Returning to the stage: Theater back in the spotlight at Minneapolis Roosevelt

AFTER MORE THAN 15 years without a theater production at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, the overhead lights dimmed in the school’s newly renovated auditorium in January as the actors and actresses took the stage.

The thick, maroon curtains were pulled back, revealing a multi-colored set where the worlds of Dr. Seuss and Romeo and Juliet merged together, creating the play titled, “The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet.”

The Roosevelt theater program had died after a long-time theater teacher retired. But this school year, after a push from students and fami­lies, Roosevelt added more programs focused on the arts and hired Kristi Johnson, an enthusiastic young the­ater teacher.

Johnson said she is ready to share her ideas and talents with the young performers who have since been eagerly marketing their next production by posting flyers and put­ting video clips of rehearsals in the school’s weekly announcements.

The cast of "The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet" takes its final bow after a performance in January at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School. (Photo courtesy: Minneapolis Roosevelt High School Theater)

“The students make it all worth it for me,” Johnson said as she sat on the edge of the Roosevelt stage, looking up at the cast, which was sitting on the set and laughing. “These kids are so energetic and excited about acting and being able to be themselves in a safe and comfortable space.”

Overcoming challenges

Adding the theater program was a challenge.

A group of Roosevelt families ral­lied together and drew the attention of high school administrators last year. After much protest and delib­eration at school board meetings and a student walkout over district fund­ing that was filmed on the news, the district eventually provided money for a theater teacher position—and other school efforts—and Roosevelt officials hired Johnson.

Fast forward to Jan. 28, 2016, when the school’s first production opened.

Kate Anderso (Juliet, right) hugging Sam Albright (Romeo) after the Roosevelt High School Theater's final performance of "The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet" in Janauary.

Kate Anderson, a Roosevelt sophomore who has performed on stages around Minneapolis and in Mexico, said performing at Roosevelt was a different experience because she felt honored to perform in front of and alongside her classmates.

“Roosevelt staff have been very supportive of the program and they couldn’t have hired a better teacher,” Anderson said.

Roosevelt Principal Michael Bradley agrees, saying that Johnson’s hard work is evident “through the hap­piness of the kids and the program.”

A ‘focus on the arts’

Schools such as Roosevelt with a higher percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are less likely to offer in-school theater classes, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics. However, after previ­ously focusing on math and reading resources, the school has begun emphasizing the arts in an effort to engage students and boost achieve­ment, according to an October 2015 Star Tribune report.

“Our focus on the arts is an effort to afford equity to our students,” Bradley said. “Historically, schools serving populations of poverty appear impoverished of quality resources. There are generally few opportunities for students to explore the arts.”

Roosevelt is focused on holistic education—tailoring the education to each individual, Bradley said. The principal wants students to grow as individuals, and believes the arts are essential to the growth of students, he said.

“Through dance, theatre, music and visual arts, students explore new ways of expression, they create, they grow confident,” Bradley said.

Sense of community

As the theater program has devel­oped and created a new opportunity for students, it also has opened the door for many students to feel part of the larger school community.

“I never felt part of the Roosevelt community until I joined the cast of ‘Seussification of Romeo and Juliet,’” Anderson said. She never felt she fit in, she said, in any of the other clubs or opportunities offered at Roosevelt, other than soccer. The school’s creation of a program that centered on an activity she loves was a dream come true, she said.

As the cast of “The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet” flooded into the auditorium for rehearsal in January, students entered with a warm wel­come and a stampede of hugs.

“These guys are my family,” senior Marcus Riley said as a smile spread across his face and as another actor startled him by jumping on his back.

Disclosure: Talia Bradley is the daughter of Roosevelt Principal Michael Bradley.

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