It’s 10:30 on a Thursday morning, and Mr. McAfee’s juniors are warming up for class.
“Head voice!” he calls out, then “Chest voice!” and the row of students whooeep and heeay and hiiii, shaking from side to side before they’re told to inhale. “Now say your names, say, ‘Hi, my name is,’ and then the name of your character,” he continues. “It has to be big and full and vibrating, so everyone in the space can hear it without even trying.”
“Hi, my name is Polonius.”
“Hi, my name is Claudius.”
McAfee stops a girl in a blue sweatshirt who he doesn’t think has spoken loudly enough, and asks her to try again.
“HI, MY NAME IS OPHELIA,” she shouts.
“See you’re going to hurt your voice that way, you can’t be hurting your voice,” McAfee tells her. “You can be that loud without straining yourself. You have a lot of lines so I want to make sure everyone hears them, because you’re doing some great stuff.”
There’s a collective “awwwwww” from the other students standing on stage, and after a couple of giggles the group carries on.
“Hi, my name is Hamlet.”
“Hi, my name is Rosencrantz.”
* * *
These students are putting on “Hamlet” as a class as part of their work at the Theater Department at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in downtown New Haven (known as the Co-op). The school is located less than two blocks from Old Campus, on the corner of College and Crown streets.
While 65 percent of students at Co-op live in New Haven, 35 percent come from outside the city. The Interdistrict Magnet Schools system provides free bus transportation to students, including those from towns such as Guilford and North Branford, and travel can take as much as an hour each way.
Like all of the 18 New Haven Magnet Schools, the only way to get into the Co-op is by a lottery which takes place in February of each year. Though no one can audition or submit a writing portfolio, students must select one of the school’s five arts departments to apply to: creative writing, visual arts, music, dance and theater.
Infinity Jean, a junior at the school, said that she was so set on working on theater that Co-op was the only school to which she applied. “It’s a good thing I got in,” she added. “Or I would have gone to Hillhouse [her neighborhood public school in New Haven].”
Jean was luckier than a lot of students: for each spot in its freshman class, the school is forced to turn away many more students than it accepts. With a total enrollment of 650, Co-op consistently has the longest waiting list each year of any school in the magnet system, according to Arts Director Suzannah Holsenbeck ’05.
A passion for the arts is not the only reason some apply to Co-op. Theater teacher Robert Esposito said that he always begins with a new group of students by asking, “Why are you here?” And for some students, the answer is simply “because my mom doesn’t want me to go to Hillhouse.
Esposito can sympathize with the parents: Co-op, he said, has a kinder environment than some surrounding neighborhood schools. On top of the Co-op’s strong academic reputation and sparkling new facilities, Esposito said students are less likely to be bullied there. The school is heavily female, and has a large openly gay community.
“I know for me, I have an 11-year-old daughter. I would love for her to come to Co-op,” Esposito said. “I think that says a lot — I totally understand why parents force their kids to come here.”
* * *
While the Co-op offers a standard, college preparatory academic track, students spend an hour and a half on their chosen arts every day — a full 25 percent of their total instructional time, and the largest concentration in any subject matter that they have.
For the first two years the theater curriculum strives to expose students to the widest possible range of aspects of theater, with freshmen focusing on ensemble building and sophomores on scene study. In these two years they’ll study everything from the Stanislavski method of acting to technical theater, read “Oedipus Rex” and learn techniques for auditioning. As juniors they’ll split off into technical and acting tracks based on students’ interests, and study Shakespeare before moving into modern drama their senior year.
Senior Frankie Douglass said that while she has always liked theater, before coming to Co-op she didn’t consider herself an artist. The Co-op school was her second choice after the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), also located in downtown New Haven — which selects students through a merit-based, competitive application process. “It was my first time auditioning for anything,” she said. “I messed it up.”
After three and a half years at Co-op, she has realized that not only does she belong among the arts, she needs them. “I feel like we all look at the world differently now,” Douglass said. “Now situations, tragedies we go through, we can take all that and we have somewhere to put it.”
