Theatre can change the world. That may sound dramatic – no pun intended – but it’s the motto theatre students at Johnson Middle School live by.
At the helm of this fine arts program is Roxane Reynolds. Ms. Reynolds is no stranger to the theatre world. She graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. with a degree in musical theatre, received her master’s in educational theatre from New York University (NYU) and in-between degrees, she spent two-and-a-half years acting in New York City.
In her first-year at Johnson Middle School, Reynolds has brought the Johnson theatre program to a new level – the collegiate level. A few months ago, Reynolds and an esteemed theatre professor from NYU Steinhardt reconnected. Having been part of the university’s verbatim performance lab (VPL), the professor approached her about engaging her middle school students in a VPL project. VPL is a type of theatre that challenges the actor to reenact media-based and interview performances – word for word, gesture for gesture. The goal of VPL is to engage in conversations around bias, ageism, racism, etc. based upon the observations from the performance.
NYU gave the students at Johnson a two-minute political speech based upon the 2020 Presidential Election Debate between President Joe Biden, Former President Donald Trump and moderator Chris Wallace. Students had to record themselves not only memorizing the speech, but perfecting the speaker’s non-verbal communication such as breathing, body movement, posture and intonation.
Johnson theatre students then shared their video performances at NYU Steinhardt’s VPL Festival- If You Want to Switch Seats, We Could. After the videos were shown, an NYU professor facilitated a panel discussion between the students at Johnson and students from New York’s United Nations International School who participated in the same project.
Reynolds was blown away by her students’ participation and believes it’s made a positive difference in the students.
“My students have increased their confidence in performing and are critically engaging in dialogue around the material they are acting out,” she says of their growth. “The students were so brave because they sat in that panel with an NYU professor and articulated their perceptions of the political candidates.”
Harmony Gaddis, 8th grader and theatre student at Johnson Middle, played the role of assistant director for the VPL project. Along with gaining leadership skills, she learned a lot about creating a safe space for crucial conversations to happen.
“It’s really important to see different perspectives, listen and allow everyone the opportunity to take space,” Gaddis says. “I feel like this experience has made me more aware of my surroundings and understanding conflict.”
Harmony was among six students to perform in the VPL Festival, including Luis Ojeda Riojas, MariaIsabella Camacho, Jaila Russell, Fredrinna Aferdi and Dawson Sloan.
What’s next for Reynolds and her theatre students? An end-of-the-year talent show. Several of her students who previously wouldn’t have dared to sign up have confirmed their spots, performing spoken-word pieces that tackle topics such as bullying.
Theatre has made a lasting impact on the students at Johnson Middle and one day, those students are going to be our future leaders, future teachers and future politicians. With experiences like the opportunity to work with theatre elite from New York, they definitely have the power to change the world.