The Immigrant Theater Class is a unique learning environment that combines traditional English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction with personal storytelling and public speaking. Each term, students write and perform original plays about their experiences as newcomers in America. The events are open to the public.
For the students, the experience of performing helps them improve their English skills and makes them more comfortable when speaking in their daily lives. One student commented that she used to be afraid to talk to people. She worried that they would be impatient or critical or get angry. After being in the Theater Class, she’s no longer afraid.
The audience also benefits by learning about the predicaments and the positive contributions of immigrants in this country.
Unique circumstances came together to spark an Immigrant Theater Group at The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc. Kathleen Klose, an ESOL teacher, was hearing inspiring stories from the immigrants and refugees in her class about their journeys to make a life in the U.S. At the same time, she was developing her hobby as a playwright. She became interested in helping her students tell their stories on stage, and so the Immigrant Theater Group was born.
“There were two reasons I started the group,” said Kathleen Klose. “The first was a way to improve [my students] English skills, and the second was to help them communicate their stories with people who really didn’t understand their situation.”
In the beginning, there were only 15 students meeting one hour a week before class. By summer time, they were meeting daily and had worked out nine vignettes based on true stories of their lives. In August, they performed If You Could Hear My Voice at The Malden Public Library.
“Most of the students who signed up originally were just interested in another way to practice conversation. But once we got started, they became very involved in using theater to express their experiences, and that became the driving force for them. After the first production, there was a sense that their self-esteem was stronger and that it had been very therapeutic for them to express what they were going through, ” remembered Kathleen.
The Immigrant Theater Group filmed If You Could Hear My Voice at the studios of Malden Access Television (MATV). This and other plays by ILC students were aired on public access stations across the country.
In the spring, the Theater Group performed their next production, From Darkness to Light, at City Hall about the experiences of students who fled dangerous situations and risked death to seek safe haven in the U.S.
Later that year, the Immigrant Theater Group evolved to a full-fledged class, incorporating traditional lessons of grammar and pronunciation with story writing and stage directions. The students presented a workshop about this unique learning environment at the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Basic Education Network Conference.
The first play performed at The Immigrant Learning Center by the new class was Bring Them Back about the contributions of immigrants to American’s way of life. The students also performed Bring Them Back at the Adult Student Leadership Conference and at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge.
The Immigrant Theater Class again presented a workshop at the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Basic Education Network Conference entitled The Many Meanings of Excuse Me.
The second play performed at The ILC was Bring Them Back II, showing the value of both-low skilled and professional immigrants working in this country.
The students created The Hey Ho Show to look at culture and generation gaps in immigrant families. The show premiered at East Somerville Community School. The Hey Ho Show II was performed at The ILC. The Hey Ho Show III was performed for middle school students at Salemwood School in Malden, ninth grade students at Malden Catholic High School and Malden High School, and teachers and students at the Adult Student Leadership Conference at Quinsigamund Community College in Worcester.
The Immigration Simulation Game Show, a humorous depiction of the serious causes of immigration, was performed at the Massachusetts Adult Basic Education Directors Meeting. A Day in Our Shoes, a view into the difficult lives of immigrants, was performed at The ILC.
Dreaming of America, a humorous look at the hopes and realities of immigrants’ lives in the U.S., was performed at Brooksby Village in Peabody and the Cotting School in Lexington.
Theater Class students mentored middle school students in Citizen School from Salemwood School in Malden.
The Anguish of English, an illustration of the many frustrations of learning English as an adult, was performed at The ILC. The Long Road to Boston, the harrowing story of a refugee escaping political violence in Haiti, was performed at the Ethical Society of Boston and filmed by MATV.
Find Your Way on the MBTA, Survival 101: Transportation and Employment, Grammar Songs, and True Stories I were all performed at The ILC.
True Stories II – Climbing a Mountain and True Stories III – Time to Laugh were performed at The ILC. The students filmed a pilot ILC Cooking Show and Never Give Up, a story of strength and courage in overcoming tremendous obstacles, at MATV.
This year, the Immigrant Theater Class began performing at the new Malden Senior Community Center. The first performance was Pick Me Down and Drop Me Over, a humorous collection of vignettes to teach the use of phrasal verbs, followed by Rise up Singing, which used music, poetry and story-telling to illustrate the human ability to overcome adversity and was also filmed at MATV. Songs of the Heart, a collection of songs and dances from the students’ native countries, ended the year.
We Are the World, songs and stories to remind us to keep a sense of humor when times are hard, followed by Marketplace of the World and The Dreams We Share, which contained stories, songs and dances from the students’ native countries, were all performed at the Malden Senior Community Center.
The Immigrant Theater Class partnered with Malden Reads to create a play based on one of the books selected for community-wide reading called The Seedfolks. The performance was titled The Seed Folks of Malden.
Unique circumstances again came together as Kathleen Klose was ready to retire from the Theater Class to devote herself full-time to The ILC’s Literacy Program. The perfect candidate to take the lead from Kathleen was already here. Leora Sapon-Shevin had been volunteering one day a week at The ILC. Leora not only has ESOL certification, but she also has a Masters in Theater Education.
Under Leora’s direction, the class produced Experiences from Home to the U.S. and Lost and Found at the Malden Senior Community Center.
The Immigrant Theater Class again partners with Malden Reads to produce The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Immigrant based on a theme taken from the graphic novel The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian.
Other productions this year included Child, Life Starts Now, a collection of stories and traditions of child rearing from the students’ native countries, and Nothing is Impossible, a play based on Aesop’s Fables and other folktales from students’ native countries.