Neighborhood Bridges Students Perform at Crossing Bridges Festival

Early in May, Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) played host to a series of performances that were a bit different from its usual fare. The performances were free of charge; the scenery was mainly constructed from fabric, cardboard, and duct tape; the preshow speech was delivered in English, Hmong, Somali, and Spanish; and the actors were elementary school students with no formal arts training.  

The students performing were all part of CTC’s Bridges programming, which uses dramatic storytelling, creative writing, group discussions, and other classroom activities to break down stereotypes and improve reading and writing skills. Bridges serves diverse schools and works to redefine how urban youth are seen as well as how they see themselves—not as struggling or disadvantaged, but as capable, profound, and even magical. In Bridges classrooms, CTC teaching artists encourage students to question traditional narratives and assumptions both in stories and in the world around them.  

As a finale to Bridges, each classroom that experienced the 31-week program chose a story from the Bridges curriculum to bring to life on the UnitedHealth Group Stage at the Crossing Bridges Festival, which celebrated a year of classroom and student growth. The students picked stories that resonated with them and that they felt their communities needed to hear. In preparation for this year’s Crossing Bridges Festival, as a group of third and fourth graders discussed what story to present, one student proved how a single voice has the power to sway a crowd. A teacher remembered how the young girl stood before her entire class with “tears in her eyes, just so passionate” and convinced the class to perform a play with a strong theme of non-violence because she thought the audience could learn from its message. With her impromptu speech, she garnered the votes of almost the entire class.

After choosing a story, students worked with teaching artists and visiting scenic artists to construct a performance from top to bottom. Over the course of a month, they designed and fashioned their own costumes and scenery using imagination, creativity, and quite a bit of duct tape. One ambitious class at Moreland Arts and Health Sciences Magnet decided that their performance simply wouldn’t be complete without the presence of a huge black dog on stage—so they worked with a scenic artist to build an enormous, movable dog puppet big enough to fit three students inside.

Over the four nights of the festival, 24 classrooms performed stories that delivered profound messages of peace, described tragic events from our state’s and country’s pasts, and embodied issues that troubled students. Over 2,450 people watched as the students wrestled with these themes and emerged with a sense of hope. Teachers reported that community and parent attendance at the Crossing Bridges Festival was above and beyond anything they had seen at past school events, and the theatre was filled with people who learned the same thing the Bridges students had learned throughout the year—that theatre has an immense capacity for affecting social change, and that the theatre could be a place for them to belong. Throughout the Crossing Bridges Festival, young students showed their communities that they were entertainers, teachers, creators, and catalysts of change.

During the festival, as the students from Moreland Arts and Health Sciences Magnet proudly emerged onstage with their larger-than-life dog puppet, an audible gasp rose from the audience. The reaction from the seated group of family members, friends, teachers, and principals was a microcosm of the year as a whole: Bridges students had worked together to create something incredible, and they astounded themselves and their communities with their capabilities.

After seeing her son perform at the Crossing Bridges Festival, a parent from Marcy Open School remarked, “It was great to see students responding to issues presented through theatre. Nothing seemed forced by teachers, it seemed really generated by the class. I was really thrilled with art’s ability to bring up conversations about issues and discuss solutions. It was a pretty fantastic experience for me to see and for my son to experience.”

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