On a rainy February afternoon, the cafeteria at Animo Jackie Robinson Charter High School became a sort of drama boot camp as 20 teenagers gathered to rehearse scenes from The Crucible – scheduled to debut in March.
They were coached by students from UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts who’d helped mount the campus’s own production of the Arthur Miller play in January.
In the dining hall, which boasts a stage and doubles as a theater, the budding thespians – mostly juniors and seniors – worked on vocal projection, staying in character and making sense of the archaic language in the 1953 allegory about the Salem witch trials.
“You have to commit fully to what you’re doing,” advised Alison Plott, a third-year CTSA grad student who’d portrayed judge Thomas Danforth a month earlier. “Think how you would say the words naturally and put that emotion into your performance.”
Twelfth-grade English and drama teacher Rachel Chapman Kopera commented: “A lot of our students struggle with eye contact and expressing feelings, especially during love scenes.”
“That’s not just you guys,” said Beth Lopes, M.F.A. candidate and director of CTSA’s production of The Crucible, reassuring the nervous teens. “It’s not a younger-person problem; it’s an actor problem.”
Besides guidance and encouragement, the South Los Angeles school received props, costumes and set pieces from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts – which often donates or loans items to Orange and Los Angeles county high schools.
“It’s a win-win because we don’t have enough storage space for these items,” says CTSA director of outreach Ana Halland. “These are tangible things that our students create and that others can use and take advantage of.”
David Perez, a junior at Jackie Robinson, was appreciative. He relished his role as the play’s stage manager as much as others might value a plum acting part.
“It’s really my thing,” Perez said as he walked backstage, careful to avoid such props as a bed, a large American flag and a podium holding an oversized Bible. “I want to take this further; I want to be a professional stage manager.”
Out front, third-year M.F.A. theater student Kagiso Paynter, who had been Abigail Williams in the CTSA production of The Crucible, gave direction to girls rehearsing one of the play’s crucial events.
“I’m having them hold hands in a circle, push back and look up toward the sky, just to bring the idea of spirituality into the scene,” Paynter said.
She was impressed by the teens’ commitment to their performance. “This is a very smart group of students,” she said, “and they’re willing to put in the hard work necessary to do this well.”
And do it well they did. Just weeks later, the Jackie Robinson production of The Crucible drew capacity crowds of family members and friends to the cafeteria over the play’s two-day run – and drew rave reviews from them.
“Thanks to the generosity of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, the cast truly dedicated themselves to transforming into each of Arthur Miller’s characters,” Chapman Kopera says. “Even parents who don’t speak English knew The Crucible because of the visual story that we told with these gifts.”