ALBANY PARK – An Albany Park theater company helps children from one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods open up and feel welcome by turning their writing into theatrical performances.
The collaboration between Volta Elementary and the Albany Park Theater Project transforms reluctant performers into confident stars by giving them a stage and a voice.
Volta, 4950 N. Avers Ave., has more than 700 students who speak about 27 languages, said eighth grade teacher Kristina Vancil. Working with the theater helps students growing up in one of Chicago’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse neighborhoods build confidence in their writing and speaking skills, she said.
The latest student-led performance took place earlier this month and featured students from two grades sharing their stories with the Volta community, Vancil said.
“It often helps students not to feel alone,” Vancil said.
Students take time during Vancil’s classes to “write freely,” she said. Sometimes they write about what they read; But sometimes her writing takes the form of an essay or poetry contest, where students share their thoughts on issues such as youth violence and how it affects their community, Vancil said.
“They open their hearts with their writing and confide in me and the classroom a lot of their thoughts and feelings,” Vancil said. “As we do this, we go back and forth to incorporate their work into this beautiful cause and build trust.”
That confidence helps students feel comfortable participating in classroom poetry slams, where they share their work with each other — and later with the Albany Park Theater Project, Vancil said.
The cooperation with Volta and the theater group lasts six years.
Students only take part in the theater if they wish and can remain anonymous. In those cases, someone who isn’t the author directs the performance, which is built around the author’s work, Vancil said.
“Some kids wanted to share but also wanted to remain anonymous. And what a lot of people at the Albany Park Theater Project don’t realize is that there’s so much safety in the students’ words,” said Vancil. “Other people are enacting the story so that it becomes everyone’s story.”
Members of the theater visit the classroom throughout the school year to help students write prompts and guide them in turning their classroom stories into theatrical productions, said Miguel Angel Rodriguez, the theater’s co-executive director.
Most of the students are first-generation or immigrants living in Albany Park, Rodriguez said.
During one of Rodriguez’s visits to a classroom for the project a few years ago, a student explained what it’s like to be a refugee – leading another student to realize they had a lot in common, he said.
“That was the first time the student felt comfortable being seen and heard,” Rodriguez said. “These two students came from two different parts of the world but had very similar experiences together. It made them a lot more empathetic to each other.”
The experience also helps students become more confident about public speaking, Vancil said.
“These are teenagers, right? At first they’ll say, ‘There’s no way you’re going to get me on stage.’ But at our last performance this year, I literally had 49 kids that were part of our play,” Vancil said. “We have never made two classrooms. it was crazy Even the cool kids who said ‘No way’ sang the last song.”
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