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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When she moved to Middle College High School in Queens, ninth grade English teacher Rachel Wolff brought Stage Doors with her.
A bedrock program in Theatre Development Fund’s education department, Stage Doors brings together teaching artists and classroom teachers to present workshops that prepare students for an informed, engaged theatregoing experience. The students cap their experience by seeing a professional production.
Wolff first participated in Stage Doors as an English teacher at Jamaica High School in Queens, where she saw it augment her teaching, excite her students, and sometimes even boost their self-esteem. That’s why she petitioned to bring the program to Middle College.
With regard to her classwork, Wolf feels that Stage Doors demonstrates the real-world value of an English class. “I think it’s important for them to go to the theatre and see that writing isn’t just dead words on a page,” she says. “There are more applications for writing than handing it in and getting a grade.”
She’s also seen the program affect how students feel about the theatre. In early March, for instance, her students attended No Child, a solo piece that features writer-performer Nilaja Sun playing students and teachers at a tough New York City school. TDF presented three special performances of the show at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center, and every ticket went to a Stage Doors participant.
At first, Wolff’s students were suspicious. “Trying to sell them on a one-woman show was hard,” she says. “It was really foreign to them.”
But after the students actually saw the show---after they were able to engage with Sun’s work and speak with her in a talkback session---their doubts disappeared. “They were in awe of [Nilaja Sun],” Wolff says. “For the rest of the day, all they talked about was how well she played the characters and how much they identified with them. They wanted to know how she did it.”
Stage Doors can also have a subtler impact. “Some kids are normally quiet, and this kind of experience can be their opportunity to get started,” Wolff explains.
Consider this example: As part of their Stage Doors workshops for No Child, Wolff’s students wrote and performed solo pieces about their own lives. She particularly recalls one child’s approach to the assignment.
“This student is a real goofball,” she says. “He’s always tripping over himself. He’s fourteen, so what’s to be expected? But the other kids kind of tease him. Not in a mean way, but they tease him a little. But when he did his one-person performance, he was awesome. The kids asked him to do it again.”
She adds, “He’s much more confident now. I think it’s really changed how the other kids in the class see him.”
Wolff is uniquely equipped to appreciate what the theatre offers: Her father and grandfather were both professional stagehands in New York City. “Growing up, I saw more dress rehearsals than actual shows,” she says. “I was dragged there so frequently and didn’t think I would like it, but I usually did. Thinking about that now, I realize that most kids aren’t lucky enough to have those opportunities, but they deserve to have them.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor