May 5, 2006
Acting Students Give Voice to the Voiceless
During her first year at Whitworth, student Chelsea Leahy gave voice to a young writer's story about suicide that might never have been told.
Leahy, a freshman French major and one of 20 students in Whitworth Professor of Theatre Rick Hornor's Acting I class, recently participated in a service-learning project at Mead Middle School. For the project, eighth-graders wrote descriptive monologues, which the Whitworth students performed before an audience of 350 eighth-graders at a Mead student-body assembly.
"The monologue I did hit a chord with some of my own personal experiences that I have never talked about," Leahy says. "By sharing this girl's story, I shared a part of me, too. After my performance, the student-author approached me and made me feel like she really appreciated hearing her story. It seemed like she was relieved to finally have her story out in the open."
The Whitworth acting students' debut took place on a humble stage, the Mead gymnasium. The students performed without microphones; the only prop the students could use was a single chair.
"Acting in a gym is hard enough; the fluorescent lights make more noise than you think, and you have to project really well to be heard all over the gym," Leahy says. "I prayed constantly during the performance that the words of this girl would be heard and that I could portray her message in a truthful way. I was so glad the performance went well."
The Mead/Whitworth collaboration began months earlier and hundreds of miles away at a conference in Houston, Texas, where Ed Mertz, a Mead Middle School counselor, attended a workshop, "Theatre across the Curriculum to Teach Character Education," led by Hornor.
"When Ed returned to Spokane, he contacted me to request ideas about how Mead could help its students deal with really tough personal issues like divorce, self-esteem, suicide and school-related issues," Hornor says. "I suggested that students could explore these issues through the power of personal story."
Hornor and Merz gave eighth-grade English teachers a suggested list of topics and discussed the purpose of the project: giving students a voice. The teachers had each eighth grader write a personal monologue about one life event the student had experienced. Before students wrote their monologues, their teachers shared examples of monologues and led classroom discussions on many different topics such as peer pressure, divorce, or other issues students have experienced.
The Mead teachers selected about 40 monologues, which they passed on to Hornor. Each of Hornor's Acting I students selected a monologue, rehearsed it, and performed it at the assembly. According to both Mead Middle School English teachers Yukon Degenhart and Greta Keaton, the project was lauded by Mead staff members and students alike.
"One staff member told me, 'If we can keep only one assembly, this needs to be it,'" Degenhart says. "I heard similar comments from other teachers. Students tell me that they are more compassionate now. Many did not realize what other students go through on a daily basis. The project also gave some students hope because they know that other students experience the same types of issues."
"New ground was covered in this collaboration; there is no telling how widespread its effects will be," says Jacob Spaun, program assistant for the Whitworth Center for Service-Learning. "For all involved, it was an amazing and very meaningful experience."
Julie Riddle, public information officer, Whitworth College, (509) 777-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.