“The creative power of the arts crosses all cultural barriers, reminding us of our shared human heritage,” said Dave Davis, Northwestern University’s executive director of Neighborhood and Community Relations.
With that in mind, Northwestern is launching a unique community-based theater arts partnership with Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Imagine U, the nationally recognized producer of theater for young audiences at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.
The program is designed to make live theater more accessible throughout Evanston and Chicago.
“Co-created community partnerships such as this can serve as a catalyst for advancing racial equity by exposing young people to artists who look like them and providing them an opportunity to see themselves in a way they never imagined,” Davis said.
Learn and Imagine Together Through Theater (LITTT), which begins in the 2022-2023 academic year, is a co-created partnership developed by Northwestern and District 65, which is coordinated through Neighborhood and Community Relations. It is the University’s newest social impact partnership.
Lynn Kelso, founder of Imagine U and assistant professor of instruction in Northwestern’s theatre department, agrees theater can be a powerful experience for young audiences. And she said Northwestern students also will benefit by participating in LITTT.
“The partnership provides our students with the opportunity to step into the role of teaching artists while being mentored by outstanding District 65 teachers,” Kelso said. As the partnership develops, “it also presents an incredible opportunity to conduct groundbreaking research on the impact of the arts.”
Field trips for weekday matinees
In the fall of 2022, The Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts will create weekday matinee performances of an Imagine U production just for District 65 students. Third-grade students, approximately 800 students from across the district, will take a field trip to Northwestern’s Evanston campus to see the Imagine U performance. For many students, this will be their first time experiencing live theater — and possibly their first exposure to a college campus. While on campus, students will meet the cast and production team and have lunch.
The Wirtz Center is creating four Imagine U matinee performances that District 65 students will see over two Fridays. This would recur annually so all District 65 students would get to visit Northwestern and experience an Imagine U production once during their elementary school experience, creating enhanced learning opportunities and access to live theater.
“It is a wonderful opportunity for our students to have a shared experience viewing an Imagine U show,” said Dr. Stacy Beardsley, executive director of curriculum and instruction with Evanston/Skokie School District 65. “The shared experience allows for students to not only experience powerful stories together, but it also allows our students to learn about the story and the work that goes into a theater performance at a deeper level.”
Connecting lesson plans
Prior to coming to campus, District 65 students participate in a classroom activity that is designed to introduce the production and engage students with complex themes they’ll witness in the play. Students will also watch a virtual backstage tour of the Wirtz Center to see how elements of the production were created.
The learning continues after the play when the students return to the District 65 drama classroom. District 65 drama educators will lead students in one or two lesson plans, which revolve around the production to deepen their experience of seeing live theater. These drama lessons will help immerse students in the world of the play through dramatic skills such as pantomime, story dramatization, in-role encounters, scene work, storytelling, guided imagery, and other embodied creative activities.
Betsy Quinn, drama department chair for District 65, said the live theater experience allows students in the district to connect with diverse characters and settings.
“This unique partnership with Imagine U brings District 65 students and teachers together as a community to experience powerful storytelling and artistry live and up close,” said Quinn. “Attending theater productions and engaging in drama classes develops empathy in young children by allowing them to walk in the shoes of others and see the world through their eyes.”
Lesson plans are collaboratively developed by District 65 drama educators, Northwestern faculty, and Northwestern undergraduate students. Northwestern students who are studying theater for young audiences will create a draft lesson plan focused on the Imagine U production. Draft lesson plans are workshopped by a Northwestern faculty advisor and a small group of District 65 drama educators. Lesson plans occur during District 65 students’ regularly scheduled drama class, roughly one to two weeks after students see the LITTT show.
“I’ve long been interested in narrowing the distance between ivory tower and front porch, and engaging Evanston’s children in our theatre for young audiences programming is a critical part of this effort,” said E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the School of Communication. “Not only will LITTT help us better connect with and relate to our neighbors, we’re helping to build a more compassionate, joyful and curious generation through exposure to the arts.”
The curriculum collaboration component of LITTT was piloted in Fall 2021 with the Imagine U production “Last Stop on Market Street.” Forty-five fourth-grade classrooms in District 65 viewed a recording of the production, which was streamed to their classrooms. D65 drama educators then led a 40-minute drama lesson which was collaboratively developed by Northwestern senior Jessa Shortridge and District 65 drama teachers Betsy Quinn and Mariah Keko.