Crystal Spring began teaching theater classes at Washburn High School 10 years ago, using a science classroom to teach the basics of acting and performing.
This fall, Spring was honored by the St. Paul-based Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for her efforts leading the school’s black box theater program.
Spring won the Ordway’s Sally Award for Arts Access, the nonprofit announced earlier this month. The organization commended Spring on its website for providing “a safe space for youth to create, perform and tour original theatre to diverse audiences across the Twin Cities.”
“The Blackbox Acting Program is open to all students and brings together youth from a variety of racial, ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds to engage in a rigorous training program that results in their creation of original theatre,” the organization wrote.
Spring said she was honored by the award, noting that school-based theater programs don’t typically receive the same validation as professional ones. She said she plans to use a stipend that comes with the award to continue a partnership with a local actress and teaching artist, Ashawnti Ford.
“It validates us as a program, and it validates the kids,” Spring said of the award. “And also being here 10 years, it’s kind of the community able to say, ‘We see you.'”
Spring said she was introduced to black box theater as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, where she studied theater arts. She subsequently interned in St. Paul Central High School’s black box theater program, before starting full time at Washburn in 2008.
Spring said she defines black box theater as original work, meaning that the students in her three black box classes create everything they perform. She said she abides by the philosophy of sharing power with the students, noting a goal of helping them realize that their voices and experiences matter. The program also has a focus on social justice.
The focus on empowering students could be seen during a recent session of Spring’s advanced black box class. The students wrote and acted out short skits based on current events, such as the Hiawatha homeless encampment and recent violence in North Minneapolis. Spring said the aim of the exercise was in part to get the students thinking outside of their own perspective.
“Our thing is we don’t have to always agree, but we need to be willing to learn,” Spring said. “We’re not going to agree all the time … but how can we learn to understand as best we can?”
Ford, the artist in residence, said she’s impressed with the depth of conversation that students have in the black box classes, noting a focus on standing up for social change. She said students who take the classes don’t always leave wanting to become artists but that the classes can impact the paths that students take.
“It’s not just, ‘We want to churn out the best actors to go to Broadway,'” Ford said of her and Spring’s mentality. “It’s about people who want to change the world, and theater has helped them understand how they want to change the world in different ways.”
Spring’s students say they appreciate how her classes provide them with a safe space to talk about real issues.
Senior Kim Caballero, who has taken Spring’s classes since freshman year, said the classes allow students to voice their feelings and dive into global issues. Senior Leniya Morrow, also in her fourth year, said she feels like the classes give students the skills to be more open and become better listeners.
“It’s like a give-and-take situation,” Morrow said. “You listen a lot, but you also give a piece of yourself as well, and I feel like everybody who takes this class does give a small piece of themselves in a way.”
Morrow and her fellow advanced theater students have performed in schools and theaters across Minneapolis over the past few years. They said audiences have been receptive to their shows, noting some showgoers have told them they can relate to the issues they’re discussing on stage.
“It’s scary but also a really beautiful thing afterwards … to know that you’re giving these emotions,” senior Kylei Burge said.
Senior Chantaveia Burnett said Spring’s classes are unique in that everyone is comfortable with each other and knows one another well. She said they provide students a space to talk about the issues they face, adding that Spring has inspired many of the students in the class.
The students in the black box program put on shows each year at Washburn, the University of Minnesota and community theaters such as the Phoenix Theater. Spring said they plan on taking a bus to the Ordway for the awards ceremony, which is scheduled for Oct. 15.
Visit ordway.org/support/special-events/sally-awards to learn more about the award.