For most kids the journey through middle and high school signifies a sort of turning point during which they experience tremendous and often overwhelming emotional and physical change. Even those of us who had it relatively “easy” still remember what it was like to feel misunderstood, defeated, or under appreciated. For the students at Henderson Independent, an alternative, community driven middle and high school, this journey represents a different turning point altogether. At Henderson, the journey represents an opportunity.
For the past three years, Henderson has partnered with Center for Faith and the Arts to provide theater arts to their students through improv style courses. In 2018, with a grant funded in part by the Rowan Arts Council, Henderson Independent School was further solidified as the hub for Center for Faith in the Arts’ Class Act program. Through this program, currently headed by CFA’s Resident Artist Shane Manier, these students are introduced to both drama and spoken word. As an award winning spoken word poet, artist and activist, Shane fell right into this role and immediately began empowering Henderson students by giving them the tools to share their voices. The program was further amplified when Salisbury’s own Lee Street Theater entered the mix.
In Spring 2019, Lee Street Theatre welcomed Catawba College student Mason Livers to the fold. Mason, a Theater Education major was selected for Lee Street’s Spring 2019 CatLST Internship. I wondered if this was what Mason had in mind when he applied to Intern with Lee Street. “Honestly, no. This has been such a huge challenge for me, but I’m a person that embraces a challenge. I never would have thought that I would be able to create a piece of my own, but here we are in the middle of it and I love every minute,” he told me. Mason dove right in visiting the students at Henderson and began utilizing his talents as a creative writer. I was especially curious to know how this experience was affecting Mason who is not that far out of high school himself. He responded saying it helped him a lot because it opened his eyes to challenges within the school system that he would have never thought about a few years ago. “It also opened my eyes on that there is so much that you can do with theatre than your typical play or musical,” he added. For months, Shane and Mason have listened with open hearts as the students at Henderson Independent began telling them about their lives and the challenges they have overcome. The Class Act Program is currently made up of about 16 students, half in middle school and half in high school. As Mason explained, “they have all had an impact on me. They are truly passionate about this because it’s about them. They connect with it on a personal level and that’s what I wanted. I wanted this show to be a way for them to communicate to the public what they go through and how the public can help. And hey I might have a few theatre kids in process,” explained Mason. For these students, the program offers something more than the typical theater arts experience. Class Act gives them something they never knew they needed. It gives them the chance to be heard.
Shane says that while there are many challenges, she always strives to “meet the students where they’re at” and help them to seize new opportunities. She has coordinated field trips, helped them to publish their poetry, and is already planning art exhibition, and public art opportunities. As Henderson’s “techbrarian” Johnathan Smith concluded, “A healthy outlet is always needed for students. It helps them find their inner voice and strength without resorting to false avenues. Our students deserve the freedom to explore their creativity. CFA, Shane, and Lee Street theatre have been tremendous partners and advocates for our students’ artistic freedom.” Through this program, these students have opened up, faced their fears through sharing their stories, and out of those stories, something new and beautiful was born.
“Lost In the System,” is a play written and produced by Catawba College’s Mason Livers, in collaboration with Shane Manier and Henderson Independent School students. Mason “wants people to understand what being lost means” and in this case it means, “neglected, forgotten, out of sight, out of mind.” Mason says he “wants the public to witness what could happen when you neglect or forget that kid in class because he or she acts up and quits.” According to both Mason and Shane, the students are excited for the opportunity to share this story, which highlights the various effects that incarceration can have on families. While the storyline is fictional, the premise was directly inspired by the students’ own experiences. “They want to be heard and they are super excited about doing this on a real stage,” Shane shared, beaming with pride. Oh, didn’t I tell you the best part? The students will be performing their play under the stage lights at the award winning Lee Street Theatre on May 10th and 11th! Tickets and additional information will be available on Lee Street’s website closer to the date.
Lee Street Theatre is located at 329 Lee Street in Downtown Salisbury directly across from Rail Walk Studios and Gallery. This theatre, which has become home to so many of the performers living in and around Rowan County, is known for offering a variety of diverse performances, with a special dedication to new playwrights. Many of us know the beauty that unfolds when artists and performers are given a platform to share their creative ideas. Here in Rowan County we have the privilege of witnessing artists working together and sharing their gifts in ways that allow our younger generations to bloom and that my friends, is nothing short of magical.