Epic Theatre Ensemble brings joy of theater to classrooms

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 5/23/2013, 3:43 p.m.

New York City students have a unique opportunity to use theater to expand their learning experience. The idea that would become the Epic Theater began in 2000. Ron Russell and his wife, Melissa Friedman, rounded up some 30 artists and educators for monthly brainstorming sessions to address a way to successfully marry the professional theater experience with education programs. They thought they were forming an arts service organization while, in fact, what they were really doing was laying the groundwork for a new theater company.

The Epic Theatre Ensemble launched on Sept. 11, 2001, as a company of artists and activists dedicated to creating and using the theater experience within New York public schools to inspire dialogue on social, ethical and political issues, helping students to become critical thinkers. The life-altering events of that day made their mission even more urgent. By October, they were already in 20 classrooms.

"We were the first responders in the arts field," said Executive Director Ron Russell. We were in there by September 13 working with kids who had been directly affected by 9/11," he told the AmNews.

The first schools they worked with had been moved out of their classrooms by the attacks. Epic expanded its efforts uptown and into suburban communities where many students had lost parents.

Today, the award-winning theater company reaches 70 classrooms per year, exposing students to the process of creating theater and theater protocol. Students know the artists they see onstage, having worked with them in their classrooms.

"Many of those young people don't have a chance to be in a theater environment," Russell said. "If at any point in their lives they have a chance to be part of a civic forum, they'll know what to expect.

"We push very hard for our students to go to college, specifically four-year colleges, where they can hopefully break out of the cycle of economic depression that many of their communities are gripped in," he said.

The Greek tragedy "Antigone" was used as a core model. Epic brings an hour-long version to the schools so students can see it done by professional actors. Students then rewrite the play for their time period, keeping with the content of the play, but with an update.

"We've had quite a few students go on to be professional actors. Once these students work with Epic for four straight years--they do our in-school program and after-school programs--they are inclined to go to college with an acting degree in mind. Parents who would have objected to that are encouraged to think of it as a viable career path," Russell said.

More than just an arts program, Epic is engaged in the learning experience of the students, who get to work with professional actors and playwrights.

"We only work with principals who are deeply invested in the role that the arts can play in school change," Russell said. "We want to be in their English classes helping the kids understand Shakespeare. We want to be in their global history classes. In every classroom that we help, we see big improvements in their regents scores," he said. "Our goal is arts for school change."