B Street Theater empowers Encina students to create, produce plays
Abdul Mobasher stood at the front of the class wrapped in a blue shawl, belting out a song.
“I am La Luna, I am the moon, I sing and dance,” he sang as he swayed and moved his arms.
The eighth-grader moved to Sacramento from Afghanistan a year ago. His father worked as a chef for the U.S. military and was able to get a visa to come to America. Mobasher arrived at Encina Preparatory High School speaking no English.
He’s learned much since then, and on a recent afternoon in Michele Alexander’s ELD English I class, he was ready to show off his acting chops and language skills during a workshop conducted by the B Street Theatre.
Thanks to a grant from Point West Rotary, teaching artists from the B Street Theatre work with every middle school English class at Encina — 21 workshops in all. Most classes start off learning the basics of playwriting: Protagonists and antagonists, climax and resolution. Then, over the next few weeks, students write their own plays and perform them in front of the class complete with costumes and props.
“We’re learning new things that we didn’t ever know, said sixth-grader Hatem Atta. “The stage, how to act, how to walk, how to talk.”
“They can experience that creativity; that their ideas count for something,” said B Street teaching artist Alison Whismore.
Students with teacher Some classes, like Alexander’s, don’t yet have the language proficiency to construct their own plays, so they work with an existing story.
“It’s made a huge difference,” Alexander said. “It really gets them engaged with the language and the words, and they start having fun and they’re playing with the language.”
Mobasher had a starring role in the love story about La Luna and El Sol. In the play, the sun falls in love with the moon, who tells him that she needs a skirt that fits perfectly before she can marry him. The sun tries to find such a skirt in vain, as the moon’s size is constantly changing.
“I was really delighted at … just how well they were able to interpret this script and put their own emotions and feelings. It lets me know they understand the words, that they comprehend it,” Alexander said.
Gestures Students in her class for newcomers — mostly refugees who have been in the United States for less than six months — were able to mimic the actors and learn new vocabulary.
“I like my class, it’s good,” said eighth-grader Zinat Sadat, who has been in the U.S. for nearly a year.
“The actors are very adaptable to our different classes, from [English learners] to newcomers, to special ed,” said teacher Ann Runsten.
In Runsten’s ELD 2 class, where students have more advanced language skills, they spent a morning feverishly writing out ideas for characters and plots, involving everything from lions and snakes to video games.
Sometimes at Encina, a school where many students live in poverty, the stories are more serious in nature.
Writing “I was seeing that the stories that these kids were writing were very difficult stories, challenging stories,” Whismore said, citing examples of abusive adult figures or a protagonist trying to get home and avoid gangs. “[Writing is] a healing experience … When they can process it, there’s a place to put it. So it gives them a voice.”
Students are invited to enter their plays into B Street’s “Fantasy Festival,” a playwriting contest. The company chooses a handful of student-written pieces to perform in the spring.
Classes also take field trips to see B Street actors perform. This year, they ventured to Midtown and sat in the audience of “The Garden of Rikki Tikki Tavi.” Many students had never been to a play before.
The program has expanded from a one-period workshop a few years ago to a full three-period workshop. Organizers take pride in affirming students’ ideas and encouraging them.
“I like the word empowerment,” Whismore said. “There’s things about the arts that nurture us that I find very fulfilling when somebody can touch that.”
Atta was nervous about going onstage at first, thinking other students would laugh at him. But he was thrilled at the ovation he received.
“It’s perfect, that they clapped,” he said.