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Life-Shaping Art

Local high school students blur art and life on the University's stage.
By Linda Shapiro

St. Paul Central Students and Professor Sonja Kuftinec
Center: Sonja Kuftinec
Photo: Kelly MacWilliams

Onstage at the University's Arena Theater in Rarig Center, students from St. Paul's Central High School perform a wrenching scene from I'll Take You There. When Karesa Pettis-Berry faces harassment by others about the color of her skin, she laments, “The kids don't like me because I'm not that mediocre ochre." Then she pleads with them, “Take me as I am, or I'm nothing at all."

Inspired by the students' own life experiences, the play dramatizes issues young people face every day, from struggles with identity and self-esteem to violence, racism, and homophobia. “The goal of the Central Touring Theater (CTT) is to convey the original voices of youth to the community through live ensemble theater," explains Jan Mandell, who has been leading the program at Central for 29 years. Each year, CTT students perform and lead post-performance workshops at area high schools, education conferences, and colleges.

Their University performances give faculty and students in the Department of Theatre and Dance the opportunity to deepen their cultural understanding while honing their teaching and performance skills. “We wanted our students to encounter a way of creating theater that develops from issues of concern to urban youth," says Sonja Arsham Kuftinec, the associate professor who first invited Mandell to campus four years ago to conduct workshops on the improvisatory methods she uses with students.

Since then, Mandell and her students have participated in a variety of workshops at the University, while some of Kuftinec's students have worked with Mandell as interns.

In 2003, the department commissioned CTT to create a play about the barriers that kids face getting into college. Barriers to Entry was performed at Campus Preview Days (a student recruitment event at the U) and toured to high schools and college conferences. ­

Central students come away from their U experience with some new perspectives on their futures. “We want to let them know that this is an accessible place where they can thrive," says Kuftinec. “Many didn't consider college as an option, but for the past two years we've awarded full scholarships to some Central students. We feel that their training as artists and world citizens particularly suits our B.A. program."

During the post-show Q&A, audience members—faculty and students in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance—offer up enthusiastic praise and ask questions about the creative process. Central student Darrail Hughes explains how the group came up with personal material that they wanted to share with other people. “It was a lot of trial and error," says Hughes. “Stuff got dumped, and stuff got put in."

“Every moment in this play has a story," says Mandell, noting that the creative process—which is improvisational, exploratory, revelatory—is as important as the play itself for these kids.

At one point in the discussion, a Central student describes how CTT's vision of embodied learning has transformed her life: “It peels away all the layers and gets to the core—the place where you can really be who you are."