The school day wasn’t half over, yet the students trudged into the Lake View High School library like bored, distracted zombies.
Then they met Rolanda Brigham.
“Come on, wake up, get up, arms in air, we’re gonna start off with some exercise,” she told them. In no time she had them stretching, then playing a variety of lively theater games. At first the students giggled self-consciously and acted disdainful, but after a few minutes the room rang with their laughter. By the end of the session at least a half dozen were asking Brigham what it takes to become an actress.
“I know they have it in them to do great things,” says Brigham. “It’s just a question of getting it out.”
Brigham is a Chicago actress on loan to Lake View and several other north-side schools as part of an innovative program called the Lakeview Education & Arts Partnership.
“We are using the arts as a tool to teach other subjects,” explains David Flatley, development director for Pegasus Players, a north-side theater company that takes part in the program.
In Brigham’s case, that means working with English, art, and history teachers to dramatize issues, concepts, and subjects–such as immigration, metaphor, and Egyptian mythology–that otherwise might not penetrate the adolescent mind.
“These are kids who see school as an alien situation,” says Esther Lieber, a Lake View English teacher who works with Brigham. “Rolanda’s approach gives them a voice. It gives them a sense that school matters to them. It’s a way of drawing them into the process.”
The Lakeview program is part of a citywide effort called the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education. Several corporations and foundations fund it, including Marshall Field’s, Sara Lee, Kraft, the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Fel-Pro/Mecklenburger Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. All told, some $500,000 in grant money has been awarded to form 13 partnerships involving 60 arts organizations and over 50 schools.
The Lakeview partnership includes the Beacon Street Gallery, the Chicago Teacher Center at Northeastern Illinois University, the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, Sulzer Library, and four local schools: Blaine, Audubon, and Ravenswood elementary and Lake View High School. In addition to Brigham, the participating artists are dancer Nilda Pauley, photographer Bob Richards, actresses Nomusa Xaba and Kelly Balzli, stage director Jonathan Wilson, and Esther Charbit, who’s an art teacher.
These artists meet with teachers to design a curriculum. Afterward they conduct a series of general workshops–such as the one led by Brigham in Lake View’s library–with large groups of students. And then they work with individual classes on a weekly basis for a semester.
Last semester, for instance, Charbit worked with Lieber’s English class as they studied the god Osiris, ruler of the Egyptian underworld. “When we did the myth of Osiris, we talked about the concept of afterlife,” says Lieber. “The students drew these wonderful interpretive circles of life which they wrote about. It was a wonderful exercise. They now recognize Egyptian art, know a little about hieroglyphics, and they have an understanding of symbolism.”
Brigham will work with Lieber’s English class and Diane Fashingbauer’s history class, creating scenes and skits dramatizing issues related to immigration.
“We are reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which tells the story of a Hispanic girl growing up in Humboldt Park,” says Lieber. “Diane’s class will examine earlier immigration. Their final project will be some kind of dramatic presentation in the voice of the immigrants from the turn of the century, most of whom came from Europe. My students will be dealing with the children of Mango Street–they’ll be coming up with dramatic presentations relating to immigration from today’s perspective.”
The artists help the students understand difficult concepts, while introducing them to new careers.
“These are kids who still go home at night and dream about what they want to be,” says Lieber. “They have the dream but they don’t know how to get there. It’s really exciting for them to meet someone who’s an actor or a writer or a photographer. They can say to themselves, ‘I can do it too.'”
The program might run counter to the philosophies of conservative educators in the vanguard of November’s Republican landslide, who would dismiss as silliness any high school English course in which students drew pictures or created skits. If you’re going to teach Egyptian myths, make the students read the original stuff raw, these educators would say. If the kids don’t like it, tough. And if they can’t understand it, flunk them.
Those conservatives could not destroy the partnership, as they are trying to dismantle midnight basketball leagues, because it involves no public funds other than teachers’ salaries.
But the partnership at Lake View was almost decapitated last year when the Board of Education unexpectedly expanded high school classes from 40 to 50 minutes. The purpose was to cut the payroll by offering fewer classes and firing teachers. The result was chaos.
“Our whole schedule was thrown off and some teachers were suddenly transferred,” says Lieber. “It decimated us, just as we were getting off the ground.”
So far this year, the central office has managed to restrain itself from tampering with class periods, teachers, or local school initiatives.
Already this year Richards has taught several workshops on photography and is even starting a camera club at Lake View.
Brigham’s acting sessions began with last week’s workshop in the library, involving about 60 students.
“I’m a professional actress,” she told the students. “I play in movies and in plays and in commercials. I’m in a new movie coming out called Losing Isaiah, starring Samuel Jackson. I have a national commercial for Sears. You’ve probably seen it, but you won’t recognize me ’cause I’m having a bad hair day on account of the rain.
“A part of acting is auditioning. I can’t just say, ‘Hi, I’m Rolanda, hire me.’ These jobs pay a lot of money. You can get $10,000 for three hours of work on a commercial. We have to audition, and there could be 50 other women who look just like me. They don’t have my energy, but they want the job.”
To illustrate what an audition is like, Brigham performed comic and dramatic monologues, playing Anita Hill in one and Clytemnestra in the other.
Then she asked for volunteers to step forward and audition. “I want you to tell me your name, your age, your favorite color, and your favorite food,” she said. “But do it four different ways: nervous, angry, happy, and sad.”
After much urging, only three students volunteered. So Brigham began plucking students from the class, good-naturedly grabbing them by their shirts and yanking them to the center of the room.
Most of these kids could do little more than giggle, blush, look at the ground, and squirm.
With five minutes left in the class, Brigham started calling on some of the teachers, beginning with Nick Gecan, a special ed teacher.
“How old are you?” she asked, as the kids cracked up.
“I’m 18 years old,” Gecan said.
“You were 30 years ago,” student Michael Clemens called out.
“Now be sad,” Brigham said.
Gecan’s shoulders sagged. “I’m 47,” he said mournfully.
“That’s sad enough,” a teacher cracked.
Finally Brigham called on Evelyn Handler, a history teacher who has been in the public system for many years. She marched to the front of the library as the room erupted in howls of delight.
Handler turned out to be a delightful ham: weeping, chuckling, or cackling as the role required.
“My favorite color is gold,” Handler said, maliciously fingering her gold bracelet. “I’m old enough not to talk about it. And my favorite food is anything I don’t have to cook.”
That brought down the house. And when the bell rang to end the class, several students had their hands in the air, hoping to be called on so they could go to the front of the room and act.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.