Last Monday, 25 third graders in a theatre class at Field Elementary were trying to explain exactly how to play Zip, Zap, Zoom. Their teacher Sarah Sneesby guided them to remember the specifics of the game which involved sending an invisible ball of energy to someone in the circle with whom they could make eye contact.
The eye contact was key and once the game was underway there were a fair number of ‘wait, is that me?’ and ball drops before the group found a good rhythm.
That the theatre class is happening at all during the school day is a triumph for Field and is a result of a partnership with HITS Theatre, a 501(c)(3) educational organization that has been a part of the Heights Community since 1980.
“Like many other schools, Field has had to mitigate the effects of a shrinking state education budget that has put a strain on districts,” said PTO President Linda Peche. “After last year’s cuts, the school had to eliminate its Arts ancillary, and student classes have been doubled up in PE, Library and Music. All of these are strong ancillary classes with amazing teachers, but it is a lot to require a teacher to manage two classes at a time.”
Peche said that the Field PTO and Friends of Field have been working for years to find a way to bolster arts enrichment, and approached HITS Theatre to pilot a program at the school along with other neighborhood organizations, including Iconoclast Community Arts and Open Dance Project.
“We loved the active, participatory nature of HITS Theatre and its literacy component makes it a perfect way to integrate into what students are reading,” said Peche, who notes that the program benefits an underserved population of students, more than 82 percent of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged. “Third grade was chosen because we were optimistic of the potential for growth.”
HITS Executive Director Kelly Moneyhan said that after touring the school last year, and understanding the mission of Field which is a close neighbor to HITS on 18th Street, they were committed to making theatre programs a reality at the school. In 2017, HITS started to introduce theatre to Field students in an afterschool program, and then began working with Field volunteers to write grants seeking support to supplement the new curriculum at Field with a musical theatre program.
“While we are still waiting for funding and support to integrate theatre into the curriculum of the whole school, HITS made the commitment to go ahead and start the program on our own,” said Moneyhan. “We started this year in the third grade with three classes for more than 80 students and will expand the program as funding permits to each grade level. We anticipate that we will be able to expand the program to all five grade levels within the next three years.”
One recent contribution that will help is a $100,000 grant that was awarded to HITS by the Jerry C. Dearing Family Foundation. The grant will help HITS serve more than 1,000 children each year.
“We actually received notice of the grant after we made the commitment to Field Elementary,” said Moneyhan. “Some of the monies will definitely help offset our costs and allow us to look at the possibilities of expanding the program deeper within the school grade levels at a quicker pace than we originally anticipated.”
Why theatre matters
The instructor at Field, Sarah Sneesby, is also the production manager at HITS and has been at the theatre since 2015. Sneesby works behind the scenes under the tutelage of Artistic Director Adam Wagner managing the needs of each HITS production. She is also directing a production of Aladdin Jr. this semester at the theatre. A Seattle native, she took her first theatre class in 7th grade, and it marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for her.
Sneesby teaches the ancillary theatre class at Field and also the satellite programs on Tuesdays.
“I see [the afterschool group] once a week, and we are doing a class called ‘Kids on Broadway’ where we are going to learn a couple of songs, and build a script around those songs to create a fun little end of the semester showcase for their parents,” said Sneesby. “I have a few of the kids in both the daytime class and afternoon class, and it is a lot of fun seeing them apply what we work on during the day into the performance aspect of the afternoon class.”
The games that the kids play in the daytime class are fun, but also meaningful.
“We are using Michael Rohd’s book Theatre for Community Conflict and Dialogue as our syllabus or training manual so to speak,” said Sneesby. “My hope is to instill these kids with the aspects of theatre that are used in everyday life. Today so many kids get so much of their social interaction through a screen that certain skills the rest of us take for granted are not always fully developed.”
Sneesby hopes to boost their confidence, to get them comfortable with making eye contact, to focus on the present, to learn how to communicate more effectively both in verbal and non-verbal communication and to work on developing their active listening and comprehension skills.
“It may not be seen on the outside as a traditional ‘put on a show’ type of theatre class, but these are all skills that an actor needs to have in their tool belt, if any of these kids decide to pursue theatre as they get older,” said Sneesby.
While HITS has a small staff of just three full time employees, Kelly Moneyhan said that they have always strived to deliver the best quality program possible – following their mission to inspire Houston’s youth through the power of theatre.
“We will continue to grow our outreach at a pace that can be supported with the commitment to excellence in mind,” she said. “We are also at the Arabic Immersion School with an afterschool program similar to the one we have at Field.”
Field parent Linda Peche believes that in the current environment of high-stakes testing, it is crucial to integrate broader-based programs that nurture the whole child and inspire a love for learning.
“We think HITS Theatre does that,” she said. “The Field PTO and Friends of Field is working hard to find funding to continue this enrichment programming without putting financial strain on the school or on our families.”