For the second year in a row, the Learning Theater hosted the Literacy Unbound Summer Institute. Organized and run by the Center for Professional Education of Teachers (CPET) at Teachers College, Literacy Unbound brings together twelve high school students and twelve teachers for a two-week intensive program focused on bringing a piece of classic literature to life in an original performance. This year, the players read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a 1906 novel set amidst the food industry that weaves together themes of immigration and worker exploitation.
A professional development coach at CPET, Brian Veprek helps direct the Literacy Unbound program and says these themes resonate with teachers and students today, which led to the players’ passionate engagement with the text. For the first week of Literacy Unbound, they participated in a series of workshops run by professional teaching artists to learn various performance-based and creative skills. During the second week of the program, the players used these skills to craft and present an original work of performance art for a live audience.
Veprek explains that the final performance made use of the versatile Learning Theater by experimenting with new forms of storytelling. "We trended away from linear, if imaginative, retellings of our novels," says Veprek, "toward creating immersive environments in which our audience might have, as one of our teaching artists, Jennine Willett of Third Rail Projects, calls it, an experience that is ‘synonymous’ with that of the characters." Players led the audience around the theater as they enacted their powerful and creative rendition of The Jungle. Through their performance, the players responded to a classic piece of literature in a modern context and recounted the story’s emotion and turmoil through movement. As Veprek says, they aimed for the heart, and hit it.