On a recent Wednesday at the Bruce Guadalupe Community School, 25 eighth-graders in Sarah Schindler’s language arts class sat attentively in a semi-circle. The students began to discuss character motivation, read from a script and act out scenes, guided by a visitor from Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Gradually, they morphed from subdued observers to lively participants in an exploration of the classic American novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“There are lots of activities within the curriculum that allow students to empathize with the characters,” said Rep Education Coordinator Leda Hoffman, who created the curriculum. “And unless you can empathize with the characters you are reading about, reading isn’t very interesting or fun.”
Bruce Guadalupe, in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, is one of seven MPS middle and high schools participating in The Rep’s Reading Residencies. At Bruce Guadalupe, three eighth-grade classes comprising about 70 students are involved. The 20-week literacy program aims to strengthen reading skills and familiarize city students with live theater performance. The program culminates in a Rep Immersion Day at the Powerhouse Theater. There the technical crew hosts a behind-the-scenes presentation and a full professional production follows.
Schindler has been surprised that some students who don’t usually participate in her class jump in with enthusiasm when Rep Education Assistant Neal Easterling is there.
“It gives the students another environment where they might be more comfortable, where they’re reading out loud, where they’re acting, they’re getting up, they’re moving around. It’s more interactive than my class and it allows more students to be involved,” Schindler said.
“We’ve talked about themes such as intolerance and racism and growing up,” Schindler said. “The students are often able to make connections with what they’ve experienced and what they’ve seen on TV. They like it because they can connect with it. “
Rep Artistic Director Mark Clemens chose “To Kill a Mockingbird” as part of the company’s 2011/12 season “because it’s a book that contains an important and powerful message about the effects of prejudice. I believe that theater provides a platform for dialogue that we need to have in our community to counteract this sort of prejudice,” he said in a press release.
Budget cuts to Milwaukee Public Schools have decimated arts education for city students in recent years. Some determined administrators and teachers have found ways to partially fill the gap with the help of non-profit community arts organizations such as The Rep.