Saturday, March 9, 2013

Theatre Espresso is now at Wheelock Family Theatre!

After 20 years of being an orphan company, Theatre Espresso finally has a home! And we are as grateful as Anne Shirley and Oliver Twist put together! We are embarking on exciting collaborations with the Theatre and with Wheelock College.
State Rep. Cory Atkins, Wheelock College president Jackie Jenkins-Scott, and WFT producer and founder of Theatre Espresso, Wendy Lement

Over the past 20 years, approximately a quarter of a million students across the Commonwealth have participated in our plays.  In 2006 Theatre Espresso launched the Boston Youth Initiative for Theatre and Civic Dialogue, engaging students in complex debates on history and social justice through grant-funded performances at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. In 2010 we replicated the program with a residency of American Tapestry: Immigrant Children of the Bread and Roses Strike at the Lawrence Heritage State Park. In 2012 we received a National Endowment for the Arts award to expand the Lawrence program during the centennial of the strike. Many foundations and individuals have helped make this possible, but I’d like to extend a deep- felt thank you to our partners at Mass Humanities and to the Mass Cultural Council for your guidance and support. You have made us a better company!


Our new drama is, Secret Soldiers: Women Who Fought in the Civil War. Developing the script has been a fascinating adventure. I pored over military records and primary source documents at the National Archives and was astonished by the number of women who served in uniform on both sides of the conflict.

Susan Lombardi Verticelli and Alan White
I was particularly intrigued by the various reasons women enlisted, how the culture and mores of the era helped women hide their identities, and the vastly different treatment that women who were discovered received in the press, depending on their motivation for enlisting. And, as with any Theatre Espresso performance, the audience will be called upon to share their views and decide on a course of action and the characters from the story will answer.


As many of you are new to Theatre Espresso, I’d like to share a bit of what we do and why we do it. Our goal is to use theatre as a catalyst for civic dialogue. In 2006 an article was published in the American Sociological Review about the decline of social discourse in America that resonated with our work. The authors discovered that we are less likely to be involved in discussions about important matters—especially with people who hold differing opinions—than we were twenty years ago.  Of particular concern was that our society has become more insular, and we are avoiding public discussions on topics that affect our community, our nation, and our world.


Interactive theatre offers an effective means of promoting civic dialogue. Theatre Espresso creates dynamic forums for discussion that encourage collective reasoning, foster critical thinking skills, and help young people articulate their thoughts.  Theatre Espresso places students in important decision-making roles (Supreme Court justices, state legislators, or members of a jury). We challenge them to question historical figures – both famous and lesser known—debate vital topics, and make judgments on significant events in history. In the process, they explore social relationships, reflect on the role of law in society, and examine accepted truths about American history.

Commonwealth Shakespear's Director of Education Adam Sanders and Theatre Espresso Managing Director Shelley Bolman

Our plays provide a nonjudgmental forum for discussion. Students’ questions and comments are taken seriously and their viewpoints are respected.  Charged with deciding the fate of others, students often struggle with their thoughts and feelings. They are compelled to ask questions, convince their peers of their opinions, and take a stand for what they believe. Through open dialogue, students participate in a process of negotiation. Our actor/educators push for deeper responses so that a variety of ideas can emerge and grow. Publically debating important issues helps students realize their potential to become active citizens.


We encourage honest debate about vital issues that transcend both time and place. Together students witness, in real time, historical figures in conflict. They listen to and are influenced by diverse opinions. In role as authority figures, students often change their minds several times before making a decision.  Meaningful interaction helps them take ownership of what they say and become invested in the outcome of the drama. Students realize that their opinions matter and have an impact on those around them.


There is also an emotional component, as students empathize with characters whose fates hang in the balance. They often struggle between their emotional response and what they think is right. In real time, in one room, people are free to speak their minds on intellectual, ethical, moral and legal issues. For many students this is a new and empowering experience. We live in a world of emails, text messages, and blogs that connect us in cyberspace, but isolate us in terms of having face-to-face conversations about how to solve vital problems. In that context, something profound happens when—in a public venue—students ask challenging questions, make heartfelt comments, and collectively reach a decision about a complex issue. There is also a sense of pride that is palpable at the end of each performance when students have successfully met the challenge.


We believe that true civic dialogue is democratic by nature. It moves people to express their views—even when they are unpopular—and to listen to a variety of opinions. Students reflect on their beliefs and sharpen their thoughts in order to express themselves clearly. Theatre Espresso provides a training ground for real-world problem solving and helps students make meaning of the confusing and divisive world in which we live.

WFT Technical Director Matthew T. Lazure and CityStage Artistic Director Larry Coen.

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Wheelock Family Theatre always hopes to engage in a lively dialogue. All voices make up our varied and colorful family and free speech is a cherished right. While critical analysis is welcome, and indeed, anticipated; discriminatory or hateful language will not be tolerated.