AFTER MORE THAN 15 years without a theater production at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, the overhead lights dimmed in the school’s newly renovated auditorium in January as the actors and actresses took the stage.
The thick, maroon curtains were pulled back, revealing a multi-colored set where the worlds of Dr. Seuss and Romeo and Juliet merged together, creating the play titled, “The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet.”
The Roosevelt theater program had died after a long-time theater teacher retired. But this school year, after a push from students and families, Roosevelt added more programs focused on the arts and hired Kristi Johnson, an enthusiastic young theater teacher.
Johnson said she is ready to share her ideas and talents with the young performers who have since been eagerly marketing their next production by posting flyers and putting video clips of rehearsals in the school’s weekly announcements.
“The students make it all worth it for me,” Johnson said as she sat on the edge of the Roosevelt stage, looking up at the cast, which was sitting on the set and laughing. “These kids are so energetic and excited about acting and being able to be themselves in a safe and comfortable space.”
Adding the theater program was a challenge.
A group of Roosevelt families rallied together and drew the attention of high school administrators last year. After much protest and deliberation at school board meetings and a student walkout over district funding that was filmed on the news, the district eventually provided money for a theater teacher position—and other school efforts—and Roosevelt officials hired Johnson.
Fast forward to Jan. 28, 2016, when the school’s first production opened.
Kate Anderson, a Roosevelt sophomore who has performed on stages around Minneapolis and in Mexico, said performing at Roosevelt was a different experience because she felt honored to perform in front of and alongside her classmates.
“Roosevelt staff have been very supportive of the program and they couldn’t have hired a better teacher,” Anderson said.
Roosevelt Principal Michael Bradley agrees, saying that Johnson’s hard work is evident “through the happiness of the kids and the program.”
A ‘focus on the arts’
Schools such as Roosevelt with a higher percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are less likely to offer in-school theater classes, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics. However, after previously focusing on math and reading resources, the school has begun emphasizing the arts in an effort to engage students and boost achievement, according to an October 2015 Star Tribune report.
“Our focus on the arts is an effort to afford equity to our students,” Bradley said. “Historically, schools serving populations of poverty appear impoverished of quality resources. There are generally few opportunities for students to explore the arts.”
Roosevelt is focused on holistic education—tailoring the education to each individual, Bradley said. The principal wants students to grow as individuals, and believes the arts are essential to the growth of students, he said.
“Through dance, theatre, music and visual arts, students explore new ways of expression, they create, they grow confident,” Bradley said.
Sense of community
As the theater program has developed and created a new opportunity for students, it also has opened the door for many students to feel part of the larger school community.
“I never felt part of the Roosevelt community until I joined the cast of ‘Seussification of Romeo and Juliet,’” Anderson said. She never felt she fit in, she said, in any of the other clubs or opportunities offered at Roosevelt, other than soccer. The school’s creation of a program that centered on an activity she loves was a dream come true, she said.
As the cast of “The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet” flooded into the auditorium for rehearsal in January, students entered with a warm welcome and a stampede of hugs.
“These guys are my family,” senior Marcus Riley said as a smile spread across his face and as another actor startled him by jumping on his back.
Disclosure: Talia Bradley is the daughter of Roosevelt Principal Michael Bradley.