The Goodman's General Theater Studies program isn't just about the acting | Bleader

The Goodman's General Theater Studies program isn't just about the acting

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Students rehearse for last years final GTS production.
  • Courtesy of Goodman Theatre’s Education and Community Engagement Programs
  • Students rehearse for last year's final GTS production.
The Goodman Theatre's General Theater Studies program is an anomaly for both high school and the acting profession: it builds confidence and self-esteem instead of tearing them to shreds. Over the course of six weeks, the 80 student participants tell stories and improvise scenes based around a single theme which the adult "teaching artists" craft into a 90-minute performance piece. This year's theme is "love," and the show plays tonight and tomorrow at 7 PM at the Goodman.

"We're creating scenes as a group," says Vince Williams, 18. "We're making our actions meaningful."

The students work on traditional acting skills, such as mime, focus, and projection, but their main goal is learning to listen to one another and collaborate. "We come from the suburbs, the south side, the north side," says Williams. "We have different stories, cultural, economic, and racial backgrounds."

"We're sitting around telling stories," adds Treona Thomas, 17, "and we all connect in some way."

The program, now in its eighth year, was developed by Willa Taylor, the Goodman's director of education and community outreach. It's funded by donations; there's no tuition, and all performances are free.

The students meet every weekday, half of them in the morning, half in the afternoon. As they talk to one another and improvise scenes, the dozen adult teaching artists and Goodman staff members take careful notes, looking for things they can use to build the final performance.

"We use actual voices, not perceived voices," says lead teaching artist Khanisha Foster. "It takes time. It's ensemble building."

The teaching artists build the storyline by sticking Post-It notes onto a large roll of butcher paper, which they present to the students, with much fanfare, at the beginning of the final week of the program, tech week, when both the morning and afternoon sessions come together for day-long rehearsals. All 80 performers are onstage for the entire show; instead of props, they mime chairs and tables and drinking glasses, and they produce their own sound effects. Foster calls the process "intentional confusion."

"We train them to be ready," she says. "We want them to stop feeling like they have to be perfect. They're in the moment, they're finding their voices, they're acting like professionals."

"The first week, you feel awkward," says Ariya Hawkins, 16. "By the third week, you feel like this is home."

"It really revised the way I looked at theater," says Williams. "When I first got in, I thought it was, I read lines, I do what the director tells me to do. I couldn't grasp improvisation. I didn't feel free. We're asked to make scenes. We interview each other as ourselves and then create scenes around a story. You have motions and actions, dialog comes up, there are things that happen, you improvise to get the point across and make it what it is."

"Acting isn't just pretending," says Hawkins. "It's truthful pretending."

Williams snaps his fingers, the GTS sign of approval.

Though admission to the program is by audition, the teaching artists don't necessarily look for the kids with the best acting chops, but rather the kids who are best equipped to contribute to an ensemble. "We're looking for the kids who can be themselves," says Foster, "who have interest and curiosity. Some can transform into eight characters, and some are just comfortable in their own skin by the end of the summer. That's OK, as long as they feel empowered."

For many of the students, GTS is one of the few places where they feel it's OK to be themselves instead of living up (or down) to expectations. Foster observes that Williams, as a young black man, felt he had to wear a hoodie and always act smart and tough; during his time in the program, he became comfortable enough to be funny and goofy, too.

Most of all, though, says Foster, the students learn to respect one another as they really are. "There's a moment when kids really look at each other—adults never do this—and say, 'I totally judged you, and I was wrong.' It's not surprising anymore, but it's still beautiful every single time."

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