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Back to School with Center Theatre Group’s Student Matinee Program

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How student and educator programs have evolved over the past two years to be more inclusive and impactful.

Over the past two years, it has been hard to not only bring students together in person to see a show, but to have them physically present together in classroom at all. The COVID-19 pandemic upended the pre-established educational structures, affecting the way Center Theatre Group’s Education & Community Partnerships programming functioned as well. But with the challenges the pandemic posed also came innovation across the entire department.

THE STUDENT MATINEE PROGRAM goes beyond bringing students to see live theatre during a school day. Center Theatre Group’s professional artists and educators (“Teaching Artists”) work in collaboration with educators to lead students through creative activities and discussions before and after the performance about theatre and the show they plan on seeing. Show-specific Discovery Guides and resources are developed to guide their learning and deepen their understanding of the experience. Student matinee performances also include Q&A sessions with the cast and creatives immediately after the show and follow-up classroom visits back in the classroom.

We take you through the development of the student matinee experience post-pandemic and the lessons that four of our Education & Community Partnerships staff learned in the process.

PREPARING FOR THE SHOW

The first part of the Student Matinee Program focuses on preparing students to attend a show. Resident Teaching Artist Deb Piver is instrumental in leading the development of Discovery Guides, materials to deepen students’ understanding of the show they will attend.

Piver said she looks for “three C’s” when developing these guides—Comprehension of the production’s plot and themes, Connections to the students’ lives, and Creativity to inspire the students to create their own work.

Teaching Artist Johnathon Jackson helped write the Discovery Guide for Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Taper. To write about the central themes and history of the play, he interviewed some of the cast and creative team about their work, collaborating in a way he had never been able to before. “To be able to be a bridge between the artistic and education teams for these guides was really cool because we were able to work with the people who were working on the show in real time,” Jackson said.

What were once physical booklets distributed to students have now become digital materials. Digital Learning Manager Courtney Clark said most digital learning materials were simply a collection of links to recorded Zoom lessons on a website page and uploaded documents, due to the quick shift to online learning at the start of the pandemic.

But Clark was able to find more effective ways to package and present this content in a digital space as the pandemic persisted. “Everything we do is data-driven,” Clark said. “Feedback from our educators and students and constituents drives our [work].” Data and feedback from students and educators helped them curate materials designed for young people deeply familiar with online and virtual technologies.

Clark also said the pandemic fostered more collaboration between Education & Community Partnerships programs. Last season, the high school students participating in Center Theatre Group’s Student Ambassador Program were able to create digital materials that were used by the Student Matinee attendees. Highlights included an interactive character personality quiz featuring the characters of Hadestown, which connected the character results to community organizations in Los Angeles. These projects were used as a lobby engagement and shared with students attending the matinees. “To have a student-made resource for other students was so exciting,” Clark said.

During the height of the pandemic, when students were unable to attend events in person, Center Theatre Group was able to provide virtual “matinees.” Educators were offered exclusive access to archival production recordings and additional learning materials associated with each show to share with students. Teachers could then utilize pre-recorded activities and written lesson plans to lead their own online or in-person discussions and activities before and after watching the show.

Jackson had a great deal of fun recording some of these additional learning materials with fellow teaching artists and artists as well. And, as Clark shared, as the pandemic continued, these videos went from recorded Zoom calls to professionally produced videos.

Despite the challenges, the virtual format allowed for a broad variety of students—from middle school to university—to access the videos, and for Center Theatre Group to continue hosting the resources online far beyond the close of a show.

As the department returned to hybrid and in-person opportunities, they continued to explore ways to offer the Student Matinee Program, shifting to online educational materials and live streaming performances to expand their reach. One student matinee of Alma at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, for instance, was live streamed to digital audiences and performed to an in-person audience.

After the show and activity, cast and creatives will engage in a “talkback” Q&A session with students. Piver finds the chance to meet passionate adults is important for students. “The passion is what’s exciting, not the career specifically, but [saying] here are adults doing something they love,” she said.

IN THE CLASSROOM AND BEYOND

Even faced with the incredible challenges of the pandemic, theatre teachers continued to be creative and passionate role models for students. Traci Kwon, who has worked in the Education & Community Partnerships department for 13 years, shared, “I think teachers are amazing. They’re often underappreciated, so anything that we can do to support teachers is necessary and vital,” she said. In the coming year, Kwon hopes to return to developing educator-focused workshops, professional development opportunities, and gatherings to give theatre educators, often working alone at a school or institution, an opportunity to foster a theatre community.

Even as theatres reopen, Kwon also hopes to find ways to offer a variety of digital and physical options for the Student Matinee Program and expand the reach of students who are able to participate.

“There are juvenile detention centers, group homes, things like that, where you can’t get young people to the theatre at a certain time,” she said. “What we learned during the pandemic was that there are other possibilities to expand the audience for those shows.”

As for Johnathon Jackson, he’s enjoying being back in the classroom, able to connect to students in real life instead of through a Zoom screen. “Really cherish your classroom time,” he said. “I try to feel the energy of a room and connect to people that way...so the pandemic felt like it took my superpower away [and] stripped me of my strongest attributes as a teacher.”

Returning to classrooms posed new challenges for Teaching Artists and students alike. Students are still required to wear masks, which can sometimes prove difficult with the physical nature of theatre classes. “A lot of the work we do is about communication, and there’s a lot of cues that faces give away that are lost with masks—when you only have eyes, it changes things,” he said. He also saw that his students were returning to school burnt out from online learning and readjusting to in-person instruction.

But arts education can be the bright spot in a child’s day, and theatre can support this transition back to in-person learning and living. Jackson also feels there’s nothing like teaching in a classroom with students again. Having in-person student matinee performances also had a noticeable and positive effect on the students in the classroom—they were much more excited and engaged with the work in class after seeing the show. “When you work in the classroom with the students, you’re able to see how seeing live theatre is a transformative experience,” Jackson said.

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