When high schoolers and a sexual theme are combined, the result is most often a romantic comedy or a poorly written song. But when the two are brought together by “In the Continuum,” a show that centers on the AIDS epidemic, the result is a learning experience.
The WILL POWER! initiative, run by the Yale School of Drama, will bring high school students to see productions at the Yale Repertory Theater this week. After each special matinee performance, the students will have a discussion with production and cast members after the play. The program, which aims to educate local youth about theater, is in its fourth year.
Wilbur Cross High School teacher Rachel Sexton, who has taught for 18 years, said the program has had a great effect on some of her students.
“It’s amazing to me how many of my students haven’t been to live theater,” Sexton said. “It’s amazing how many students ask when they will go back — it has turned them into theater lovers.”
Both students and adults said the subject matter of “In the Continuum” makes theater more real for the students. Lacking elaborate sets and supporting actors, the minimalist play consists of side-by-side stories about two women diagnosed with HIV. The production juxtaposes the battles of a teenager in Los Angeles with those of a married woman in Zimbabwe who has a cheating husband.
Shortly before the show, Davon Fletcher, a 10th grade student at Eli Whitney Technical High School, said he expected the story to resonate with teenage life.
“We’re young adults — everyone’s saying, ‘sex, sex, sex,’ and there’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “This play may help with that.”
Ruth Feldman, the School of Drama’s manager of education and accessibility services, said the plays chosen for the program have a special ability to incite a reaction from students. Theater can be more effective than the written word because it has a greater capacity to engage and excite youth, she said.
“The productions selected for WILL POWER! are identified as having themes and content which ‘speak’ to young people,” Feldman said in an e-mail.
Sexton said the talk backs, where the cast and crew of the production come out after the show to speak with the students, are one of the best parts of the program. After the first special showing on Monday, students had a number of questions for Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, the two actresses who also wrote the play. Topics ranged from the differences in audience reaction in the United States and Zimbabwe to how the actresses keep their emotions authentic through multiple performances.
School of Drama Dean James Bundy said the program provides an introduction to theater that can enrich students’ lives years down the road.
“Students who don’t attend the theater before they are 18 are much less likely to attend as adults than those who do go before they are 18, so this program is certainly an investment in the audiences of the future,” he said.
But while various sponsors currently support the initiative, Bundy said, funding may be a problem in later years.
“I would love to have this program permanently underwritten by an endowment gift,” he said. “We have generous donors supporting it now, but it would be wonderful to support this commitment to the community in perpetuity.”
Feldman said she would be prefer to schedule the program in March to fit into most schools’ curriculums. But she said Connecticut’s state-mandated testing program for 10th graders, the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, forces the program to feature the live performances in February instead. CAPT testing is scheduled between March 5 and March 30 for New Haven Public Schools.
“In the Continuum” will be giving WILL POWER! matinee performances every day this week until Feb. 9.