Every week, busloads of children arrive at the 24th Street Theatre in South Los Angeles, expecting to have fun during their much anticipated school field trip – and they will. What they don’t realize is that their visit is actually part of a program that uses theatre to teach math, history and language arts.
The children take part in “Enter Stage Right,” a standards-based arts education program that introduces students to live theatre.
“We take them behind the scenes of the magic of theatre,” says Debbie Devine, the 24th Street Theatre’s co-founder and artistic director. “They come and experience the whole process. We demystify it and make it mysterious, fun and magical.”
From the moment they step off the bus, the children are captivated by the warmth, humor and energy of the enthusiastic Devine, actors and staff. A welcome video by actor Jack Black, a supporter of the 24th Street Theatre, sets the stage for the morning program, which makes use of multimedia, comedy, improvisation techniques and student participation to enhance the learning experience.
Devine and her team of actors, musicians and technicians show the children how acting, writing, music, costumes, lighting and props are essential in producing a play – while incorporating basic math concepts and vocabulary in interactive segments throughout the show.
“Listening and speaking creatively empowers you as an individual. Acting is a big component of that,” says Devine. “And that’s what theater is… the art of persuasion.”
Devine herself is skillfully persuasive in getting children – even the most shy – to come out of their shells and participate. “Doing this gives me purpose. I was a child that was critically shy,” she remembers. “One summer my mother enrolled me in a drama class and it literally saved my life. I thought I could do the same for others.”
Throughout the program that she emcees, Devine asks questions and the young audience competes to be called on for an answer. The children watch mesmerized as the troupe’s actors perform specially designed skits on stage – one of which even tackles racism and how to respond to it.
“I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot,” says 8 year-old Samantha Terrazas, who was part of a group visiting from the 186th St School. “I learned making a play is hard and that your feelings are important,” she said referring to the skit about racism. Her grandfather Cristóbal González, who joined her in the field trip, thought it was “very instructional. They should have more of these programs in the schools.”
The 24th Street Theatre’s Enter Stage Right Arts Education program began in 2003 in only five schools. By the second year, it had expanded to 35. It now serves over 10,000 students a year at 110 schools. The field trips run from January to June, usually two to three times a week.
At first, the 24th Street Theatre program had the financial support of the Los Angeles Unified School District. But due to severe budget cuts, LAUSD cut off funding in 2008.
“It’s outrageous that the school system is putting out a crop of kids that have no access to arts education,” says theatre co-founder Jay McAdams. Determined to provide what he considers a necessary component to education, he took the initiative of raising over $250,000 to keep the program alive.
“It’s about inspiring people,” says McAdams. “We’re getting the children in touch with humanity. Most theatres do just plays. For us, it’s what we do with the plays and the impact we have.”
The field trip is only part of the program. Prior to the theatre visit, a teaching artist conducts a workshop in the school with the same group of students that will go to see the play. That same teaching artist does a post-field trip workshop in the classroom, with the same students, to summarize and reinforce the concepts learned during the show. The objective is to build trust and confidence with the children.
Husband and wife team McAdams and Devine also run the “After ‘Cool Theatre Program” for local students in the West Adams District, which brings students into the theatre from 3:00 to 5:00 pm three days a week for supervised afternoons of arts education programming. Additionally, they offer professional development workshops for teachers.
“With our plays, classes and workshops we inspire,” says McAdams. “We help people feel good about themselves. We provide social service through art.”
As part of their commitment to promote arts and theatre, they give students free tickets to evening shows, so they can return with their families. They also give people who live in the theatre’s low-income neighborhood tickets for 24 cents.
What’s the reward for the founders of the theatre?
“The kids write us, the call us, they come back and bring their families,” says Devine. “That we’re able to be literally in the lives of these children as they grow up is so wonderful. The ultimate legacy would be for the kids to bring their grandchildren in the future.”