Our small, geographically isolated town is fortunate to have a vibrant public radio station (KSJD) with a sister organization, the Sunflower Theatre. One of the Sunflower's most popular programs is the Raven Narratives, where adult community members tell their personal stories with coaching from two director-producers. Southwest Open School (SWOS) collaborated with the theater to present Dragon Tales. (The school mascot is the dragon.) Our students worked with the Raven Narratives producers to develop compelling personal narratives as part of an English class. There were group workshops and one-on-one sessions where they fine-tuned their stories.
The big night arrived on April 7 with a nearly-packed house and eight storytellers ready to take the stage.
There were tales of hardship and loss, like the student who, at the age of six, found her mother dead from a drug overdose. Or the boy who endured years of torment from school bullies before finally finding acceptance, friends, and peace at a school where he feels safe. And the triumphant tale of a girl who challenged her own physical and mental stamina to complete a three-week wilderness expedition she did not think she could endure.
Although school staff and students' family members turned out to hear their students, Dragon Tales was attended mostly by community members. Some were there as supporters of the theater and KSJD, and all got an intimate glimpse of students from the alternative high school on the edge of town that is invisible (after 31 years!) to many area residents. With no sports teams, band, or drama program, SWOS students have few chances to "shine" outside the school. This was a marvelous opportunity for the participants, and a program we hope to repeat in the future.
Our student body is not homogenous by any means, yet it is possible to state some general truths. The vast majority of students live in poverty, or close to the line, and a night at the theater is not a common experience. They are not accustomed to being heard, really listened to, by adults. Many of them have lived their short lives at the social margins, and some may not have considered that anything they had to say would be of interest to anyone else. Yet for two hours they told their tales to a captivated audience whose appreciation for their voices, their pain, their triumphs, and their courage was evident from the first moment.
The most challenging goal was enlisting 10-12 students who could commit to the entire project over a 5-week period. At a school where fully 95% of students are at-risk (90% high risk), poor attendance is all too common. Ultimately seven students joined the project, and two staff members agreed to round out the cast. One enthusiastic student was unable to complete the experience because she gave birth just two weeks before the performance, and couldn't complete the workshops.
The proposal was to let students choose between presenting a personal story or composing spoken word poetry. It was somewhat disappointing that no one chose the poetry option. That is the main reason the expenses were lower than projected, as there was one fewer artist stipend.
Unfortunately, the performances were not videotaped; however, links to two podcasts covering the full event are contained in one of the attached documents.