attend performances of Troilus and Cressida and Arabian Nights, which will be complemented by pre- and post-show discussions.

    “Right now, University students are preparing my students on how to audition,” said music teacher Cynthia Gray, who plans to stage the first-ever spring musical at Future Commons High School Multiplex. Gray said her students––many of whom have never seen musical theater––arrive at 7:30 a.m. before school for their workshop. That kind of commitment, she believes, is testimony to their enthusiasm for drama. “Our students have a lot of fun, but they also see the commitment from the College students that this is serious, hard work,” said Gray.

    Middle-school students in the Mentorship Program, now in its third year, receive the most personalized curriculum, attending weekly one-on-one meetings for six months of the school year with a College mentor.[theater] by jason smith They learn acting techniques and scene writing.

    “I really learned how to direct here,” said Phillip Morgan, a seventh-grader. “The hardest part of directing is getting [the scene] to be just right, just how you imagined it in your head.”

    Sixth-grader London Brown has decided she wants to be an actress when she grows up because “you get to do things [onstage] you can’t do in real life, like having sleepovers.” Brown said the key to playwriting, however, is grounding her work in reality. “I take what actually happens, and then I twist it a bit. My pen just flows.” Her mentor, third-year Becca Kotler, said Brown’s ability to discuss her work openly and receive feedback has exponentially grown since the beginning of the year. “That’s something I didn’t learn until I was much older,” said Kotler.

    Nine mentors and their students meet as a group each Saturday morning for a workshop where they act out their scenes. The process will culminate in a production co-written and acted by the mentors and their students, which fourth-year Cassandra Bissell will direct. “The kids’ best material is based on their own lives,” said Bissell, adding that she expects to include vignettes that range from being punished for tardiness to the benefits of wearing magic boots. The free production will begin at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and Sunday, April 9, in the First Floor Theater of Reynolds Club, 5706 S. University Ave.

    “This program has an overwhelmingly positive effect on both the mentors and the mentees,” said Hamlin. “We may be role models and teachers, but as the year progresses, we become peers, friends. If you think about it, a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old aren’t that far apart. And because we spend the year performing together, we really get to know one another.” Hamlin said the confidence and maturity she sees students gain is nearly as important as the drama skills they acquire.

    Rita Ware, Principal of Jackie R. Robinson Elementary School, is working with the School Partnership Program on her production of The Wiz. “We often look at the arts as something just fun, but our production covers language arts-based lessons such as recall, comprehension, cause-and-effect and memorization,” said Ware, adding that a performance is an opportunity for a large number of her students to shine.

    “The University students form a mentoring relationship with our students that extends to things like improved attendance, but also they learn to collaborate, to work together and to share, which are skills they’ll need later in life.”

    To receive more information about the School Partnership Program, call (773) 702-9315 or e-mail sbbradle@midway.uchicago.edu.