SA Union Square is buzzing as performers run through a tech rehearsal for the annual Performing Arts Festival. Teachers become stage managers and show runners, communicating in hushed tones over headsets, while scholars wait quietly in classrooms that have been transformed into green rooms. The festival has been in the works since the fall, with schools from across the network refining dance, chorus, band, theater, and poetry pieces in hopes that they will be included in the evening’s program. All in all, 363 scholars from 16 schools were selected to perform in the event on February 20 — a sold-out success. As the big day approached, several scholars and teachers reflected on how preparations before the show helped scholars shine even more brightly both on the stage and in the classroom.
All in all, 363 scholars from 16 schools were selected to perform in the event on February 20 — a sold-out success.
Both SA Prospect Heights Theater Teacher Anna Luddy and SA Crown Heights Dance Teacher Jeff Cowans emphasize the personal transformation they see in their scholars. As they fine-tune performances on stage and in the dance studio, scholars build confidence that propels them to succeed in academics. “Every single year,” Anna explains, “I have scholars who excel in my class who are struggling academically. They leave my class with their confidence and they bring that into their classroom. They know they can do something well and that spills over.” For many scholars, falling in love with a theater, television, or movie script makes reading, writing, and literary analysis accessible and engaging. “I have kids who have an IEP, or are English Language Learners. They are reading the script and getting literacy but they don’t realize it. I’ll say. ‘Look, we’re analyzing this script and how this character changes and that’s exactly what you’re doing in shared text,’ and they see that those skills are transferable.” “I have one scholar who is part of my TV and film elective who founder her voice as a writer,” she continues. “She has been ELL for a few years and did not speak English when she started school. When she first came into my class she was very hesitant with writing and now she’ll come in the morning and tell me she has written this script at home.”
This sense of empowerment and excitement about engaging closely with texts comes through in how scholars talk about the festival. In reflecting on his experience acting in the play Box, SA Midtown West eighth grader Jeremiah Badia offers a thoughtful analysis of the script: “We’re doing a play about boxes, and the boxes represent our one personality, or how we see ourselves versus a specific character, whose parents want him to achieve a certain goal or behave a certain way, but he doesn’t want to achieve those goals. So it’s about self portrayal.” To prepare for their roles, Jeremiah and his fellow actors examine their characters’ behaviors and motivations, relating the characters’ experiences and feelings to their own — just as they would in a traditional ELA class. “You think about an experience that you’ve had that you can share with the character,” Jeremiah explains, “and see how you reacted in the situation. Acting has a sense of realism and a sense of fiction. So it’s really how you get to portray your character.”
In addition to honing traditional academic skills like writing and literary analysis, performing arts scholars also build competencies like persistence and community engagement. Scholars who might be struggling in class often find fresh motivation on stage, Jeff says. “Maybe they’re not applying themselves, but then they have a time in with us and we say, ‘Remember how hard it was to get that choreography? Do that in the classroom.’” This drive to meet challenges and work through roadblocks motivates scholars like SA Union Square third grader Jelisea Taylor, who lights up when she talks about the hard work she and her peers have put into preparing their dance piece The Polar Express for the festival. In the beginning, Jelisea says, it’s difficult to master the steps without getting confused. “But I take all feedback from what I’m seeing my friends do, and I tell myself to do that too.” For Jelisea, being part of a supportive community is key to this growth and improvement. “The fun part of getting ready for the performance has been that I get to work with my friends. I’m proud of seeing my friends dancing. I see the expressions on their faces, and I see that they’re happy and that makes me happy, and that just shows that I’m not the only one who likes dancing. It shows that people in that room — they like dancing too.”
You can view all Festival performances here.