Essential Goodman Stories: The Student Subscription Series Celebrates 30 Years

Goodman Theatre marks 30 years as an educational resource in Chicago with the anniversary of its flagship Education and Engagement program, the Student Subscription Series—created by Robert Falls during his first season as Artistic Director. For the past three decades, the Goodman has invited Chicago high school students to experience up to four performances each season free of charge. Falls first brought the idea of cultivating a student audience through free matinees when he began his tenure at the Goodman—beginning with his 1986 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo, and continuing with Uncle Vanya today.

“It was controversial at the time, because some of the work we did, then as now, was controversial,” Falls said of the beginning of the program. “But we felt the best way to expose high schoolers [to theater] was to respect them [in the same] way we respected our audiences, to see the work and to respond to it.”

TodaEngagement_SSS_OnStage+_800x590y, more than 30 Chicago public high schools participate in this unique process-oriented series. Through professional development workshops at the Goodman, teachers design lesson plans that connect the play on stage with their students’ classroom studies. Math, science and other non-humanities teachers work in teams with drama, English and history teachers to build curriculum that integrates theater. In return, the students’ reactions are, as Falls puts it, “amplified.”

In a conversation with Walter Director of Education and Engagement Willa Taylor and Producer Steve Scott, Falls recalled watching a student matinee of the 1992 production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. “By anybody’s standards, it’s not an easy play to experience. And to have the audience of young people absolutely enthralled for the entire period of time, nearly five hours, they actually amplified the audience response. If it was funny for any adult audience, it was hilarious for young people. If it was quiet for an older audience, it was intensely quiet for a young audience. We were all shocked. I was shocked, and at the same time awakened to the power that a play as difficult as Iceman had with a [young] audience.”

More than 100 productions have been included in the Series, including 23 directed by Falls who looks forward to again sharing Chekhov with the students following their positive reception to his production of The Seagull in 2010. The many societal changes during the past three decades— from the proliferation of technology to reduced arts in school curricula—make the intangible advantages of the program more important than ever. “There are extraordinary benefits to the advancements we’ve seen over the past 30 years,” said Falls. “There are also, I think, huge drawbacks to the fact that everything moves so quickly, the feeling you have to access everything. The essence of theater is coming into a space, as a group of people, as a community, and experiencing a story together. “This was true 2000 years ago, and continues today.”

Under Taylor’s leadership, the Goodman plans to evolve and expand the Student Subscription Series to maximize impact on young audiences, and deepen the relationship with educators through increased resources. Stay tuned!

If you or an educator you know are interested in the Student Subscription Series or teacher professional development opportunities, please contact School Programs Coordinator Elizabeth Rice at ElizabethRice@GoodmanTheatre.org