Parag S. Gohel, Director of Education & Community Engagement


Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Creative Dramatics program has been introducing students to performance for over two decades, instilling the principles of focus, self-confidence, self-expression, acceptance, tolerance, and teamwork. Fourth and fifth grade students from six partner schools are partnered for this 12-week exchange program during which they learn and perform an adapted work of Shakespeare.


The History of Creative Dramatics

During the 1989 run of The Public’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Education Director Rob Zellers was approached by Freda Ellis, sister of playwright August Wilson, to create a program with Robert L. Vann ES in the Hill District. Subsequently, Zellers and a group of  actors led by Montae Russell traveled to Vann Elementary to read stories to fourth graders during library period. In 1993 this evolved into a creative dramatics program when the cast from The Dybbuk began getting the children on their feet to act out the stories. A second school—Kerr ES in Fox Chapel—was added, and the program began formally bringing all three institutions—the two schools and The Public—together to collaborate on theater pieces. Today the program has grown to include six schools, always pairing urban and suburban elementary school students in the fourth and fifth grades from economically and ethnically diverse areas of the city.

The Public's Creative Dramatics program runs twelve weeks during the fall semester. It is a collaborative performing arts experience in which students are encouraged to express themselves through speaking, acting, and performing. Often borrowing plot lines from Shakespeare or other classic stories, students are introduced to creative playacting, breathing and focusing exercises, as well as basic storylines. For most of the students, this is their initial exposure to Shakespeare and, we believe, the beginning of a life-long interest.

Students work with Pittsburgh Public Theater’s actors/educators and their partner school to develop a showcase performance complete with lighting, sound, and technical elements. The students in each partner school pair then perform their final projects on the O’Reilly stage on a Saturday in December.

Weekly classes and preparation for the final performance helps students acquire skills in creativity, reading comprehension, teamwork, critical thinking, language, movement, voice and speech, and ultimately in the exploration of character and action.

A big part of the experience for the young performers is coming to the O’Reilly Theater for rehearsals and performance. The theater’s staff utilizes the set of the current show, making it available for the students as they perform for family, classmates, and teachers. Of course this often makes for an interesting staging challenge. For example, in years past, the students have performed The Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on the boat house set of Talley’s FollyThe Tempest in the office of Ann Landers; The Comedy of Errors in the town of Bedford Falls of This Wonderful Life; and Twelfth Night on the severely raked stage of Yellowman.

It is our belief that collaboration on a theater project with the goal of performance can:

  • break down perceived barriers
  • help students gain new perspectives (sometimes very much different and sometimes very much the same)
  • emphasize the importance of discipline and hard work
  • encourage literacy
  • teach young people the important role that theater can play in their lives and the community
  • have a positive effect on the rest of their academics
  • expose students to the many crafts and professions within theater
  • and in some cases, change lives.

We also believe that this program allows students the kind of arts experience that is being cut from many curriculums.