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Sun, October 25, 2020

Giving back through theater arts

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Tucked away in the Buena Vista Theater on the UTSA Downtown Campus is a small group of middle and high school students from around the San Antonio area. They range in age from 11 to 18, each with different stories to tell. But one thing they have in common is their passion for theater arts.

For the last two weeks, these students have met for six hours a day, five days a week, to participate in the Language in Play Summer Camp and work alongside award-winning actor, Tony Plana.

“I have been working in education for years, but I have been getting really serious lately about offering theater arts as a powerful, dynamic tool to help children connect with language on a personal level, teaching them from the inside out,” said Plana, whose acting credits include roles in “Ugly Betty,” “Born in East L.A.”, and “An Officer and a Gentleman.” “I think given the pervasive presence of entertainment on our phones, our computers, on television, everywhere, the classroom needs to be reconsidered as a place where we question traditional practice and really start to find different approaches towards making the classroom more dynamic and engaging for students.”

Plana, along with acting coaches David Lemay and Jose Yenque, have been working with the 18 students to further develop their acting, writing, and communication skills. The students, he said, are exposed to all aspects of theater arts, including acting, screenwriting, set design, and lighting.


“The curriculum we use incorporates a lot of exercises and games that develop and enhance skills and techniques that will serve the students well when they act, interact, write, and perform,” said Plana, co-founder and executive artistic director of the East L.A. Classic Theatre. “For the students that are shyer, we have a lot of group activities. These students start to find trust and comfort and safety in those group activities and they start to come out of their shell. They start to be less inhibited and more capable of communicating with they are thinking and how they are feeling.”


But the camp, Plana said, is much more than that. For the students, it has become a safe space to not only share their stories and experiences, but to also hear and learn from the stories and experiences of their peers.


“Theater is an empathic art form,” said Plana. “By hearing and experiencing other students sharing their own realities, perspectives and experiences, they start to develop the capacity to get into other peoples’ lives and walk in other peoples’ shoes. Empathic capacity can be very valuable in school, in the work place, and in life. There’s great satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that results from this type of peer learning. What’s more powerful than being able to create something together that’s very personal and sharing that as a group with an audience?”

In addition to theater arts, the students have also been working with staff from the Academy for Teacher Excellence (ATE) to develop college readiness skills.

“Twice a week, we engage students in activities to be college ready,” said Deborah Chaney, education specialist for ATE. “We have been telling them that you can take this experience as preparation for college. It’s increasing their writing and study habits.”

The Language in Play Summer Camp is the brainchild of Dr. Margarita Machado-Casas, associate professor in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies, and Plana. Plana and Machado-Casas worked together previously with the Latino Education Advocacy Days (LEAD) Summit where they began the plans to bring the East L.A. Classic Theatre and the Language in Play summer camp to UTSA.

“This camp has given me a chance to get back into the classroom and connect with the program at an intimate and personal level,” said Plana. “It has just reaffirmed for me how powerful this process can be and how much fun it is to interact with the students on a daily basis.”

The summer camp will culminate in a finale performance on Thursday, July 9 at 7 p.m. in the Buena Vista Theater at the UTSA Downtown Campus. The performance is free and open to the public.

As part of the finale, the students will perform three plays, two of which, a telenovela and a horror story, were written by the students throughout the duration of the camp.

“The students are relating to language and manipulating language and being creative with language in many different ways, and I love that,” said Plana. “The camp is journal based, using the students’ personal experiences. In the camp, we work on both acting skills and on the writing skills, taking experiences and adapting them to stage so that they can be performed.”

Through ATE’s Title V-Hispanic Serving Institutions grants, all of the students have been able to attend the camp free of charge.

“When they applied to the summer camp, they had to write a statement about why they wanted to be in the camp and what they hoped to get out of the camp,” said Chaney. “Some of them wanted to learn how to be less shy. Some of them wanted to be in leadership positions in their schools and needed to develop public speaking skills. Some of them wanted to make friends. Some of them wanted to explore acting as a potential career.”

And at the end of the camp, the students will be able to look back on their experience and see their growth.

“On a core level, my hope is that these students get to know themselves better, accept themselves more, and examine their identities and strengthen that,” said Plana. “I like to think I’ve had a positive influence on these students. The students know me from television and I think were, at first, a little intimidated. But I think that taking that iconic perception and humanizing it for them. I think it empowers them that I have come from Hollywood and the world of television and film to San Antonio to be with them. I think that makes them feel special and it makes success real to them, it makes success possible.”

(Photos courtesy of ATE)



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