Rising on stage with Paper Wings

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Theatre Exile’s Paper Wings program is designed to help students find their voices.

Left, SPHS students Rahjanae Davis and Eliza James read through a scene. Credit: Sara Madden

While grade school is largely about equipping students with the knowledge necessary to succeed educationally, it also involves both engaging and empowering them. In helping students achieve this and find their voices in the process, the South Philly performing arts theater, Theatre Exile, has begun implementing an in-school residency outreach program called “Paper Wings.”

Currently serving both South Philadelphia High School and Andrew Jackson Elementary School, the initiative is designed to bring experienced, professional teaching artists into classrooms once a week. During their lessons, students are assisted in writing and performing their own work, which is then later showcased as part of two annual festivals: the December Monologue and June Play Festival. These original performances are to be based on either personal or external conflicts the students wish to explore.

“The students write and perform their own work. Every student writes, and I work with them to help them learn to perform their writing,” Steve Gravelle, the active teaching artist in both classrooms, said. “The SPHS students write individual plays, and we share selected scenes from them, and the AJ students write and perform a group play all together.”

Founded in 2006 by Deborah Block, the program, by which taking the playwriting class at the respective schools guarantees acceptance for, was put together to create a safe space for artists to find their voice. While all students are encouraged to perform, the program also includes student stage managers and assistant directors, although most students choose to perform and casting is based partially on student interest and input.

“I look at ‘Paper Wings’ as a vehicle to support the younger members of our community to find their voices,” Block said. “The critical analysis skills that come with engaging in theater will help a student to be able to understand and navigate this world. The performance skills that come with theater will give them the confidence to express their thoughts.”

A part of Theatre Exile’s education department since 2014, Gravelle began his work with the program after serving as the theater’s master carpenter for two years. Initially being asked by Block and Dani Rise, the managing directors of Theater Exile at the time, to transition into the program’s outreach coordinator, he has since assumed the role of education coordinator.

Left, SPHS students Alexis Escribano and Arturo Jimenez-Soto reading a playwright. Credit: Sara Madden

“Most theater-based teaching is grounded in the idea that students have ideas, they have voices inside and our work is to help them learn to let their voices out of their bodies,” Gravelle, who has exclusively worked with theaters since moving to Philadelphia in 2006, said. “I take students at both schools through vocal warm-ups, vocal exercises, breath work and improvisation to help them find their voices. The program is also equally about playing characters, both in the sense that it can be a safe place to explore difficult subjects through the fictionalization of person, and also in the sense that we think it’s valuable for students to explore empathy by imagining what life might be like from another person’s perspective.”

In working to explore these sometimes difficult subjects, Gravelle noted the primary difference between teaching elementary students and high school students is the maturity of the content being explored by each group. Yet he highlighted that, while typically high school students are interested in exploring the more mature themes, this year’s AJ class wrote a complex, emotionally powerful play about a family struggling through a tough time on the way to a possible divorce.

“[The students] really rose to write a challenging play and was more powerful and deep than some other middle school plays I’ve worked on,” Gravelle said. “[Both school’s performances this year received] universal praise and amazement from our audiences. Both student and public audiences have expressed admiration for the incredible hard work of our students, and the art that they’ve been able to produce.”

In having watched these students build confidence and work collaboratively during their performances, Gravelle believes this year each student has grown extraordinarily. He recalls that, while some students barely spoke on day one, since completing the course many have since found their voices.

“They’ve all demonstrated a growing maturity, and most of them have expressed a greater interest in writing,” Gravelle said. “The self-confidence these students demonstrate on the last day of the program is staggering compared to where most of them started.”

Moving into its next year, Gravelle plans to use the “Paper Wings” program to continue helping students through the program, giving them a platform to grow and change, guiding them through the dual challenges of self-expression through writing and to help them find their physical voices through performance. Additionally, he wants the students to be able to develop strong teamwork skills while building self-confidence.

“[We want] to continue to produce great work with our neighborhood school partners, and ideally to keep growing the program into additional neighborhood schools,” Gravelle said. “Working hard every week to bring our best educational platform to these schools, and to keep making outreach into the community to best serve our students, will help us achieve these goals.”