by Katie Maltais
Working in the theatre, there are times that you stand back and say “This. This is why.” I had such an experience last Friday night when a group of students from Wind River High School in Wyoming came to see White Guy on the Bus.
I had been excited they were coming since I first spoke with their teacher, Malinda Garcia, several months ago. She told me the high school sits on the Wind River Reservation and was hours from any major city. As I told her about White Guy, Malinda was excited to share this type of experience with her students. For the last five years, drama students at Wind River have raised money year round to take a trip to Denver to see theatre. They have always gone to the Buell to see a big-name musical and awe at the theatricality of it all. This year, a student asked if there were any other kinds of theatre – perhaps something relevant to their lives? A friend in Denver told Malinda about Curious.
As someone who lived just off the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota for many years and had to go 90 miles to visit the nearest Wal-Mart, I had an immediate and deep understanding of where these students came from. I loved theatre for as long as I can remember, but didn’t have immediate access to it growing up; in fact, my mom (our school’s guidance counselor and teacher) directed Colome High School’s first play so students could experience live performance (both onstage and in the audience).
This year, the Wind River students raised about $10,000; much more than ever before, allowing them to spend more time in Denver. Can you imagine how hard they must have worked to earn that much money in a small, rural area of Wyoming? Bravo.
On Friday night, Wind River HS arrived at Curious Theatre Company early and eager. We had planned for a few Company members to meet the students before the show to share what a career in theatre is really like and answer questions. Markas Henry, Josh Hartwell, Chip Walton, and I shared our experiences and asked the teens about theirs.
The group saw Beauty & The Beast on Thursday night and was indeed awed by the spectacle of the lights, costumes, and sets. The scope was huge and brought out the grandeur of theatre. It was the perfect juxtaposition for what they were about to see on our stage. Malinda had purposefully kept most of the details of the show’s content a secret so she could get sincere reactions after the show.
Watching the show with the thirty-three from Wyoming had me viewing it with fresh eyes. I kept wondering “what are they thinking of this?” After the show, our regular talkback had a few extra questions from the students. Then, we asked the students to stay as our patrons left for the evening. Chip led a discussion with the group that lasted until after 11pm and could have gone all night.
It was awe-inspiring. Magical. Everything you want theatre to be and do was reflected in their comments. As teens asked questions, each also infused a picture of their world. It was like seeing a sea of people have their worlds open up all at the same time. “I never knew theatre could be like this.” “It would have been an injustice for us not to see this show.” Someone pointed out that with just five actors on a stage not much bigger than the one they perform on at school, we unlocked emotions and changed they way they think. It was raw emotion and reaction to theatre.
They talked about the play, about their personal experiences with racism, and about theatre in general. The power of that evening will stay with me forever. From the silent cowboy to the inquisitive punk/rock duo to the young woman desperate to find her life path, the group shared experiences from their lives and, most exciting of all, grappled with what to do next. How do we go forward from this? Now that we have this knowledge – know this thing – what do we do with it?
I wish I could bottle their conversation and pour out a glass for every politician or school board in the midst of budget cuts that says the arts are a luxury, not a necessity. Anyone sitting in my seat Friday would see that for each of these teens, it was a life-changing event to have theatre act as a catalyst to conversation; as one astutely noted, it’s easier to talk about race when you can use the play as a starting point. The arts inspire us with beauty, of course, but they also inspire us to deeper thought, to fierce questioning, and (if we’re lucky) to action.
Drama students from Wind River, Wyoming, know that you have a gift in your teacher. In a world that so often dismisses the need for live experiences, she has found a way to give you true and deep engagement. I admire your hard work in fundraising and am truly grateful to you for coming to Curious. You reminded me of the power of this art form and the joy of seeing provocative theatre for the first time. I hope you continue to find ways to keep theatre in your lives – you have an advocate for life in me and a cultural home forever in Curious.