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Partnership with District 65 exposes kids to live theatre, ‘a hothouse for the imagination’

Northwestern welcomes hundreds of children to campus for live theater each year. The benefits include more empathy, hope and motivation.
Learn Imagine Through the Theater
Learn Imagine Through the Theater (LITTT) combines lesson plans and learning experiences before and after children attend the play. The program is designed to make live theater more accessible to young people. Photo by Justin Barbin

Exposure to live theater has an impact of children’s success, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Researchers suggest theater can shape a young person’s future and help them become more self-aware, compassionate and empathetic.

With those findings in mind, Northwestern’s Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts invited hundreds of young people from Evanston and Skokie School District 65, many of whom had never experienced live theater, to see the Imagine U production of “Me… Jane: The Dreams & Adventures of Young Jane Goodall.”

The visit and production were part of the inaugural community-based partnership between Northwestern University and District 65 called Learn Imagine Through the Theater (LITTT.)  Combining lesson plans and learning experiences before and after children attend the play, the program is designed to make live theater more accessible to young people.

“Co-created community partnerships like LITTT can serve as a catalyst for advancing racial equity,” said Dave Davis, executive director of Northwestern’s Neighborhood and Community Relations. “Theater exposes young people to artists who look like them and can provide them an opportunity to see themselves in a way they never imagined.”

Over two Fridays in October, nearly 800 students were bussed to campus to view a morning and matinee performance of “Me… Jane.” Prior to coming to campus, the students were shown an introductory video narrated by Nolan Robinson, a 2022 graduate of the School of Communication and a product of District 65. The video gave the young people a virtual backstage tour plus an introduction to how the play’s designers and director brought their imagined production to life.

“I am delighted with the success of this partnership,” said Rives Collins, the show’s director, professor in the department of theatre, and head of Northwestern’s Theatre of Young Audiences Program.

“Live theater is a hothouse for the imagination and a gymnasium for empathy. From the moment the yellow school busses arrived on campus, we knew we were in for something special,” Collins said.

“Cries of ‘Welcome to Northwestern!’ filled the air as college students greeted the children and guided them to the theater,” he said.

A third-grader on her way to lunch in Norris Center proclaimed after seeing the show, “This is the best play I have seen in all my nine years!” Another said, “Right now, I am doing ‘Shrek Jr.’ at King Arts School in Evanston. I want to grow up and do shows like this at Northwestern.”

The LITTT experience also includes lesson plans, taught by D65 teachers, which revolve around the production to deepen the students’ experience of seeing live theater.

Betsy Quinn, drama department chair for D65, said feedback from the entire district was overwhelmingly positive.

“The partnership between D65 and Northwestern is important because it brings the community together,” she said. “NU undergraduates gain invaluable experience and knowledge from working with these diverse young people, and the District 65 students benefit from the expertise, artistry and dedication of the NU students.”

Quinn added, “It’s a day D65 students will never forget.”

Work is already underway for next year’s partnership by implementing all the successful outcomes of this year’s engagement. Lynn Kelso, artistic director and the founder of Imagine U, said she is looking for ways to expand the interactions and opportunities for Northwestern students.

“Next year is the 100-year anniversary of District 65’s drama program,” Kelso said. “This offers the opportunity to shine a light on this outstanding program that fosters the value of drama and the development of children.”

“The field of TYA (Theater for Young Audiences) was essentially born at Northwestern, and we have long recognized anecdotally what studies now unequivocally prove,” said E. Patrick Johnson, dean of the School of Communication. “Children who experience live theater are more empathetic, accepting, hopeful and motivated. That we have a hand in such important developments — that we innovate in this space — is an awesome responsibility, but one that our students and faculty are remarkably equipped to assume.”

LITTT was piloted in Fall 2021 with the Imagine U production “Last Stop on Market Street.” Forty-five fourth-grade classrooms in D65 — roughly 800 students — viewed a recording of the production, followed by educators facilitating a drama lesson.