Centerstage’s Page to Stage program makes theatre more accessible

Five years ago, the program was just an idea to give free tickets to high school students.

What better way to get engaged in literature than by seeing it acted out live on stage?

Page to Stage is a local program led by Centerstage Artistic Director Trista Duval that gives high school students in Federal Way exclusive access to one of the performance company’s productions.

Students in the program read the material ahead of time, meet with guest actors in their classrooms and get to communicate with them through a blog. They often ask questions about the actors’ process, giving them the chance to learn directly from professionals in the industry. As the grand finale, students go on a field trip to the Knutzen Family Theatre and to see a private performance. Actors take time off from their day jobs to do the performance for free, making it a true labor of love.

Five years ago, the program was just an idea to give free tickets to high school students. Duval has taken that seed and grown it into a program that has engaged almost 200 students this year through Centerstage’s performance of “Spider’s Web” by Agatha Christie.

The students mostly came from Todd Beamer High School, but this year the program added Thomas Jefferson High School students.

Page to the Stage partners with drama elective classes, but this doesn’t mean every participant already has a love of theater. Duval said there is often about one-third of students who just took drama as an elective to fill out their schedule. Even for students who love theater, “very often Page to the Stage is the first live theater experience they’ve had,” she said.

Duval said that the Page to Stage program aligns with Centerstage’s overall goal to make theater more accessible for everyone involved.

“Our big thing we talk about all the time is breaking down barriers,” Duval said. This includes actors, patrons and even students.

“They’ve got socio-economic barriers, and also have no idea how cool theater can be, because they’ve never been given that chance,” Duval said.

Emily Bray is a teacher at Todd Beamer High School and runs the school’s drama program. She said the theater program there almost got cut completely, but when she overheard this being discussed, she volunteered to take it on.

Now she has grown the program from one class of less than 30 students to three classes including Drama I, Drama II and Musical Theater classes. She is even adding a fourth class around theater tech skills next year.

Duval credits Bray with helping Page to Stage grow from just a few dozen students to almost 200.

“Just by virtue of that, we had three times the size of an audience for Page to Stage last year as we had for complete works just because her classes had tripled,” Duval said. “It just blew up because the kids were so hungry for fine art.”

Bray said that from what students have told her, there are many reasons that theater is a great fit for her student population. One piece is that it can be a nice break for students from “screens and sitting” and that for a lot of her students, she can see how it impacts their confidence.

“Especially after COVID, the idea of people seeing you, people hearing you, it can be pretty daunting,” Bray said. “We’ve gone back to zero — zero communication skills, zero social skills.”

She said she’s also seen a lot of benefits for students who speak multiple languages, but aren’t strong in English yet.

“It’s also really great to teach those students who don’t speak a lot of English, for them to be able to perform for their peers in English,” she said.

She also includes the chance for them to perform in their home languages for the class and said it is a great example of how much you can find understanding through the delivery of the lines, even if some in your audience don’t understand the words themselves.

“They come in and they know they are part of something bigger” and find “a sense of belonging,” Duval said, adding that it is also “just fun.” For example, she was recently teaching some students about stage fighting: “What other class do you get to play with swords?”

When it comes to bridging the gap to other written material aside from plays, Bray said Page to Stage and theater in general can help because “anytime you can have just exposure to things, it becomes a little bit easier.” This was true of the Page to Stage iteration in the program’s second year where the program centered on a production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, abridged.”

“Not only are plays their own form of literature, obviously,” Duval said, “but also it opens doors to that curiosity into that understanding. It makes things less threatening. It makes them more approachable.”

Bray also said that the dialogue with the actors helps students understand why reading comprehension is important. They ask questions of the actors about how they get into character and understand the characters.

“Having those actors talk about reading and re-reading the script and finding the nuance in what they’re saying,” and their process of needing to “read between the lines” is huge, Bray said.

“They’re hearing professionals tell them, ‘No, you have to be able to read, you have to be able to do the exact things your English teachers are telling you,’” Duval said. And that isn’t just for the actors, “to be a director, to be a set designer, a costume designer. It all comes back to reading the script and understanding the script. And that was such a powerful message for kids,” especially for those who “don’t like reading” and question “When am I ever gonna use this again? Why do I need to do this?”

“It’s important for them to hear that from someone who is not a teacher, from people that they are impressed with,” Duval said.

The program is paid for almost entirely by Centerstage, including the actors’ time, transportation, snacks for students and the private performance. Duval added her thanks to Poverty Bay Cafe in Federal Way, which donated coffee and breakfast for the cast, and to the Brugato family, who donated toward the cost of the kids attending the show.