Normalizing Theatre Performances En Nuestras Escuelas

students working with a puppet
Students at KIPP Austin Comunidad perform Señora Tortuga by Roxanne Schroeder-Arce. Photo by Mary Williams.

The chairs and tables were set up. The sign in sheets and extra copies of the PowerPoint presentation were laid out. Everything was set in our library in Spanish and English so no one would miss a single word. It was the beginning of the school year at one of our Saturday schools at KIPP Austin Comunidad (KACD), a public elementary charter school in the KIPP Austin Public Schools system. I had invited fourth grade families to hear and get excited about the first full-length school play KACD was going to produce. Not all of the families attended this portion of the Saturday event, but we had about twenty families attend; with spouses, older and younger kids, we had about 50-60 people crammed into our library. I began introducing the play, Señora Tortuga by Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, and the exciting production details that would make this the best first full-length play our school had seen.

Pretty early on in the presentation, the group looked a bit apathetic and it seemed like everything was going over their heads. Was this boring? Was my Spanish not as good as I thought it was? Don’t they know how exciting it is to be putting on a full play at school, for the first time? Have they ever seen a play before? I asked the group: who has ever seen live theatre or a play before? Of course, our students raised their hands. Depending on the seasons around town, our students go see plays as part of their field trips at least once before they leave our school. Aside from our students, only one adult in the group raised their hands. She happened to be a white woman; a white woman among the rest of the families of color.

Is theatre an event that families of color even think about when making choices about recreational outings with their families, like the park or the local swimming pool?

As shocked as I was about what I had just found out about our own families, I was also painfully aware that this probably wasn’t a unique situation around Austin. In their piece “Teatro Con Tenacidad: the Shape of Latina/o Theatre in Austin,” Roxanne Schroeder-Arce and Emily Aguilar Thomas note that the number of Latina/o theatre experiences are increasing in Austin. Yet, there is still a disproportionate number of Latina/o projects available to the public compared to the people that identify as Latina/o. Their observation partly explained what I witnessed in our library that day. Nevertheless, I was upset and wondered why is this something that happened in our school? Our school is more than 90% “Hispanic” and under 3% “White.” Even with the state of theatre in Austin proportionally, more hands should have gone up from our families of color than they actually did from that small sample. Is it the types of stories that our community puts out that only reach certain groups? Is it the cost? Maybe it’s the language of the performances? Maybe where they are located? Can families access these theatres? It’s probably all of these things working together to help or deter family’s participation.

However, there are companies in town that are making their theatre more accessible. Like Schroeder-Arce and Aguilar mention, there are companies whose mission is to reach families like the ones my school serves. Teatro Vivo typically offers pay-what-you-wish on Thursday evenings for their shows. Zilker Theatre Productions produces family friendly musicals, free of charge for families during the summer. Teatro Espacio Agua Viva and Proyecto Teatro produce work entirely in Spanish. Yet, even with these companies’ missions and practices to include as many of our families as possible, a different mindset seemed to override all of these factors.

students talking with teacher
Señora Tortuga cast before audience talk-back session. Photo by Mary Williams.

I can now confidently say that at least thirty-one families of color have engaged in some form of theatre with and through their kids. I left the school year with a few thoughts about this quest to normalize theatre at KACD.

Is theatre an event that families of color even think about when making choices about recreational outings with their families, like the park or the local swimming pool? When I think back to the day of the presentation in the library, the blank stares and a few short questions at the conclusion of the meeting made me wonder if there was a missed connection between the families and this project. After the play was over, the families’ comments helped me understand why I had felt a missed connection that first day. The prevailing comments were that they didn’t think this kind of theatre was possible with and for their kids. That couldn’t imagine how we could transform bright yellow assembly hall into a black box theatre with risers, a set, and full company of actors, dancers, and musicians.

Over the course of the school year, the conclusion of the library meeting fueled the work we created with our students. The day of the performance, we had all thirty-one of our students’ families attend and support their children in this production. I can now confidently say that at least thirty-one families of color have engaged in some form of theatre with and through their kids. I left the school year with a few thoughts about this quest to normalize theatre at KACD.

First and foremost, to make theatre a norm in our schools, we simply have to produce it enough for our families to expect it. Then to sustain the connection between the art and our families, we have to make it accessible by:

  1. Cost—we made Señora Tortuga a free event.
  2. Language—the majority of our families speak Spanish, or both Spanish and English. We made sure we engaged our audience not only through the bilingualism in the play, but also throughout the whole experience from our opening welcome speech to our ending talkback session, in which student actors articulated their experiences in both languages.
  3. Geography—in an earlier version of this production, we wanted to take it to a theatre downtown. We ultimately decided to keep the show in our school where families were familiar on how to get there and had tried and true systems of transportation to attend.

Ultimately, I hope that the normalization of culturally relevant theatre in our schools that engages students and their families, helps create family advocates who seek theatre opportunities outside of our school for their children and themselves. So if they find theatrical experiences outside of their community, or not accessible to them, they feel empowered to not only talk about it, but also ask for it.

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Oscar, this is marvelous. What a gorgeous way to circumvent so many of the social codes that are built around going to a traditional theatre. Austin is so, so lucky to have you. I can't wait to see what you do next.

I love this, Oscar! It's clear that you are invested in not only the young people that are your direct students, but the entire community as well. This is true culturally-responsive pedagogy. Thank you for sharing with us how to be even better pedagogues and artists.