One of the foremost distinguishers at Chicago Street Theatre (CST) is its commitment to taking risks that stand out in the Regional theatre community. From unique conceptual approaches to productions that challenge community theatre expectations, the CST tribe prides itself on starting conversations. Perhaps some of the most important conversations take place within the Teen Ensemble at CST.
Every year, teenagers from 7th through 12th grades participate in CST’s Teen Ensemble program for two semesters, their courses culminating in a Teenfest showcase in spring. The ensemble is broken into two groupings, Level I and Level II, and each group performs a short play in the showcase that reflects topics people their age actually experience, such as the struggle to understand one’s identity, dealing with the desire to be popular in school, and peer pressure surrounding drinking and drugs.
Since 2008, Director of Education Lisa Formosa-Parmigiano has been leading the teen ensemble through professional theatre techniques. While CST has hosted summer theatre camps for younger thespians for years, Formosa-Parmigiano was hired to develop a more comprehensive curriculum.
“With this program, students can stick around and continue to be challenged,” she said. “Students can keep progressing in their classes, as opposed to doing single camp sessions over the summer.”
Formosa-Parmigiano has extensive theatre training in her background, making her especially qualified to lead the ensemble in professional, safe, and unique classwork. With an MFA from the Actors Studio Drama School in New York City and her status as a Life Member of the Actors Studio since 2000, Formosa-Parmigiano references her own training to communicate to her students.
“I use techniques I learned in the Actors Studio, and I break them down and apply them in a way that teenagers can understand,” she said.
While many students take an interest in the ensemble because of their theatre experiences in high school, few of them have knowledge beyond those curriculums, and a lot of high school thespians have misconceived notions about what should go into acting. For instance, Stanislavsky’s method, or method acting. Most people believe method acting requires actors to live out key aspects of their characters’ lives, but when practiced in a safe and proper way, this technique uses more substitution than action.
“I break down those myths about method acting and help my students draw from their own experiences to relate to their characters,” Formosa-Parmigiano said. “I always say, ‘use yourself, but don’t lose yourself’.”
The practice is one of many that can help teens process their own emotions, many of which are difficult to discuss or understand as they experience the growing pains that come with their age range.
The subject matter they work with also provides a source of applied growth. This year, the ensemble is performing two pieces that tackle relevant subjects. Level I is performing ‘Hoodie’ by Lindsay Price. According to the play’s description, ‘Hoodie’ examines image and appearance in the vignette style and poses what may be the most difficult question of all—do I stay in the clump or do I stand alone?
Level II is performing ‘The Locker Next to Mine’ by Jonathan Dorf. Centered on a student who’s processing the death of two fellow high schoolers—one, a star athlete who’s killed in a car crash and whose locker is decorated in a shrine-like fashion, and another who commits suicide and is unacknowledged due to the stigma surrounding the topic—this play deep dives into the struggles of loss, healing, and isolation.
“I think high school theatre is so incredibly valuable, and it pains me to see when it’s underappreciated,” Formosa-Parmigiano said. “I think it’s crucial to give teens this outlet to emote, and if they take classes here, they might be able to go beyond what they learn in their drama classes at school, or have a completely new experience if they don’t have a drama program at all.”
One way CST enriches their Teen Ensemble’s experience is in this handling of subject material, which is often more mature than most high school productions. Formosa-Parmigiano stressed this to be one of the most significant aspects of theatre.
“Our students aren’t censored in class, they’re not censored in the material, though it is age-applicable. The whole idea about expression in the arts is that they’ll be able to process and discuss their issues, their experience,” she said. “They don’t become involved in theatre so that they can go get famous or whatever—more often than not, this is an opportunity for them to make sense of the world around them. That’s why theatre exists.”
Formosa-Parmigiano said that even when teenagers graduate from high school and go off to college, they often come back to support the Teen Ensemble in some way, be it as an audience member during the showcase or in teaching a workshop.
“I find it so heartwarming that they come back for the Teen Ensemble every year,” she said. “We want artists in the community to know that there is always a place here in the community for them.”
This year, the Teenfest showcase will take place on the mainstage of CST in spring (official show dates to be determined, Formosa-Parmigiano said). Return ensemble members will be invited to take a bow on stage alongside their fellow artists.
The Teen Ensemble is just one of the educational theatre programs offered at Chicago Street Theatre. To explore them all, visit https://chicagostreet.org/education-at-cst-2/.