How high schoolers channel the drama of the middle school experience into dramatic performance

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Middle school is fraught with drama: hormonal shifts, petty relationships and academic challenges. 

And so the high schoolers of a theater class at the School of History and Dramatic Arts (SoHDA) were tasked with channeling that drama into a dramatic performance.  

But to write the play, the students didn't just tap into their own memories of their journey into adolescence. Rather, they consulted current middle schoolers to bring unique characters to life. 

"As high schoolers we kind of look back at our middle school years differently than when we were in it," said Angela Rosado, a junior at SoHDA. "So we really want to get their perspectives on their experiences." 

Rosado and her classmates interviewed middle schoolers and played theater games to learn about the issues in their lives. They also gave surveys to middle schoolers to find out what they'd like to see on stage.

The result is a a rollercoaster ride through the perils of middle school. It's 40-minute production where nearly 20 characters interact through a series of scenes and monologues where narratives overlap.

There are the mean girls addicted to Instagram, a couple fighting right after celebrating their two-hour anniversary, a Star Wars fanboy who’s ridiculed at school. There's also a girl struggling with an alcoholic mother, one battling anxiety issues and a guy who thinks his caring older sister is ruining his life. 

Not everything is what it seems

Each of the plot lines reinforce the concept that change, though hard, can be beautiful, and that not everything is what it seems.

Trying to encapsulate that theme, senior Irvin Rosales came up with the title of the play: "Kaleidoscope."

"It’s targeted toward middle schoolers who are [going to] transition into high school," Rosales said. "And everything does change, but only, like, slightly. And that’s what a kaleidoscope does."

When they interviewed the middle schoolers, themes that came up over and over were feelings of neglect, stressed families and financial trouble at home. 

Rosado's character is one of several that reflects that. "My character is the homeless one," she said. "She doesn’t even have a house and she doesn’t like to talk about it. So at school she would only try to hide that fact by bullying others."

This bully, like so many other characters in the play, is more complex than we think. 

SoHDA theater teacher David Levine took pride in watching piece everything together.

"By the time they got down to the last three weeks, they become pros," said Levine. "I didn’t have to urge them, they took over the process and had strong, intellectual, structural thoughts about dialogue and character and I was no longer driving the bus."

This class was part of the CalArts Community Arts Partnership program. Instructors came into the classes weekly to work with the high schoolers as they developed a script and practiced their performances. The partnership was funded by a grant from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Taking it on the road

A big part of the class was taking the production on tour to five middle schools. Levine wanted to give his arts students the change to have out-of-school experiences, like athletes. And since SoHDA opened in 2011, part of the goal of the tour was to advertise the opportunities at the relatively new high school to potential future students.  

The final performance of the tour took place in the auditorium at Burbank Middle School and it was a hit with the audience. The middle schoolers tuned in for the full 40 minutes. Sometimes the room roared more vigorously than on a laugh track.

When one of the mean girls asked, during a monologue, "Don't you like my outfit?" 

The audience collectively grumbled, "Nooooo!"

Teacher Levine was thrilled to see the play connect with students at all five high schools. 

"As someone who’s been in theater my whole life," he said, "that’s not that easy for a professional to get something that really finds that audience and actually get it."

Ashley Gamez, an eighth grader at Burbank Middle School, loved the play. "If I was on Netflix and you could see 'Gossip Girl' and 'Mean Girls' and it’s all collided. And it’s like whoa!"

She says connected with the characters in the play who were able to support each other when they were both having trouble at home.

"I’ve gone through things with my mom and dad and, you know, it’s tough, and sometimes you want to have someone you can let it out to," Gamez said.

For high school junior Andrew Moore, the fact that the middle schoolers were able to make connections like that was rewarding.

"More and more we realized that even though we’re just doing this for a grade or for a class, by touring around we can be helping them, [and] we can be helping ourselves if we deal with these issues," he said.

The play ends with an original song and a refrain that ties the whole production together: Always changing, so there's always hope. Like broken glass in a kaleidoscope. 

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