The bright, mid afternoon sunshine slices through thick black curtains. The warm light bathes a group of 30 teens sitting on the floor, each with a script in hand. There is fidgeting and giggling as concentration ebbs and flows like an unpredictable wind that intermittently picks up steam.
It’s Tuesday at Marsh Preparatory Academy and Wendy Powell’s advanced drama class is taking first stabs at reading The Outsiders. The roles are just mapped and the classic play, still relevant and controversial decades after its debut, is fresh for these budding actors.
The advanced drama class, consisting of seasoned Big Thought Thriving Minds After School students that have been in the program two to three years, is also known as the award-winning Marsh Matador Players. On one corner of the working theater room there’s a white cabinet that proudly displays a series of trophies, including four Best Play honors. They’ll be vying for a fifth title, against 32 other middle schools, on April 20, 2016 at Medrano High School during the Pre-UIL One Act Play competition.
For Powell, a teaching artist for five years who has worked with Big Thought since its start on the Marsh campus in August 2010, choosing The Outsiders has everything to do with its cultural importance.
“It speaks to what is happening in the world today and with our kids in urban schools,” says Powell. “I feel that the kids are really getting a lot out of reading the novel, the script, researching the time period and events, and finally performing this classic. They all seem to be able to see how it still is relevant today and how the dehumanization of a person can destroy an entire community.“
Yet there’s more. As passionate as Powell is for the material, and for the dramatic arts in general, she’s most impressed with the gains that can’t be measured with scholastic letter grades.
“My students are always continually shocking me with their ability to grow with the challenging material I present them,” she says. “They really are much more emotionally aware then we give them credit for sometimes.”
Social-emotional learning, the much-heralded soft skills, is paramount to professional and personal development. According to research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Center, 85 percent of job success comes from having well-developed soft people skills.
Teen after teen talked about overcoming shyness, embracing confidence and finding their inner strength since starting Powell’s class.
“There is an energy involved in doing this,” says Sam Hurley, a 13-year-old 8th grader who’s been in drama and Thriving Minds for three years. “I used to be scared to do drama. But now I have the opposite of stage fright. I can’t wait to get out there.”
Melanie Escalante, another 13-year-old 8th grader with three years of drama and Thriving Minds, recently auditioned for Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
“We have to throw ourselves out there,” she says. “I’m not as scared of taking risks anymore. I just can’t wait to do it.”
Self-expression and self-awareness form the foundation for new adventures, for reaching inside and turning the personal into something universal. Which leads us to Monologue Madness, a showcase of 50 original works held Feb. 5 at Marsh Middle School. Parents were invited to experience dramatic readings from their own kids.
Major Moore was there. The 14-year-old 8th grader, also a three-year veteran of drama and Thriving Minds, wrote about losing his father. He talked about being more reliant on you, instead of your parents.
“It’s thinking outside the box,” he says. “It’s personal stories, because nobody else can feel the same way. It helps you put yourself out there so others see you.”
For some, drama is the door that unlocks an inner quest. Haleana Valadez, 13 and in 7th grade, used to keep to herself before joining drama class and Thriving Minds two years ago. Then came the wherewithal to make more friends, and the emotional heft to examine the person she sees in the mirror.
“I’m exploring other sides of me through characters,” she says. “It’s a good way for me to get to know all of me. It makes me feel comfortable with me.”
Comfort leads to an open imagination. Drama promotes that free-flowing creativity. Carlos Marquez, 14 and in 8th grade, used his three years in drama and Thriving Minds to conquer his introversion.
“When I first walked in here I kept to myself, didn’t want to ask any questions,” he says. “Now I do my own thing, express who I am, show who I am.”
Chloe Quesada embraced a bigger picture. She’s found her two-year immersion in drama and Thriving Minds has given her the power to speak in all her classes.
“Drama has given me a way to express myself more,” says the 13-year-old 7th grader. “I used to be so shy when people asked questions. I didn’t want to answer. Now I have no problem answering.”
These kids are coming into their own, finding their way, connecting with their world. They no longer feel like outsiders.
Thriving Minds thanks its many donors for their generous support. For a list of donor, please visit the Thriving Minds page.