Sophomore Core Students Attend Marin Theater Company Matinee Thanks to the Foundation’s Experiential Learning Fund

In October, students in Mr. Levinson’s and Mr. Hartquist’s core classes attended a special matinee performance by the Marin Theater Company of “The Whale,” an award-winning play by Samuel Hunter.  The production was part of MTC’s Student Matinee program, which offers high school students a unique way to engage with a dramatic work while fulfilling the California curriculum requirement that they respond to, analyze, and critique theatrical experiences.

Before the students walked from Tam to the theater on a cool Tuesday morning, they had three pre-performance workshops with MTC teaching artists who led them through acting exercises, scene writing exercises, and analyses of the play’s major themes.  They saw the set and learned how the the set and costume designers built the world of the play.  They met the director and some of the performers, and learned how they interpreted the play and prepared for their roles.  Immediately after the performance, they engaged in a Q & A session with the director and actors, and two days later MTC teaching artists visited their classroom for a final debriefing session.

The Student Matinee program serves about two thousand students in 10-20 schools per year.  Its goal is, in the words of teaching artist Daunielle Rasmussen, “to give students access not only to professional theater, but to new theater, because playwrights writing today are writing about the world that every teen is living in.  We want to open up a dialogue that gives a voice to every student and fosters their ability to analyze, empathize and open their minds to the way others think and experience the world.”  She likes that high schoolers have wholehearted and uncensored opinions about characters and ideas, and considers it MTC’s job “to help them understand why they feel the way they do and help them express the ideas behind their instincts.”

“The Whale” was an especially challenging play.  It’s about a morbidly obese recluse, Charlie, who is killing himself with food as he mourns his lover’s death.  In his final days he tries to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, argues with the nurse who wants him to check in to a hospital and save himself, and spars with a Mormon missionary about religion and homosexuality.  But even though the play presents challenging issues, Rasmussen was impressed with how the Tam students processed them.  “They were, as we had hoped they would be, able to move past the expected initial reactions — shock, discomfort, and giggles — to seek an empathetic connection to the characters and the themes.”

Levinson agrees that the MTC teacher artists prepared the students well.  “For some the themes touched close to home, but it wasn’t as big of a deal to the students as parents may think.”  Indeed, during the post-performance workshop, the themes that students mentioned most frequently were positive ones:  don’t give up on yourself; people do care, they just have different ways of showing it; take care of yourself because if you don’t it hurts the ones you love.

“It’s a very deep, mature play,” says student Cole Jordan, “and it helped a lot of kids understand how depression and eating disorders can affect you.  I’m glad we got the opportunity to see it performed instead of just reading it, because seeing it and learning about how it was performed helped us understand it on a deeper level.”

This is exactly why Levinson and Hartquist feel the Student Matinee program enhances their teaching.  As Levinson says, “it allows students to study text, performance, characters, themes, and complex material in a critical but accessible manner.”  Less tangibly, but no less importantly, the teachers “value the community that is built with our students through this common, interesting experience.”  And, listening to their students vigorously debate whether the play’s final image represented Charlie’s death or simply his deeper understanding of himself, one could feel that sense of community:  they had experienced something together, and though they differed in their interpretations of it, the experience itself united them.

In previous years, Levinson and Hartquist paid for the Student Matinee program by asking parents to contribute $15-$20.  But collecting that money was a hassle, and a burden on some students’ families.  This year, they received a grant from the Tam High Foundation’s newly-created Experiential Learning Fund, which is dedicated to funding out-of-school learning experiences like this one.  Principal Julie Synyard is tasked with allocating the fund with input from the Teacher Leaders Group, and she welcomes the job. “I believe it’s important for students to experience learning outside the classroom.  The more we can connect real world experiences to the learning process, the greater the relevance for students.”  The MTC program is a “fantastic example of this, because it involves a large number of students and brings literature to life.”

Additional programs supported by the Experiential Learning Fund during this school year include April Tucker’s Science class’ upcoming research vessel trip in the bay and the Journalism department’s trip to Washington D.C. in November for an annual high school journalism convention.  More programs will be funded as the year goes by.  “The generosity of giving established by the Foundation and its donors is incredible,” Dr. Synyard says.  “The amazing learning opportunities to which our students are exposed as a result is unparalleled, and we greatly appreciate the support.”