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May 3, 2007


Report from the Field: Nora Sidoti '07 on the Transformative Power of Theater

For Nora Sidoti, a senior theater major with a special interest in arts education, some of the most enlightening moments of her last semester at Bryn Mawr were actually spent in West Philadelphia. In a Praxis III course supervised by Office of Intercultural Affairs Program Coordinator Vanessa Christman, she has led a group of Bryn Mawr students and a group of eighth graders in a collaborative process of listening and storytelling that will result in a performance titled "The 'I' Inside." The show is to be performed twice on Friday, May 4: at the Belmont Charter School Auditorium at 2 p.m. and in the Goodhart Music Room at Bryn Mawr at 6 p.m. The show at Bryn Mawr is free and open to the public. Photos were taken at a recent rehearsal.

photo credit: Holly Gaiman

The journey that I have taken over the past six weeks with eight Bryn Mawr students and 11 Belmont Charter School students has given me so much hope for the future. The college students and the eighth graders took risks together. We allowed ourselves to feel silly and vulnerable. We shared parts of our lives together, surrendered part of ourselves, for the sake of collaborative expression and to learn more about others. We have been scared, frustrated, upset and deliriously happy.

Working on this project has been a dream of mine. Participating in theater has always been something that has helped me to grow and learn. Creating artistic opportunities for children is my passion. I have spent many years refining my own artistic skills, and in the development of this project I have applied those skills to the real world. I have had to re-evaluate what I have learned and translate it into practical terms — in this case, middle-school terms.

This dream has become a reality through the Praxis program, which has nurtured it from the start. I went to Belmont Charter for the first time in the spring of 2006. I was placed in Rob McFee's Expressive Arts class as part of a Praxis II course. That semester I observed and ultimately led some classes. In the beginning the students seemed to be confused by my presence in the class, and I was just as insecure. I didn't feel qualified to offer anything of myself. I eventually came to realize that no one was requiring anything of me but to listen.

I listened to everything I could. I was deeply touched by the passion that the young students had inside of them. I was frustrated by the constraints of the classroom environment that, though brilliantly led by Mr. McFee, required the students to focus far more on the text they were to rehearse than true self-expression. Also, while I watched some students eagerly approach the opportunity to entertain, most students shied away from what many agree is an intimidating feat. Listening to them made me remember the creative but self-conscious middle-school student that I had been, and I began to take on a greater role in the classroom.

Sidoti with students

In order to convey to the students my excitement about their play, I had to reflect on what I love about theater. I act, direct and write theater because I can experiment with being someone other than myself, trying to understand other perspectives and to share and communicate with others or just let go. I found that playing theater games with the students, improvising and stepping out of our comfort zones, brought out the best in us. While I saw a tremendous change in the engagement and enthusiasm of the kids, I was also overcoming many of my own insecurities in these exercises that required us all to act silly, be honest and share ourselves with one another. By the end of the semester I was so happy to have had the opportunity to work in the class and sad to part with the children with whom I had made such special connections. I knew that I needed to continue working with them in some capacity.

Mr. McFee and I kept in touch over the summer, and by the start of this school year we were talking about serious plans for a special theater project that would incorporate more of the improvisation games, movement and expressive activities that had been so successful and would allow for more collaboration between college students and middle-school students. After all, I had been so transformed personally and artistically by my experiences with the students that I wanted to make sure that other students could benefit as well.

students rehearsing

I ultimately designed a Praxis III course that would allow me the time and resources to develop such a program, in which I have been enrolled this semester. The Belmont Charter students were accepted into the program through an application process that involved an interview with me and are receiving course credit. The Bryn Mawr students have been making trips to Belmont Charter for two-hour time blocks twice a week for the last six weeks. For the last two Thursdays, the Belmont Charter students have come to Bryn Mawr to rehearse and enjoy the college campus.

The performance on May 4 is the result of our six weeks of exploration and collaboration. It incorporates original short scenes, improvisation, poetry, music and movement. We developed the performance through our discoveries with one another. We paid particular attention to the special talents of our peers and the messages that we want to share. We have learned to value every person's unique story, to find the beauty in unity and diversity, and the artist inside all of us.


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