When I was a student, the after-school theater program was a large part of my life. I spent many hours working on plays, musicals, and other showcases as part of my high school’s drama club. My school didn’t offer any in-school theater classes, so any involvement was extracurricular. It wasn’t always easy balancing my schoolwork demands with club responsibilities, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The drama club members were “my people,” they liked the offbeat things that I did and we had enormous amounts of fun together. I was a member of the stage crew- building and painting sets, hanging stage lights, setting up speakers and microphones, and moving set pieces during performances. The stage crew became a second family to me, a place where I felt like I could be myself. I was also good friends with many of the performers and musicians in the drama club. We were bonded by similar interests and shared experiences. A large part of who I am as a person comes from my experiences after school in my high school auditorium. The value of my after-school participation is difficult to measure, but easy for me to see.
Fast forward 10 years. I now work as a Program Manager at the CUNY Creative Arts Team (CAT), administering our “CASA” (Cultural After School Adventures) programs. Funded by the NY City Council through the Department of Cultural Affairs, CASA brings after-school arts programming to schools across the City. CAT is delivering CASA programs to 22 schools this year. It’s no easy feat working with that many schools in one program, but I find great satisfaction in making this program successful at CAT, especially from my own experiences participating in an after-school theater program.
The work we do with our CASA students involves using theater in ways I didn’t even know were possible when I was in drama club. We work with students from 1st through 12th grades, inviting them to learn about theater, about one another, and about themselves. They learn theater games that teach them performance skills while also building a sense of community. They learn about improvisation and storytelling, and they create their own theater with their thoughts and ideas at the center. Program Director, Helen White, and Project Manager, Shamilia McBean, train and support the Actor-Teachers as they develop curriculum and work with their students. The young people have opportunities to learn, create, have fun, and express themselves in a program that is free for them and their school. Our CASA program is sometimes the only after-school program a school has, and sometimes we integrate ourselves into a school’s larger after-school structure by working with the school staff. No matter how different the needs of each school may be, we find a way to make amazing theater with their students.
I was always drawn to the backstage roles, but I know that if I could have participated in a program like this, I would have been hooked, especially in elementary and middle school. I am motivated daily by my own memories and feelings of belonging as well as hearing from Actor-Teachers and school contacts about how much the students enjoy being a part of the CASA program. It is fulfilling to know that the work I do at CAT helps bring young people together in an after-school theater program, like the one that meant so much to me.
CAT CASA Programs