Theater Curtain Goes Up for Students

Workshops and onstage performances by Boston's Huntington Theatre give kids and teachers a taste of drama. DRAMATIC INSTRUCTION

PAMELA HILL says she has found ``the ideal teaching job.'' In one week, she may instruct as many as 400 young people - without having to grade stacks of papers or mete out detentions. Shuttling to a different Boston-area school each day, Ms. Hill teaches kids a lesson they don't hear often: Live theater can be ``awesome.'' ``I love education and I love theater,'' says Hill, the new director of the Huntington Theatre Company's educational program. In a dramatic switch from 14 years of teaching in public schools, she revels in her new role of ``getting kids hyped up about theater'' and helping teachers use the Boston theater's productions as tools for learning.

``Drama brings out the best in kids,'' Hill said in an interview after a recent performance for students of ``O Pioneers!'' Hill had visited 30 classrooms beforehand, prepping the students about this play and its relation to the novel by Willa Cather. ``Theater requires them to think more than cinema or TV does, and if they can start working hard with their minds when they're at the theater now, then they'll be adult theatergoers,'' she says.

Not only is the Huntington Theatre a leader in opening its doors to elementary, junior-and high-school students, it has also begun the more unusual task of catering to teachers' needs during a time of school closings and program cuts.

``I know, as a teacher, that so much is taken away from you,'' says Hill, and that teachers ``just get battered and battered morale-wise.'' So one of the most fulfilling aspects of her job is getting to say ``bravo to you'' for ``going the extra mile and bringing your kids to the theater. There are kids that sat in the theater today who had never been to a live performance in their lives. For some kids, it changes them.''

``Organizing field trips is a ton of work,'' laments teacher Beverly Zimmerman of Boston English High School. ``Collecting the money is the worst,'' she adds. But the materials that Hill and her staff provide, such as copious study guides for teachers, are ``terrific,'' Miss Zimmerman exclaims. Students also get to stay after a performance and talk with the director and cast members.

Hill recently organized a Teacher Advisory Council - an ideas-generating group of 15 teachers from area schools who meet monthly to discuss how the Huntington, a fully professional theater, can support teachers in promoting the arts and humanities. The council has already begun kicking around ideas such as workshops for teachers on makeup, set design, and curriculum development, or seminars with directors and scholars about the background of certain plays.

``Pam really knows the needs - she seems right on top of it,'' says Kevin Roche, head of the English department at Boston Latin School. He attended a recent teachers' reception at the Huntington. Unlike large private schools, which often have more funds available for the arts, Boston Latin ``is always hindered by the rest of public finance,'' Mr. Roche says.

The reception, complete with hors d'oeuvres and decorative tables, was a special treat. ``Teachers don't get receptions too often!'' says Lee Allen, an English teacher at Needham (Mass.) High School. ``Here's a chance to relax, exchange ideas, and listen to some people we wouldn't normally hear.''

``I'd like to see more plays produced at the Huntington with multicultural themes,'' says Zimmerman. The evening after the reception, she and other teachers were able to pass on their suggestions to the advisory council and theater administrators. Zimmerman says students from her school, over half of whom are minorities, especially enjoyed seeing Athol Fugard's ``Boesman and Lena,'' which dealt with racism in South Africa.

According to Dr. Allen, teachers tend to favor working with the Huntington Theatre because it is not ``wildly experimental.''

``There's a real sense of commitment [to education] on their part,'' Allen adds.

For instance, selected high-school students can attend the Young Critics Institute, a free, seven-week program now in its fourth year. They meet with directors, actors, and production staff to discuss one of the plays being produced. Upon seeing the show, the students write reviews (see related story). The Huntington's Humanities Forum, which is open to the public, brings in scholars who give lectures on some aspect of a current production.

Overseeing all of these activities is new to Pamela Hill, but her teaching experience puts her at ease with the students - and their teachers. On one of her first school visits, she showed up in a skirt and sneakers.

``One of the teachers said that anybody who came in sneakers had to be OK,'' says Hill. ``He thought the Huntington was going to get somebody out of Yale University or something.''

When teachers learn of Hill's background, the formalities melt away. ``They offer me some coffee, talk to me about their principal, and stick me in the teachers' lounge,'' says Hill, laughing. ``There's a real camaraderie and understanding.''

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