For the past seven months two veteran Chicago actors, Kate Fry and Ned Noyes, have been watching a group of south-side teenagers act onstage at Phillips High School, a poor, predominantly black school on 39th Street. Fry and Noyes, who are both in Court Theatre's current production of My Fair Lady, are part of the Hyde Park theater's attempt to address what almost everyone agrees is a deplorable situation: there are no theater classes at most Chicago public schools, and despite Mayor Daley's repeated vow to promote reading, many public school students will go from kindergarten through high school without reading a classic play, much less acting in or seeing one.
Recognizing this problem, Roger Smart, director of education and training at Court Theatre, developed an outreach program with several nearby schools. "I felt it was important to get kids active in theater--and not just sitting in the house watching, but actually studying drama," he says. "Obviously, all the research shows the benefits of the arts, particularly in the development of reading."
Yet Chicago's public schools generally have been too strapped for funds to set up drama classes on their own, and the state and federal governments don't offer much help. So most of Chicago's students who want drama classes must depend on charity, such as the program developed by Court Theatre.
This year the theater has sent actors--Fry, Noyes, Bradley Mott, who's also in My Fair Lady--to teach classes at Kenwood, Phillips, Juarez, and Dunbar high schools. The program is funded by a variety of foundations and the board of education. "We contacted the schools and asked if they wanted to participate--they've been very eager and cooperative," says Smart. "I don't pretend that this is a substitute for a full-time program. I think it's a terrible comment on education in our country that there aren't more arts in the schools. But it's important to do what we can."
So Fry and Noyes have been going to Phillips almost every Tuesday since the start of the school year, working with juniors and sophomores in Jalena Butler's English classes. "The head of the English department came to me and said, 'You don't have to say yes, but are you interested in participating?'" says Butler. "I said, 'Why not?' I thought it could only help bring some of the material alive."
For most of her students it was their introduction to drama. "I'd never done plays except for those little bitty Christmas assemblies and Black History assemblies back in grade school," says Anthony Webb, a sophomore. "But this was different. Katie and Ned were pushing us. We were learning how to act."
In contrast, Fry has studied theater under the supervision of well-trained directors and teachers since she was a grade-schooler in Winnetka in the 1980s. "I was involved in theater, plays, musicals, choirs--all that good stuff--for as long as I can remember," she says. "This whole experience at Phillips has just reinforced over and over again how so much of our lives is based on opportunity. I recognized that I've been grossly, almost obscenely lucky with all the advantages I've had. The pure coincidence is that I was able to be born in a district that provided great opportunities for me, while these kids at Phillips were not. I didn't do anything to deserve my fate, and neither did they. It's just the way it happened."
By the time she graduated from New Trier High School in 1989, Fry had been in productions of Guys and Dolls; Look Homeward, Angel; and Tartuffe. She went on to Northwestern University and graduated with a degree in performance studies. Since 1993 she's been a mainstay at Court Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and other theaters around town.
Noyes too has been performing in musicals and plays since he was in grade school. "Theater's been a burn-ing love for me as early as I can remember," says Noyes, a Long Island native who graduated from Northwestern in 2000. "I did a few musicals in high school. Fiddler on the Roof, of course--doesn't every high school do that? A very ambitious production of Twelfth Night. I played Toby Belch."
Both Fry and Noyes strongly argue for the benefits of doing drama. "Beyond all the studies that show how it helps you learn to read," says Fry, "being in a play is just a great way to get over all the things that make adolescence such a self-conscious nightmare. You build such an implicit sense of community. You are working in a group that's creating something. You have the satisfaction of going through a rigorous process with all its ups and downs. Until you've done it you can't understand what it's like."
Both actors were pleased by the willingness of their students at Phillips to accept challenges. "It's hard going onstage for the first time," says Fry. "You're taking a risk. You're exposing yourself. It was different at New Trier, where most of the kids taking theater did it on their own because they wanted to. I can only imagine what the people in my English class would have done if they were forced up onstage--they might be a lot more worried about whether they looked cool. These kids at Phillips are really brave for going up there."
Class begins at 8:45 AM--not easy for Noyes and Fry, two night owls. On a recent morning the students, many sleepy too, filtered slowly into the auditorium--Phillips, like almost all Chicago high schools, has a stage, even if it's rarely used for theater. Noyes got the class going by getting the students to play a boisterous hand-clapping theater warm-up game called "Big Booty."
Then they broke into pairs to rehearse the scene from Hamlet in which Ophelia confronts Hamlet with his old love letters and he denounces the artifice and deceit of love. One by one the actors, script in hand, stumbled over Shakespeare's language: "Get thee to a nunnery. Go, farewell. Or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell."
At the front of the stage, hunched low and watching intently, sat Fry. Again and again she interrupted the actors, asking them to speak louder or more clearly or more forcefully. "I'm not saying everything has to be huge and loud," she said, "but commit to it."
Finally she had the students silently act out the scene. "I know this language is complex--this is some of the hardest language in theater, and you're doing it," she said. "I want you to just walk through the action. Don't say the words. Just act as if this is something you're going through. Act as if you had a boyfriend who you really love and you haven't seen him in weeks. And when you finally see him you're pursuing him, pleading for an explanation for his changes. I know it's hard. It's hot under the lights. And it's a little scary. But this is some of the greatest language in theater, and the key is to make it come alive."
The bell rang, and class ended. As the students gathered their books, they reminded Fry that the tables would soon be turned and they'd be coming to watch her and Noyes perform. Butler nodded her head and smiled. The field trip was set for May 21, a Wednesday matinee. Tickets had been reserved, the buses had been ordered, the parent chaperones lined up.
But on May 20 a lawyer with a subpoena came to Phillips looking for Butler. "A couple of months ago I had witnessed a fight between two students," she explains. "One of the kids was pressing charges against the other. Well, this lawyer came to school with the subpoena telling me I had to be in court on the 21st to testify. I'm thinking, of all the days to suddenly show up. I said the timing was very bad. I said we had a field trip--the kids had been waiting for a long time to see this play. They said, you have to be there or pay the fine."
She called Smart, and he volunteered to drive to school and ride on the bus if other chaperones were needed. But school-board policy requires a paid employee on all field trips, and no one from Phillips was able to accompany the students that day.
So the field trip was canceled. About 50 students from Dunbar, where Mott leads a weekly workshop, got to see the show. But there were 20 or so empty seats in the front rows where the Phillips students were to have sat.
"I didn't know about it until the day of the trip," says Webb. "I was all excited, ready to go and everything, and they announced it over the intercom--'The trip's canceled.' We're all saying, 'What's going on?' I mean, we was ready to go. They just told us, 'You can't go.' So, man, I was disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing Katie and Ned. They've been seeing me act. Now I want to see them."
Ironically, Butler never had to testify. "I walked into the courtroom, and [the clerk] told me, 'You can go now--we'll call you when we need you,'" she says. "So I went into the lobby and just sat there. I was there from nine in the morning until 4:30. They didn't even use me. The case was dismissed or something. I'm not even sure. They just told me that it was over, and they wouldn't need me. Isn't that something?" She adds, "Sometimes it seems as if it's not one thing it's another. You really can't blame anyone."
But at least some of the teens aren't deterred. "I'm still hoping we can see the show," says Webb. And he's sure he'd take the class again. "I want to keep on with drama," he says. "I like doing it--it's like nothing I've ever done before. I'm hoping we get to do it next year. I think we're just starting something good."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.