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Senn Arts students Olivia Shine and Tevion Lanier perform in Lauren Gunderson's I & You.
Photograph: courtesy Joel EwingSenn Arts students Olivia Shine and Tevion Lanier perform in Lauren Gunderson's I & You.

Senn High School theater students get real-world experience in the Yard

The arts magnet will partner with professional companies like the Hypocrites for four productions this season.

Written by
Dan Jakes

NPR recently published a report ranking the plays most commonly produced by high school groups in the United States. Even in the current decade, the top spots remain occupied by benign classics like You Can’t Take It with You and Our Town

By contrast to those popular and safe school picks, creative, young Chicago artists have a particularly good reason to gloat. On top of youth ensembles like Albany Park Theatre Project, About Face Youth Theatre and Free Street staging personal and challenging works this year, a new collective aims to introduce teenage students to the ins and outs of professional production.

“It’s really not until you leave college and are cast in one of these shows or form your own company that you see it,” says Joel Ewing, lead theater teacher at Edgewater’s Nicholas Senn Arts Magnet High School and cofounder of the Yard, which partners Senn Arts students with professional theaters. Ewing is referring to the press releases, contracts, rental agreements and other practicalities required to bring dramatic concepts to production. 

With Senn teaching artist Mechelle Moe, a veteran actor and ensemble member with the Hypocrites and TimeLine Theatre Company, Ewing kicks off the Yard’s first season this fall with two collaborations on mature-themed works: Kirsten Greenidge’s Milk Like Sugar with Raven Theatre and Sean Graney’s The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide with the Hypocrites, the irreverent and modern ensemble Ewing describes as his “first theater crush” in the city. 

Even amongst the directors’ home companies, the material choice was met with some initial resistance. About the teen pregnancy-centered Milk Like Sugar, Moe says, “One [piece] of feedback we got from our own company was, ‘Well, that’s kind of a stereotype of teenagers’”—an idea she rejected. “One of the schools I worked at last year had a daycare built into the school for the [students’] kids.” 

During rehearsals, discussions about access, representation and real-world implications of the art at hand are a constant theme informing the work. “I know how easy it is to be a girl with dreams surrounded by a negative outside force that is her environment,” says Senn junior Ireon Roach. “I desperately want to be a part of the solution and use this tool of art to start a dialogue.”

Livi Shine, a senior and slam poet, takes similar inspiration from the straightforward approach: “I am so excited about the power of art and activism when the two come together.” 

The Hypocrites and the Yard stage The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide at the Den Theatre Oct 30–Nov 8. Milk Like Sugar runs at Raven Theatre Jan 14–24.

Photograph: courtesy Joel Ewing

Senn Arts' production of Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses was produced in association with Lookingglass Theatre Company.
Photograph: courtesy Joel Ewing

Senn Arts students Olivia Shine and Tevion Lanier perform in Lauren Gunderson's I & You.
Photograph: courtesy Joel Ewing

Senn Arts students perform Broken Text.
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