By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Manhattan's Regis High School is on the Upper East Side, but for teachers like James Kennedy, that's just a home base. He sees all five boroughs as potential laboratories for his students.
Take Theater in New York, an elective course that Kennedy co-teaches with Father Phil Judge. (Regis is a tuition-free Catholic boys' school.) Offered in the winter trimester, the class goes to a different live performance every week, and they travel everywhere from Broadway to Brooklyn.
"It's one of our principles here at Regis to use the city as a classroom as often as we can, and Theater in New York is a class that puts that goal at the forefront," Kennedy says. "Sending kids to a museum every now and then is one thing, but going week by week to many theatres in many different neighborhoods really exposes the kids to the classroom that's all around them."
It also exposes them to the theatre's remarkable diversity. This winter, for instance, the class of over thirty students saw eight productions, including the Broadway historical drama A Free Man of Color, the saucy Off Broadway musical Avenue Q, and InGenius 2011, a festival of short plays presented off-Off Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Source. They even trekked to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for an Icelandic company's take on Kafka's Metamorphosis.
With a schedule like that, the Regis students are as seasoned as any theatre lover in New York, and since the course launched in 1972, hundreds of them have experienced what the city can offer.
"We tell the guys that for this trimester, they're theatregoers, and that it's not uncommon for people to make it part of their weekly habit," Kennedy says. "I think they get into being part of that theatre world, comparing one playhouse to another, and noticing the sorts of folks that turn up at different playhouses. I guess you could call that the 'culture of theatregoing' that they get a little taste of."
Since every performance is followed by an in-class discussion (and often a writing assignment), Kennedy looks for quality productions that will engage his students, who run the gamut from seasoned actors and theatre techies to novice audience members. Crucially, they see shows without bankrupting their families. Everyone pays a course fee that averages to about $25 per ticket---the school covers those who can't afford it---and Kennedy looks for discounted tickets wherever he can. TDF is often part of the picture.
This year, for instance, Kennedy used his TDF membership to get discounted tickets to A Free Man of Color, and he took advantage of TDF's off-Off @ $9 program to buy tickets for the InGenius Festival. "To spend $9 on a show really allows us to splurge in other cases," he says. "And the off-Off Broadway shows are engaging: One of the plays we saw in the festival was one of the best plays we saw all term."
By showing them that theatre happens all over the city, that there are countless varieties of productions, and that performances can be affordable, Kennedy hope his students will develop a taste for the stage. He's proof that it can happen: Before joining the faculty four years ago, Kennedy was a student, and he took Theater in New York himself.
"I'm happiest when alumni---even alumni who are not particularly 'artsy'---come back over their college Christmas break and tell me that they're headed to TKTS in Times Square to pick up quick tickets for a show, or they're asking about what's hot Off Broadway, or asking me to compare the quality of shows this year to those from last year," he says. "I'd like to think the course is making a positive impact."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of Regis students traveling to see Metamorphosis at Brooklyn Academy of Music; photo by Julian Wong