This is a script from a story by a Boyle Heights Beat journalist that’s part of KCRW’s Boyle Heights youth radio project. You can listen to the story here:
By Alex Medina
Scene 1: Mendez High School Classroom
“Step up if you wish your family’s situation was different somehow.”
26 teenagers stand in a circle in their classroom engaged in the game “Step up if…”
“Step up if you wish the place you call home was different somehow.”
Ambient: Students Stepping in Game
A handful of students step forward… the rest stay put. The point of the game is to encourage students to open up and express themselves. This isn’t your average 10th grade English Class.
“It’s made me a better writer, pushed me to certain points I didn’t think I could get pushed to, and it’s helped me open up a lot more in my writing.”
Jaime Montalvo is a Sophomore at Mendez High School in Boyle Heights. One of her assignments was to deliver a monologue.
“I talked about family issues and I presented it to the class which was very good because me expressing my feelings to people I don’t really know was a huge step.”
What’s this unique class called? It’s the Geffen Playhouse Literacy Project. Jennifer Zakkai directs the program.
“This is a way they can take things that they care about in life in the human experience, social issues, and give them voice through the art form of theater”
Scene 2: Geffen Playhouse
The Literacy Project is a collaboration between the famed Geffen theater in West L.A. and Méndez High School on the East side. The program started in 2012 with the hope of increasing first time pass rates on the California High School Exit Exam. That exam no longer exists, but the other goals of the program hold strong. Méndez hopes to empower its 10th grade students to be better thinkers, readers, and writers.
“By experiencing plays and entering the worlds of the plays created by playwrights, we hope that students can open themselves to and understand and respect a range of human experiences and points of view”
Zakkai gives a tour of the Geffen Playhouse which opened its doors in 1995.
“We have approximately about 400 seats in the main orchestra and up there is the mezzanine which is a kind of balcony.”
Students get to attend three to four plays at the Geffen. After each performance Zakkai and the actors do what’s called a “Talk-Back,” where students are able to ask any questions they may have.
“There’s something very, very powerful about the live theater experience that speaks to people in different ways, say, than they might by just reading a text or looking at something in film, television, video.”
Scene 3 (Back in Mendez Classroom)
“So as you’re writing this, just so you know, you can be as vulnerable as you want.”
Emily Grijalva teaches 10th grade English at Mendez and she partners with Geffen on the Literacy project.
“I actually did theater in middle school and high school growing up and I knew that it had a huge impact, so when I found out there was this collaboration, I was super excited about it.”
“Mrs. Grijalva, she’s a great teacher. She helps me express myself in my writing. She asks me to explain more of what I say and the teaching artists helped me open up and be more comfortable with myself and peers.”
That’s Jaime Montalvo again. Grijalva says some of her students keep doing theater after the class.
“Some of the students from last year are doing plays at Casa 0101 or considering theater as they apply for college. And so I think that it opens their world and their perspective that theater is something that they can do.”
Grijalva’s students are going to see the play Ironbound at the Geffen soon. With the success of the program at Mendez, Literacy Project organizers have expanded the concept to a High School in Watts.
Reporting in Boyle Heights, this is Alex Medina.