Actors from Performance Lab with three Yellowjackets cast members
On September 10, 14 classes from Berkeley High School packed into the Thrust to watch Itamar Moses’ play Yellowjackets. They were a lively audience, often audibly commenting on the scenes being played out before them. Of course, they had a special relationship to this play. They got the references specific to Berkeley High that the rest of us did not. However, as I moderated the post-show discussion it became clear to me that they also got a whole lot more. They saw themselves in this play.
Two weeks later, 568 students from Berkeley High School filled the Roda Theatre, not to see a Berkeley Rep production, but to watch their peers respond artistically to the themes of Yellowjackets. The performers and many of the audience members had participated in Performance Lab, a high-school residency program in which students see a Berkeley Rep production and work with a teaching artist to develop an artistic response.
Usually, these workshops close with a modest sharing of the work. This culminating event was far bigger then usual, with all 14 of the Berkeley High Performance Lab classes being represented. It was the first time that Berkeley Rep had hosted such an event — and I was nervous. The logistics involved with getting all the teachers, students, administrators, permission slips, photo waivers, production concerns, etc., on the same page seemed overwhelming.
In spite of the strong production team and competent teachers and teaching artists, I was sure this event would resemble a train wreck. But when the lights went down and the first student stepped on the stage to read an autobiographical poem about her experience as a Tibetan American attending Berkeley High, my fears were put to rest. I realized that we had succeeded because the spotlight was on the diverse and passionate voices of these young people.
Like the characters in Itamar’s play, these students had something to say about issues that are not just central to Berkeley High, but to our community and our nation. These students went on to fill the next two-plus hours with poetry, dance, music, and theatre—all of it original. Each student took the risk of speaking out in front of their peers. All of it inspired by something they had seen on stage in the Thrust just 19 days earlier.
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