Wilmagination program brings theater training to local high schools

The Wilma's education outreach program was honored with a special award at the Barrymores.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The auditorium of the Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber buzzes with noise as high school seniors filter in, chattering and laughing, for their morning theater class. It is their penultimate practice before they showcase what they’ve been working on for the last two months, an original set of skits that they created after seeing the Wilma Theater’s production of the post-apocalyptic dark comedy Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.

After a round of warm-up exercises, the students launch into rehearsal. In keeping with the tone and plot of Mr. Burns, their skits are offbeat and funny, taking place in post-apocalyptic settings: In one, two passengers get into an argument on a broken bus about the source of the screams they hear through the window. In another, apocalypse survivors rifle through the music section at Walmart, searching for their friend’s album.

The students are in an elective theater class operated through Wilmagination, the Wilma Theater’s residency program for Philadelphia high schools. Through the program, high school students watch a Wilma Theater production, then spend a semester creating their own production in weekly classes taught by two Wilma artists. The residency culminates with a student performance at the Wilma in Center City.

On Nov. 5, the Wilma was honored for Wilmagination’s work in high schools at the annual Barrymore Awards, which celebrates the best of Philadelphia theater. The theater won the Victory Foundation Education Award, a cash prize given annually to an outstanding theater education program.

Beeber history teacher Jennifer Hare, who runs the theater elective class there, said she has been happy to see how excited her students are about learning different theater exercises and working on their own stage production.

“I definitely didn’t know going in how it was going to go, because it was the first time doing this, but they’ve been really enthusiastic,” Hare said. “We’ve ended almost every class being like, ‘Wow, that was so fun.’”

This year, Wilmagination is in eight high schools: Bartram, Motivation, Carver High School of Engineering & ScienceS, Science Leadership Academy Center City, SLA Beeber, El Centro de Estudiantes, Vaux Big Picture, and Academy at Palumbo. The number of students in Wilmagination residencies is 550.

Anne Holmes, the Wilma’s education director, said the $10,000 cash prize from the Victory Award will help to maintain and expand Wilmagination education programs such as Wilma All-Stars, an afterschool theater program offering free classes, transportation, and snacks for high school students. The program was started in January, and about two dozen students have participated.

Holmes said that students have clamored to join the afterschool program and want it to continue into the summer, and the Victory Award grant will make this more possible. She explained that most of the schools Wilmagination works with do not have their own theater programs, so afterschool programs like All-Stars provide a place for students to go next, after the in-school residencies like Beeber’s have ended.

“This grant is actually huge, because we didn’t realize how much demand there would be for the program — that so many of the kids we worked with in our residencies would really want to continue,” Holmes said with a laugh. “They really have no interest in taking any time off from it.”

This fall marks the first time Wilmagination has held a residency at SLA Beeber. The Beeber students performed their piece at the Wilma Theater alongside two classes from SLA Center City on Dec. 6.

Naomi Elegant is a Notebook intern.