Bringing Theater to Chicago Classrooms

November 30, 2016

Justine Goode

Anna Gelman ’16 (center) poses with fellow interns
Anna Gelman ’16 (center) poses on the roof of the Goodman Theater in Chicago with her fellow interns in 2015.
Photo credit: Anna Gelman

For some students, the idea of moving back to their hometown after graduation is less than appealing. Not so for Anna Gelman ’16, who grew up an hour outside of Chicago and now works as a Curriculum and Instructor Associate at the Goodman Theater, the oldest theater in the city. Raised within Chicago’s vibrant theater scene, Gelman cut her teeth working for her father’s theater company during high school, and spent the summer after her junior year of college interning in the Goodman’s education department. Although she currently occupies a new role at the Goodman, it’s a definite homecoming of sorts, and a welcome return to her roots.

“I grew up with the knowledge of what my dad did, and then as more and more of his students who were my friends graduated from Northern Illinois University (NIU) and moved to Chicago, I started getting more and more into what it means to be a theater maker in the city of Chicago, which is just so different than anywhere else,” says Gelman.

Though Gelman’s foray into Chicago theater might seem fated, she did not initially anticipate working in the realm of education. In fact, when she applied to the Goodman as a college junior, she ranked their education internship as her last choice. “At that time, the extent of my knowledge for what theater education was the fact that I taught theater summer camp,” she says. “But I got the education internship and not the literary internship, which I think is probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because I ended up in this crazy whirlwind summer of all this social justice-based theater work that I fell in love with and wanted to do.”

The Goodman is currently one of only theaters in the country that has a dedicated education space within its walls, and also boasts free programming that makes its productions as accessible as possible to young people. “The theater offers a huge range of programming, starting with the student subscription series, which brings around 5,000 high schoolers a year in the Chicago public school system,” says Gelman. Teachers select four shows a year and are provided with accompanying study materials, as well as teacher training workshops. Gelman stresses that the program seeks to reach beyond just English and drama classes, and that there been an ongoing push to partner with math and science teachers. “We did a lot of Wonderful Town mathwork, which is hilarious, because I’m terrible at math,” she laughs. “It was based around how to calculate the inflation in the 1950s and how that’s changed.” This month, she will help teach a course for AP Physics students examining the inner workings of the motors responsible for moving the theater’s large sets around its stage.

At Oberlin, Gelman majored in English, sharpening the writing, editing, and researching skills that she feels are crucial to a successful career in theater. “The English professors definitely taught me how to be concise and write a well-thought-out paragraph, which is not a small thing,” she says. Currently, she is researching the playwright August Wilson in order to design an online course based on his Century Cycle of plays. “Teachers expressed being uncomfortable teaching August Wilson and not knowing how to bring it into the classroom, because Wilson speaks very specifically to the black American experience,” says Gelman. “So we’re filling in the historical context, and giving them tools to teach these works to high schoolers. They’re really important—they’re some of the best American plays ever written.”

Like many others involved in theater, Gelman has a night job producing her own productions. She is currently devising a play based on playwright Frank Wedekind’s Mine Ha-Ha alongside Ariana Silvan-Grau ’16, which will premier at Rhino Fest, Chicago’s longest-running fringe festival. “It’s this creepy fairy tale about how young girls are turned into sexual objects and taught internal misogyny, which is a pretty intense thing to be written in 1901,” she says. Gelman and Silvan-Grau previously collaborated on I Do It So It Feels Like Hell, an original play based on the life and work of Sylvia Plath that served their shared senior thesis at Oberlin.

Happily enmeshed in both the creative and administrative sides of the Chicago theater community, Gelman has no plans to leave anytime soon. “Because Chicago is in some ways so inexpensive, it has fostered this kind of artistic community that just does what it wants to do, and creates what it wants to create, and makes it happen,” she says. “It’s getting bigger all the time, which blows my mind. There’s more theaters being founded every day, but at the same time it’s cool what a community it is, and how supportive it is.”

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