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College of Education and Human Development at The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Giving Back Through Theater Arts


Giving Back Through Theater Arts

Tony Plana’s theater arts summer camp

Tucked away in the Buena Vista Theater on the UTSA Downtown Campus was a small group of middle and high school students from around the San Antonio area. They ranged in age from 11 to 18, each with different stories to tell. But one thing they had in common was their passion for theater arts.

For two weeks, these students met for six hours a day, five days a week, to participate in the Language in Play Summer Camp and work alongside award-winning actor, Tony Plana.

“I have been working in education for years, but I have been getting really serious lately about offering theater arts as a powerful, dynamic tool to help children connect with language on a personal level, teaching them from the inside out,” said Plana, whose acting credits include roles in “Ugly Betty,” “Born in East L.A.”, and “An Officer and a Gentleman.” “I think given the pervasive presence of entertainment on our phones, our computers, on television, everywhere, the classroom needs to be reconsidered as a place where we question traditional practice and really start to find different approaches towards making the classroom more dynamic and engaging for students.”

Plana, along with acting coaches David Lemay and Jose Yenque, worked with the 18 students to further develop their acting, writing, and communication skills. The students were exposed to all aspects of theater arts, including acting, screenwriting, set design, and lighting.

“The curriculum we used incorporated a lot of exercises and games that develop and enhance skills, and techniques that will serve the students well when they act, interact, write, and perform,” said Plana, co-founder and executive artistic director of the East L.A. Classic Theatre. “For the students that were shyer, we had a lot of group activities. These students started to find trust and comfort and safety in those group activities and they started to come out of their shell. They started to be less inhibited and more capable of communicating what they were thinking and how they were feeling.”

But the camp, Plana said, was much more than that. For the students, it became a safe space to not only share their experiences, but to also learn from the stories and experiences of their peers.

“Theater is an empathic art form,” said Plana. “By hearing and experiencing other students sharing their own realities, perspectives and experiences, they start to develop the capacity to get into other peoples’ lives and walk in other peoples’ shoes. Empathic capacity can be very valuable in school, in the work place, and in life. There’s great satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that results from this type of peer learning. What’s more powerful than being able to create something together that’s very personal and sharing that as a group with an audience?”

In addition to theater arts, the students worked with staff from the Academy for Teacher Excellence (ATE) to develop college readiness skills.

“Twice a week, we engaged students in activities to be college ready,” said Deborah Chaney, education specialist for ATE. “We told them that they can take this experience as preparation for college. It’s increasing their writing and study habits.”

The Language in Play Summer Camp was the brainchild of Dr. Margarita Machado-Casas, associate professor in the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies, and Plana. Previously, Plana and Machado-Casas worked together with the Latino Education Advocacy Days (LEAD) Summit where they began the plans to bring the East L.A. Classic Theatre and the Language in Play summer camp to UTSA.

“This camp gave me a chance to get back into the classroom and connect with the program at an intimate and personal level,” said Plana. “It reaffirmed for me how powerful this process can be and how much fun it is to interact with the students on a daily basis.”

The summer camp culminated in a finale performance on Thursday, July 9 in the Buena Vista Theater at the UTSA Downtown Campus. As part of the finale, the students performed three plays, two of which, a telenovela and a horror story, were written by the students throughout the duration of the camp.

“The students were relating to language and manipulating language and being creative with language in many different ways, and I loved that,” said Plana. “The camp was journal based, using the students’ personal experiences. In the camp, we worked on both acting skills and on the writing skills, taking experiences and adapting them to stage so that they can be performed.”

Through ATE’s Title V-Hispanic Serving Institutions grants, all of the students were able to attend the camp free of charge.

“When they applied to the summer camp, they had to write a statement about why they wanted to be in the camp and what they hoped to get out of the camp,” said Chaney. “Some of them wanted to learn how to be less shy. Some of them wanted to be in leadership positions in their schools and needed to develop public speaking skills. Some of them wanted to make friends. Some of them wanted to explore acting as a potential career.”

And at the end of the camp, the students were able to look back on their experience and see their growth.

“My hope is that these students got to know themselves better, accept themselves more, and examined their identities and strengthen that,” said Plana. “I like to think I’ve had a positive influence on these students. The students know me from television and I think were, at first, a little intimidated. But I think that taking that iconic perception and humanizing it for them empowered them, especially since I came from Hollywood and the world of television and film to San Antonio to be with them. I think that made them feel special and it made success real to them, it made success possible.”

Did you know?

The Academy for Teacher Excellence was recognized as a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and was featured in the online catalog. The Bright Spots in Hispanic Education National Online Catalog is composed of 230 programs, models, organizations and initiatives that invest in key education priorities for Hispanic students.


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