The BU Summer Theater Institute wants to promote “not only versatile artists, but also versatile people”.
Sixteen high school students wait in rows of four, their backs straight. The music joins in as the front row begins to move. Your job is to bring the word “Blobs” to physical life. The second row follows, then the third and fourth, with each young actor dashing and flicking their bodies across the floor.
Across the hall, another group of high schoolers sit in a circle and plan a small scene. They were commissioned to create a theatrical moment symbolizing a social issue affecting them. They block the moment in tandem.
Their notes are taped to the wall behind them:
“QUESTION IN THE WORLD: Social Media Abuse.
FUTURE YOU IMAGINE: Eliminate TikTok/other social media.
Rihanna releases a new album.”
Students have come to Boston from across the country to attend the BU Summer Theater Institute (BUSTI), a five-week intensive program for high school students that allows them to pursue their interests in a professional setting. Now in its 41st year, BUSTI aims to give young people a taste of the conservatory experience by combining classroom instruction with theater workshops and the opportunity to create and perform an original play. The first block of the day is dedicated to two classes: Movement and Theater for Social Change. In the afternoon, students attend their electives – design and acting – and take part in workshops, and in the evening they split into three groups to rehearse ensemble pieces. The grueling schedule — 13-hour days, Monday through Saturday — is just one aspect of the collegiate theater experience the program seeks to emulate, says Emily Ranii (CFA’13), BUSTI’s director of academic programs.
“Many of our students are away from home for the first time,” she says. “They go to meals alone in the dining rooms, they find out what it’s like to live in the dormitories, and they explore the city of Boston when they’re not in class.”
Many of the students say BUSTI has nothing to do with their high school theater experiences.
“I go to art school and it’s a lot more intense,” says Nora McElroy, who traveled from Texas to take part in this year’s program.
“I never realized how much work that is,” adds Finn Wiegand of Belmont, Massachusetts.
For many of the participants, BUSTI is also the first time they have had the opportunity to create original works. The final performances of the summer are all written, directed and designed exclusively by the students. “It’s very different from my high school theater program because it gives us an opportunity to create what we want,” says Langston Fantroy, who is from Illinois. “We have more artistic control over what we bring to the stage.”
BUSTI’s focus on creating ‘imaginary theatre’ – the collaborative process of developing original, theatrical material – challenges more than just student creativity, says Ranii; it teaches them to work together and to discover themselves as parts of a whole.
“[Devised theater] really explodes a student’s idea of what theater is and what theater does,” she says. “The artists aren’t about, ‘I only do my work in this particular area of design.’ They think about it more holistically: ‘What does the project need and what ideas can I offer?’”
BUSTI wants to offer its students the opportunity to participate in different areas of theater making, says faculty member Deen Rawlins-Harris.
“I think the beauty of this program is that they get information from so many different faculty,” says Rawlins-Harris, who teaches this year’s Theater for Social Change class. “Anything they do in the movement class could come in that class, anything they do in their ensembles could come in that class.”
Ranii says one of the program’s goals is to help students become “not just versatile theater artists, but versatile people.”
“Our measure of success isn’t for a student to drop out and become a theatrical artist,” says Ranii, who also serves as artistic director of BU’s Wheelock Family Theatre. “It’s fine and dandy when they do that, but theater skills are more like life skills and it’s more about a student finding their voice, learning how to collaborate with other people, and finding their passion.”
In the Theater for Social Change class, these principles become evident by grounding techniques such as the Stanislavski method and improvisation to social understanding. “We can get young people to understand that they have the capacity to change and shape their world, and we can do that through theater making,” says Rawlins-Harris.
According to Ranii, one of the ways BUSTI seeks to encourage roundness is by introducing students to a diverse program of creative work. Each year, program facilitators organize a number of field trips, including performances by local companies. That year the students saw a Broadway-tied production of 1776 at American Repertory Theater and a theatrical adaptation of J. Anthony Lukas’ Pulitzer Prize winner common ground: A tumultuous decade in the lives of three American families, chronicling Boston’s fight over court-ordered desegregation fines. The game, Goodbye with similarities at Boston’s Huntington Theater Company, was co-created by Kirsten Greenidge, an associate professor of drama and theater arts at the College of Fine Arts. (Greenidge also led a playwriting workshop for the BUSTI students and scenes from their play, Irish luck, were performed in their scene study classes.)
Our measure of success isn’t that a student goes out and becomes a theater artist…it means that a student finds their voice, learns to collaborate with other people and finds their passion.
The students’ final ensemble performances are “inspired by an artistic muse,” says Ranii. Traditionally, BUSTI took students to a local art exhibition to inspire the creative process – this year students saw works by interdisciplinary artist Raúl de Nieves at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.
“They translate from one artistic medium to another and then create these original plays,” says Ranii.
The ensemble groups performed their 15-minute original pieces on the last two evenings of the program. While each group took a different approach to the dramatic process, from abstract to figurative, poignant to joyous, each group featured young artists working together as a unit – and each ended in a dance party.
Valyn Turner (CFA’23), a BUSTI teacher, says it’s exciting to see how the program is changing lives.
“Most people you ask who have attended a pre-college theater program will tell you that it’s almost always a life-changing experience,” she says. “We all enjoy our time and space together, even when it’s exhausting, because there’s this artistic spirit that nourishes you even when you’re so exhausted.”
As she had predicted, most young artists left this year’s program more passionate than they entered. Case in point: Finn Wiegand saying that BUSTI pushed him to take on new challenges.
“There’s something about theater,” he says, “where when you’re done with it, you’re still not done.”
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