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Courageous Stage Uses Theater Arts to Engage Students

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George Delvin watching Lindsay Pontius and Paul Schnabel demonstrate sword fighting - COURTESY OF CRAIG MARAVICH
  • Courtesy Of Craig Maravich
  • George Delvin watching Lindsay Pontius and Paul Schnabel demonstrate sword fighting

If terms like "core literacy" and "integrative arts program" make you yawn, you might want to attend a party this Thursday, March 1, and have your mind changed. It might even make you wish you could do school all over again.

The party at Middlebury's Town Hall Theater, simply called Carnival, promises live music, fire juggling, balloon swords, food and "millions of Mardi Gras beads." But it's not just a family-friendly version of New Orleans bacchanalia. The event is presented by, and celebrates, a "new, innovative education organization" called Courageous Stage.

That's the rather audacious moniker of an ambitious collection of programs that use the tactics of theater arts to engage students, teach them critical thinking and problem solving, and "deepen comprehension of literature and provide an experience that can lead to civic and community engagement," said Lindsay Pontius.

She's the education director at THT and, with actor and Middlebury College visiting professor of theater Craig Maravich, a cofounder of Courageous Stage. Launched in 2012 under the aegis of THT's educational services, the program is now in 20 schools around Vermont, working with 1,000 students and 80 teachers, according to Pontius.

Courageous Stage aims to bridge opportunity gaps in schools; as Pontius puts it on the website, "Anyone can participate. Everyone can succeed." There's a particular focus on more rural, underserved schools that may lack access to arts-based programming.

But the idea is not simply to give all students a gold star and a pat on the back. The intensive multi-week programs for grades 4 to 12 are interactive, typically culminating in a live performance. For example, Pontius explained, "We're in Winooski doing Shakespeare, and [the students] end up creating their own version of Hamlet."

Now, Courageous Stage is taking its successful track record in schools and knocking on the doors of potential partner arts nonprofits, such as the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington and Paramount Theatre in Rutland. It's also "in collaboration with Bread Loaf," said Maravich, referring to Middlebury College's summer writers' conferences.

"How can these organizations partner with schools?" Pontius asked rhetorically. "I came into this seven, eight years ago with the desire to make that happen."

She noted that Courageous Stage employs Vermont actors, including Paul Schnabel, cofounder of Burlington's Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, and Melissa Lourie, artistic director of Middlebury Actors Workshop. "This is a group of dedicated professionals taking their work into the classroom," Pontius said. "It's about creating something together."

"The students really have their agency in the collaboration," added Maravich.

This summer at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, he noted, "We're presenting this to teachers from all over the country. A majority of participants at Bread Loaf are English teachers, so there's a constant dialogue about what can we take back to our schools."

A group of Actors' Equity Association thespians will be on-site, Maravich said, "working with writers and teachers, using theater as a way to unpack literature — to get out of the intellectual bubble and embody it."

If learning and practicing theater encourages a deeper dive into language skills, Maravich suggested, it also teaches empathy, as "you put yourself in someone else's shoes."

As for that longer-range goal of civic engagement, "We ask students to literally get on their feet and think about a piece of written material as something that can be dramatized," Maravich said. "Just getting students to move around the room, giving them prompts to think about language, they start to personalize it and make connections to their own lives."

Empathy? Thinking on your feet? Those sound like skills the future leaders — and voters — of America could use.

But first, fire jugglers, stage-combat demos and other activities will help "celebrate where we've been and where we're going next," said Maravich.


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The original print version of this article was headlined "Courageous Stage Gets Students Acting Up"

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