When Kids in the Arts Give Back

by Crystal Robbins, BUSD Parent Volunteer & Theatre Teaching Artist

What is Time Travelers? It is a living history program originally conceived and created by two Burbank moms, Joyce Costanza-Moskowitz and Sheila Cavalluzi. I’ve been involved with it about fifteen years since it was first tested as an in-class assembly-type program for every classroom and grade level. Simply put, an historical character visits the classroom, speaks, and then takes questions before traveling to another class. The Travelers have all arrived by Time Machine and eagerly share what life was like during their lives while sharing their stories. When the program was piloted, I was involved first as a performer; then I ended up being the PTA Chair in charge of it at my kid’s elementary school, where I filled the roles with adult actor/parents/friends/college students.

One day, one of the adult actors got sick and my own then 9th grader pinch-hit for me as the character. A-ha! Ever since then, I’ve actively worked with the Burbank High drama teachers (and parent volunteer Lisa Dyson did the same at Burroughs High School) to introduce, work with, and prep the young volunteers.

While working as an artist-in-residence for Burbank High’s Play Production class, we expanded the Time Travelers program in order to extend the reach of how many classrooms could benefit from the program. And I don’t just mean the Drama 2 high schoolers benefiting, I also mean the elementary schools benefiting from this school-wide program essentially at no cost, other than the upkeep of the costumes. And I don’t mean me as an artist or teacher giving back to my community, but the high schoolers themselves giving back to their communities with their performing gifts. That would make a good story and indeed, and I thought that was the direction of this article when I set out to write it.

But it turns out giving goes both ways.

The next year, I was able to repeat the work both in the Drama 2 and the Play Production classes, and the program began to really have some legs. I spoke about the program to the kids to secure their interest each year, worked with them several days to make sure they knew how it worked, heard them run lines and gave notes.

Every parent knows it can be a secret privilege to sit and listen to high schoolers talk when they think you aren’t listening, and it did my heart proud to hear their stories, their revelations, their discoveries about their preparation process, and their musings that it might be fun to work with kids or history or books. They shared the wild questions the kids in their classes asked of the characters, or how they handled when they didn’t know something, often realizing they wished they had done more research because the questions were good!

Back at the high school, now with BHS Drama Teacher Donovan Glover at the helm, I was not at all surprised to see my Time Travelers in lead roles once they reached the Play Production class. They had learned a lot. They learned to research, improv, and memorize long pieces of text (or not, hence another good lesson!). They learned how to handle a class of sometimes 40+ kids, how to hold their own when others challenge their knowledge, and – most importantly – they learned how to funnel inquiries back to books! After all, the first thing I teach them is “I bet you can find that if you look that up about me at the library!”

If you checked out the recent BHS Drama production of The Crucible directed by Glover at The Colony Theatre, you saw plenty of my former Travelers from previous years. We’ve even seen the community rally around Travelers in need when former Pilgrim and Betsy Ross, dear Evie, passed away last October. Evie performed in Time Travelers at both Miller and Emerson in Fall 2017 and Spring 2018, and she was a delight to coach through that process. Not only did Burbank teachers who were impacted by her performances go to donate blood and platelets, so did other Travelers. Giving back can mean many different things, and the connections we make and carry with us spill out into our every day lives whether we know it or not.

I will leave you with two noteworthy events that happened this Spring:

First, a Time Traveler was nervous and his first classroom of the day just happened to be a classroom that had done a full production – an hour-long play – at their school in December.  In other words, this was a class recently well-acquainted with being on the stage. The Traveler lost his lines and began to lose his focus from nerves. He even broke character and said he felt he couldn’t do it. But from this class of recent young actors, the students encouraged him, “You’ve got this! You know it!” Both the teacher and the students boosted him so much, this high schooler somehow finished that room and later went on to nail his later classrooms. Afterwards, he confided to the other actors, “Man! if you have to mess up, you want to mess up around the theatre kids; they know how to give you confidence to turn it around.”

Second, a second grader solemnly raised her hand and simply stated to her Traveler Mr. Abe Lincoln, “Please don’t go see a play, Mr. Lincoln.”

Well, Mr. Lincoln would’ve been better off not seeing that play, but clearly when we make sure our kids have access to performing, and they see plays, it pays off in ways that rip your heart wide open. And indeed, just might be our only hope.

Crystal Robbins is a Lessac Master Teacher of the Voice and Body Work.  She teaches at SMC, UCLA-Extension and will be leading a four-week summer intensive workshop for theatre professors at Depauw University in Indiana. 

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