In fact, it was the first year for Compass Creative Dramatics. That spring, Cassandra approached me with an idea: to bring immersive theatre programming to schools and organizations across the country. Would I join her, she asked.
Of course I would.
That summer, we wrote a script. We developed a business plan. We contacted designers and educators and business consultants and performance spaces, utilizing every connection we had to get our programming off the page and into kids’ hands and brains – the places where this company comes to life.
In the fall, we worked with our first group of Compass Creative Dramatics students - eight kids joined us for a script development workshop in Evanston. Several of the students had never been in a play before. A couple were old pros, recalling memories of school plays and acting classes they had taken at various theatre companies across Chicago.
And this time, it was our own stories we heard them telling.
“When we did this last time . . .”
“Do you remember when . . .”
“My favorite part was . . .”
As our summer campers chatted together about past experiences, Compass Creative Dramatics became part of those memories. And that’s great to hear.
See, Cassandra and I don’t focus on readying kids for careers in theatre, and we won’t “Make Your Child a Star.” We concentrate on stretching kids creativity and bravery muscles – so they can be bold enough to raise their hands in class, or imaginative enough to problem-solve in real life. And over the course of a week-long program, we see those skills develop, and we witness those memories taking shape, so that some day, they’ll want to tell those stories.
I’m standing in line at a bookstore in my neighborhood, and the woman behind me is telling me her story. She recognized me from a show I did the previous season, and her eyes light up as she tells me about her high school musical—how she almost didn’t audition, but in the end, it turned out to be the best eight weeks she had that year.
As an actor, I get that all the time. Not the being-recognized-on-the-street thing. That’s unusual. But when people find out I do theatre, so often I see their eyes brighten just like that lady’s, and they tell me about their third grade play, or an annual Christmas pageant, or being in the kids’ chorus of Joseph at their community theatre.
I love these stories.
Fall 2012. Still in the infancy of our company, Cassandra and I decided to take on another project: we started a campaign to collect people’s memories about participation in theatre, and how it affected them. We posted on YouTube asking for video responses, and watched the stories begin to trickle in, both through responses to our YouTube channel and through essays submitted through our email:
We interact with other artists who share our opinions, our passions, and our stories. Existing in this cocoon, it’s easy to forget that there are others in the world for whom the importance of art in education is not a foregone conclusion. There are people who don’t see that there is inherent value in what we do—and so we evangelize.
We’re constantly striving to spread the word that the arts are vital to child development, and to the development of our society. We push statistics—because that’s the language of administrators and policymakers.
Rarely do we meet the faces behind the statistics—the doctor, the mom, the cab driver whose story has been enriched by participation in the arts. It’s those personal stories that help people connect to the work we’re doing. And it’s that connection that paves the way to comprehension.
Through our response project, the faceless statistics were given shape, names, and personalities:
Leona in Georgia described how doing theatre at school has taught her daughter that it’s cool to be who you are, and has helped develop her sense of self.
Marilyn in Arizona explained that high school theatre helped her cope with her mother’s death.
Robert in Illinois shared how a chance encounter with a theatre teacher guided him away from a relationship with a schoolmate who later ended up in prison for murder.
Shqipron in Wisconsin told us how being in a play shortly after he moved to the States helped him learn to speak English, and how to interact with his fellow high school freshmen.
Fast forward five years: It’s fall of 2017 now (well, fine, winter). We’ve successfully completed five unfathomably awesome summer camp seasons. We’ve worked thousands of students in dozens of cities across 16 states through our theatre camps and community residencies.
But the best measure of our success are those stories that our students, their parents, their teachers, and their administrators tell.
In the years to come, we look forward to encouraging countless students to create memories they’ll reflect on, standing in line at a bookstore, or sitting at a coffee shop, or with their families later in life. I hope that in the end, they’ll have many stories to tell.