Despite representing a similar economic demographic as other area public schools, the Co-op can boast significantly higher test scores, and rates of college attendance. Of all the students who graduated from the Theater Department last year, Esposito said that maybe all but two are now in college, while noting that funding can remain an obstacle for many students from low-income families.
“When you’re dealing with any kind of at-risk population you have to give students a reason to come to school,” he said. “When they realize they have a show in a month and people are depending on [them], they’re gonna go to school. The largest step is getting them in the building.”
Senior Lyanne Segui thinks having arts every day helps their academics by giving them something to do that requires focus but still gives them a break.
Co-op students’ enthusiasm for the arts is palpable. During a break between classes, a girl asks her friend about the student dance show that took place the weekend before while fixing her hair in the bathroom mirror. Later, two boys talk about a visual arts student’s capstone project presented earlier in the day on their way to lunch. One girl in McAfee’s class actually complained that the school had closed the day before, “for just like, two inches of snow,” making the group miss a day of rehearsal for “Hamlet.”
* * *
Because of the lottery system, the students who come to Co-op each year come from very diverse backgrounds, theater teacher Christi Sargent explained: some come from arts magnet middle schools, others have little experience, or interest, in the arts at all. While this range of experience can pose a challenge to instructors, Esposito said that he wouldn’t necessarily change the system.
“There would be so many kids we’d miss out on because they wouldn’t have the confidence or savvy to come and audition,” he said. “When I look back, all the kids I think were most special and got the most out of it would never have had the guts to audition, would have had no clue they had any talent.”
And Sargent maintains that with enough hard work and focus, everyone can succeed in the theater program. One of her main tasks is simply helping those who don’t come in with a high level of confidence in themselves to grow comfortable with the kind of risk-taking theater requires.
“The people you meet in theater class are not people you’re going to meet in creative writing,” senior Yasmari Collazo said. “They’re out there, they don’t care, that weirdness rubs off on you.” Simone Ngongi, a junior, said the Co-op theater program has helped her get used to stepping out of her comfort zone.
Esposito said that the Co-op is not immune from problems that plague lower-income schools, such as students who come in with low reading levels, and with a correspondingly low level of faith in their own abilities. Nevertheless, teaching at Co-op is “easy” compared to the Fair Haven Middle School where he began working as a teacher.
The main task for Esposito is to focus on what students do well and build from that, no matter how small the victories may seem at first. He recalled one past student who, when first asked to do a presentation as a freshman, simply lost her breath and ran out of the room. But by her senior year, he said, she was the lead in the class mainstage.
Sargent said one of her current freshman initially broke down in tears when asked to participate in class, and she had to work in small increments to overcome her fears. “Every day I gave her new goals to accomplish,” Sargent said, “Tomorrow she’s going to be in her first play.”
* * *
Sargent does not push her kids to go into theater professionally, and doesn’t see that as the purpose of the program. “I want to show students how this can change their lives in terms of confidence,” she said. “These skills transition to all aspects of life, whether you want to be a nurse or a secretary.”
When it comes to the future, students themselves are largely pragmatic. According to Segui, most of her classmates don’t plan to pursue theater because they want to be financially stable, not because they don’t enjoy it. Douglass said that she plans to be a culinary nutritionist in college, and perhaps someday later she will go back to acting, perhaps even attend a conservatory.
But though Segui is very aware of the uncertainty involved in a career in theater, she is certain that she wants to pursue it nevertheless.
“There’s just never been anything else I’ve found as interesting,” she said.
Collazo, who recently finished her college applications, said that she used to dream of growing up to be a famous actress and starring in movies, but that over the years her perspective has gotten a dose of reality.
“I realized I need a game plan,” she laughed. But while Collazo said acting isn’t the main thing she wants to focus on in college, she was equally apprehensive about quitting it altogether. “How do you let go of something you do every day?” she said. “This school takes the arts and really shoves them into our personalities.”