Stages Theatre Company was founded in 1984 in the suburbs of Minneapolis. The company is noted for its equal emphasis on production and on education. Consequently, Stages serves approximately 140,000 children annually between its productions, classes, and workshops. Student matinee programs reach about 20,000 young people with affordable ticket prices. Education programs include an acting academy, apprenticeship bridging academic theatre and the professional world, an arts integration program that helps students with reading skills, a program for students affected by Autism, and the company’s Open Door initiative, which reflects an ambitious effort to remove cost as a barrier to participation. The Open Door fund helps with tickets, transportation subsidies, residency subsidies, and tuition subsidies. Since the fund’s creation in 2009, the company has never said “no” to anyone who wants to come to Stages.
In nominating Stages Theatre Company for the Harold Oaks Award, Dr. Heidi Korstad called special attention to Stages’ development of Perspectives on Peace, a residency program for rural and urban 5th-8th graders to be bold with their words in defining peace. Dr. Korstad wrote “Students have sung, danced, played instruments, composed music, and generated visual art and media—all stemming from their own journal writing around the idea of peace. To me, there is no subject more important right now.“
The Harold Oaks Awards honor innovation in the theater for young audiences field. Stages Theatre Company and Janet Stanford of Imagination Stage will receive their respective awards at the TYA/USA membership meeting on May 4, at 2PM as part of the national One Theatre World Conference. The following interview excerpt with Stages Theatre Company Education Director Nikki Swoboda reveals the origins of Perspectives on Peace and what else Stages offers the TYA field:
What processes does Stages engage in that lead to innovation?
We are connected to strategic planning. Specifically, in the last 5 years, we’ve created an evaluation process for all our initiatives, which has been a catalyst for bringing new programs to life. It begins with a big, hairy, audacious goal, called a BHAG. Whenever someone has an idea, we ask “does this help us achieve the BHAG?” Our BHAG is that we will be an international leader in innovative theatre productions and education for youth. We have it posterized in the office and it drives innovation. It helps us be brave and bold.
Because we are a mid-sized company, a lot of us wear a lot of different hats. Perspectives on Peace was not sidelined as an education program. Our artistic director had this idea, and asked me how we would put it together. I spoke with our teaching artists and one of our technical director, who is also a lighting designer, to make the first showcase come to life. We all know we are better artists when we are working together.
We have an outside evaluator for new programs, which are any programs younger than four years old. The evaluator does surveys with teachers and students before and after the program is delivered. The second prong is that after the program, we ask the students “How did this go for you? What could be better?” The final piece of evaluation is between the teaching artists and the classroom teacher having a conversation that is relational to make sure we are considering what the good ideas are, what can be improved. Being confident enough as artists to ask what you can do better is an important part of innovation.
We also follow our artistic director. She’ll come in on a Monday saying “I had a dream. I have a hare-brained scheme.” And we all try to figure out how to do it. Having a culture where ideas are received not with a “no, but…” but a “yes, and…” helps create an environment where we can be proud to have our best ideas because we know we’ll have the support to help them come to life.
What is one innovation that Stages has made that you feel would be most useful to other theaters for young audiences?
The most important thing we do is keep kids in the room when we develop new work. We always commission at least three new scripts for our mainstage every year, but also our Perspectives on Peace program and our workshop program in the summer are both devised by kids. They are the heart of the work, so why shouldn’t they be at the center of it? They are part of the first draft readings for the mainstage and kept at the core of our production development as well as our education work.
The first thing we do in Perspectives on Peace is they write journals. At one school, we had six different sections, which meant we had about six hours of showcases. Every single word was said by one of those kids. They have so much to say, but they’ve just been waiting for someone to ask. It is a really powerful thing. I tell my teaching artists they aren’t the directors; they are the curators. It is their job to find the artists’ voices in the room and let them shine.
How did you develop the Perspectives on Peace program? What were the most inspiring moments for your company in conducting this program?
We work with a fine arts-integrated school. They decided they wanted to do a grade wide arts project. It was designed to focus on developing individual perspective. This is an age group that knows what their parents told them, what their peers tell them, but perspective of their own still needs to be developed.
In 2012, we were seeing how the world was separating based on politics, more and more shootings and less and less caring. We felt we needed to help kids find peace, their own version of piece, so that they know what it means to them and can be change agents. When the next year rolled around, everyone felt we needed to stay with this topic of peace.
By the third year, we started to go state-wide. In our state, kids in metro areas often have different experiences than kids in more rural areas. When an African American man was shot by police last year, we were doing Perspectives on Peace at the same time. Kids were overhearing things but not getting context and the adults were assuming kids couldn’t understand the complexity of the situation. Through writing, we could get to the things kids were terrified about. It gave the kids a vocabulary and the adults saw how to speak with young people about the issues they cared about.
A month later, Black Lives Matter protests were shutting down highways near Minneapolis while we were up near Canada and the kids there had not even heard of Black Lives Matter. They lived in a town ravaged by poverty, with kids essentially raising themselves, ever since the mines shut down. In that town as well as in all the others, we have found that we improved school attendance. Kids want to be in school doing something that is interesting to them, something really personally meaningful.
During a kickoff performance when all teaching artists perform for their students prior to being imbedded in the classrooms, one of our teaching artists, a gifted clown natively from Algeria, sings a Muslim prayer for peace in Arabic. As the other students filtered out of the auditorium, a group of 4 girls in hijabs came running up to him and they shared an enthusiastic conversation in Arabic. When they left, someone asked him what they were all talking about. “Just the soccer game last night. They said they’ve never gotten to speak in Arabic to a teacher before and were excited.”
In one of the projects I recently led, I had a couple young men wanting to do a section about jail. We had a prop rope and they asked to do a jail thing with it and use the rope to tie each other up. I asked them what their lines would be. One of the kids said “Peace means knowing I have a future even if he didn’t.” I came to find out later that both kids had fathers who were incarcerated. Suddenly, that line means a lot more. In the moment, an 11-year old boy has an idea. In the big picture, an 11-year old boy is saying his hopes and dreams onstage.
What advice do you give to institutions and artists wanting to create something innovative?
The advice I would give is to really believe in the power of “what if”. We always go “no, but resources…” but reframe that as “yes, but resources!” If you can get the right people in the room to have the “what if” discussion, something good will come of it. Commit yourself to having a big hairy audacious goal conversation. Think of innovation as something you can feel, not just see. It’s about tasting a goal that is internal. If you align your heart and your resources toward an idea and not a thing, there’s a better chance you’ll reach it.