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UCSB Helps Kids Master the Stage

Isla Vista Elementary Students Serve as Playwrights, UCSB Theater Students Are Their Cast


Graduate of The Juilliard School and former Broadway actress Anne Torsiglieri is a new addition to the UCSB theater department, and she’s bringing valuable experience and a fresh vision with her from the Empire State. Building on the UCSB community-oriented tradition, she and her undergraduates in Theater 140A’s Playmaking class are bringing their theater skills to Isla Vista Elementary students.

Partly inspired by the 52nd Street Project in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen (a nonprofit organization that pairs children up with local actors and actresses to create imaginative theater), 13 UCSB undergraduates and eleven 10- to 12-year-olds from Isla Vista Elementary work together in an after-school program. They too create original theater; the children are the masterminds.

“The ratio is purposefully small for individualized attention. It’s free for the children — we just want their artistic expression to be validated,” Torsiglieri noted.

Classes begin with a physical warm up. Torsiglieri contends that “relaxed bodies get us in touch with our imaginations.”

After the warm-up, imaginations are let loose and go wild: “We’ll have the children pretend to be an animal and create a profile for that animal. They have to invent and share information about where it lives, what it eats, what its family is like — most importantly, what the animal wants.” Thus, without even realizing it the children create a character. It’s not practical to sit a child down and say, “Write a play.” So the class uses such exercises to “guide creativity.”

Animal identities channeled and inhibitions loosened, the children improvise scenes between characters. Doing so illuminates the elements that drive a plot and make a good story: Characters meet, have some sort of conflict or problem, and they reach a resolution.

Only worthy undergraduates have the privilege of serving the community in such a specific, personal way — “Before the class started I made sure that the students involved had their hearts in the right place. It’s not about them, it’s all about the children,” Torsiglieri divulged.

Like the 52nd Street Project, the goal is to benefit the children. As Torsiglieri said, “it’s about validating their words.” Quite literally — since the children’s words will be performed in a public setting. The course culminates in performances open to the public with the undergraduates as thespians. The budding dramatists receive a seat of honor on stage; a placard reading “playwright” ensconced on their own personal desk and illuminated by a lamp.

Two key elements — watching an original play performed by UCSB theater students and observing the shy, beaming faces of the first-time scriptwriters — make the spot of audience member a desirable one.

The Isla Vista Research and Teaching Initiative gave $5,000 to help fund the collaborative course between Isla Vista Elementary School and UCSB. But that grant is for future sections of the course. This initial section will have to be “funded by magic,” reflected Torsiglieri, hopeful of somehow making ends meet for a good cause.

For reservations, you can contact the UCSB Theater and Dance ticket office at (805) 893-7221.

Performances will be in The Studio Theater on the UCSB campus, Saturday, March 12th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 13th at 2 p.m. Reservations are strongly encouraged.



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