A Thrilling Pre-show Performance at 1776’s Student Matinee

Posted by Catherine Hendel, Marketing/PR Fellow

Teacher Peter Stroka and A.C.T.'s special SMAT helped Bessie Carmichael students find joy in history, music and theater.

"It's as beautiful as I remember," an enthusiastic fifth grader from Bessie Carmichael Elementary School commented as she walked into A.C.T.'s Geary Theater, excited to perform there for the second time.

Thursday, October 3, marked a very special date on A.C.T.'s 2013–14 season calendar. The entire fifth grade of Bessie Carmichael—almost 70 students—performed Voice of the People, a mini musical created just for the occasion by San Francisco Unified School District Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) instructor Peter Sroka, on the Geary stage immediately before the Student Matinee ("SMAT") performance of 1776, the popular Revolutionary War musical that opened A.C.T.'s mainstage season. Following the success of last spring's Stuck Elevator SMAT event, this is the second time A.C.T. has partnered with Sroka and Bessie Carmichael to present an engaging and educational preshow performance inspired by a production in our mainstage repertory.

Dressed in patriotic red and blue, the eager Bessie Carmichael students paraded onstage carrying hand-made cardboard signs portraying important social and political leaders throughout U.S. history.  Accompanied by Sroka on the piano and drum, they enthusiastically sang four original, history-inspired tunes to a theater packed full of young people, ranging from grades five through twelve. Each song related to 1776, covering such topics as the three branches of government, the power of education, the exclusion of particular groups (e.g., women and people of color) from the political process during the early days of democracy in America, and the courageous individuals throughout our country's history who have spoken up for the rights of those groups. During the preshow's final number, "The Voice of the People," each student excitedly held up a cardboard sign as their person's name was announced in song: "Sojourner Truth!" "Frederick Douglass!" "Elizabeth Stanton!" "Cesar Chavez!" "Harvey Milk!" "Martin Luther King, Jr.!" "Ruth Asawa!" etc.

Poised and practiced, Bessie Carmichael 5th graders
stand ready to dazzle a full audience.
Some of the kids could not stop themselves from dancing onstage to Sroka's catchy tunes, smiles plastered on their faces and full of pride. The audience (which included several Bessie Carmichael parent chaperones, dedicated fifth grade classroom teachers Mrs. Ebalo and Mrs. Salva, and Principal Lawrence Gotanco) cheered as the fifth graders performed solos, cracked jokes, and thoroughly entertained a sold-out audience of nearly one thousand young people from 19 schools from across the Bay Area and beyond. The adult cast of 1776, equally charmed by the students' dedicated performance, and by SMATs in general, found the whole experience inspiring and energizing. Sroka says, "One of the most surreal moments was when we were exiting the stage after the performance, and all the colonial congressmen were waiting in the wings applauding the youth of the future." Cast member Andrew Boyer, in full Benjamin Franklin costume, hair, and makeup, delighted the student performers by high-fiving each one as they passed on their way offstage and back into the audience, where they remained to watch the full afternoon performance of 1776.

A.C.T.'s Education and Outreach Department has facilitated a partnership with Bessie Carmichael Elementary School as part of the theater's ongoing efforts to deepen our relationship with the Central Market neighborhood, where our newly renovated Strand Theater is slated to open in 2015. When the VAPA leadership team introduced her to Sroka two years ago, A.C.T. Director of Education Elizabeth Brodersen asked him what he needed most. "A place for my kids to perform," he replied. A.C.T. has been able to give him exactly that, on our own Geary stage. Sroka, with fellow VAPA drama instructors David Greenbaum and Linda Ruth Cardozo, also attended (on full scholarship) A.C.T.'s acclaimed summer educator institute, Back to the Source, which is designed to help teachers develop strategies for using theater techniques to enhance creative learning in the classroom.

Bessie Carmichael Elementary School students having a blast entertaining the SMAT audience with educational songs about American history.
Sroka integrates fundamental aspects of classroom curriculum into original works of musical theater that engage students' creativity, intellectual curiosity, and self-expression. Voice of the People and 1776 offered the Bessie Carmichael students (96% of whom are children of color and 80% are Socioeconomically Disadvantaged Youth) the opportunity to research the origins and evolution of U.S. democracy, as well as to find their own place in that history, while offering them the rare opportunity to perform on The Geary's grand stage, which has hosted the theater's greatest professional artists for more than a century.

 In the 1776 SMAT audience was SFUSD Arts Education Master Plan Implementation Manager Antigone Trimis, who was heard to say, "This is the Master Plan at work. San Francisco is the campus," as well as SFUSD Artistic Director Susan Stauter, who added: "There can be no more beautiful classroom than the stage of this historic theater, which has seen the likes of Laurence Olivier, the Lunts, Tennessee Williams, and now, for the second time, Peter Sroka and his talented young students from Bessie Carmichael. Thank you, A.C.T.!"

A cornerstone of our ACTsmart arts education initiative and one of the oldest student matinee programs in the country, A.C.T.'s SMAT program has introduced more than half a million young people to the power of theater over the past 40+ years with discounted tickets, workshops, postshow Q&A sessions with the cast, and in-depth study materials.  For many, attending an A.C.T. SMAT is their very first chance to experience live performance firsthand. Brodersen says the most rewarding aspect of student matinees is "seeing young people light up when they enter the theater for the first time." Speaking of his Bessie Carmichael students after their performance last week, Sroka adds: "Those kids will never forget that experience.  For some of them, it will be a formative block in their foundations as they build their life."

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