What Is Project Discovery? - Dallas Theater Center
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What Is Project Discovery?

By Morgana Wilborn, Director of Education

—–   The mission of Project Discovery is to serve as a catalyst for young people to find their voice and explore their place in the world and within the social justice ecosystem.  — 

With so many programs available for young people, there is one that sets itself apart from the rest. That remarkable program is called Project Discovery (PD).  What is Project Discovery? Well, in 1986, Dallas Theater Center created Project Discovery in order to build bridges between our theatrical programming and the educational work being taught in our local schools. Since then, Project Discovery has worked with over  300,000 students and teachers by developing enriching experiences at little or no cost. In 2013, Project Discovery was one of twelve organizations nationwide to be awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, and the only organization within those award winners to win the 2013 Louis Vuitton Inspiration Grant. The mission of Project Discovery is to serve as a catalyst for young people to find their voice and explore their place in the world and within the social justice ecosystem. 

Participating schools will attend five virtual engagements; each moment of engagement consists of the following elements: 

  • Teachers engage in a virtual professional development workshop taught by Dallas Theater Center education staff prior to their student’s educational experience. In these workshops, teachers are provided a link to the digital study guide, engage with guest artists from the show and participate in activities that they can use to prepare their students with prior to their virtual performance.
  • Prior to the show students engage in a virtual webinar workshop for each play that they will see, in which they engage in activities rooted in inclusive interaction, enriching exploration and creative collaboration in order to explore the art form they will see onstage and learn about the historical background, playwright, prominent themes and plotline of the play they will view.
  • Students are then invited to attend the performance virtually along with their class or family members. 
  • After viewing the show, students will engage in a recording or post show Stay Late post community discussion experience with a member of the show. 
  • Finally, teachers are encouraged to continue the discussion and learning in their own virtual classroom with questions and skill building activities provided by Dallas Theater Center.

“I’ve been to Dallas Theater Center many times in the three years that I’ve been in high school. My classmates and I have been able to make a lot of memories in the workshops and on the way there. Every time that we got on the bus we were very excited for the play of the night, and we were never let down with the performances that we saw. Thank you so much for the opportunities that you’ve given us as a theater group. We love DTC so much.”   — Cullen, 11th Grade

As a Black middle school teacher I yearned for affordable ways to bring my students out of the theater classroom and into more professional theater spaces.  At the time that I inquired about Project Discovery, it was no longer available to middle school students, but I am glad that this now has changed.  All secondary schools (public, private, charter and home schools)  and non-profits that serve middle to high school-aged students are invited to apply each year to receive the free package of theater education services.  

At one time only schools deemed Title I could apply.  Though we encourage schools that self-identify as Title 1 to apply (Title I is a federal entitlement program that gives funds to schools in need based on student enrollment, the free and reduced lunch percentage for each school, and other informative data) everyone is encouraged to apply for the grant. Though many funders seek to support Title 1 specific programming, this creates a problematic situation.  It allows for funders to continue to serve the community from a savioristic mindset and for participating schools to apply for grants with a poverty-conscious mindset. Thus pushing predominately black and brown public and charter schools further into the margins, causing them to apply to grants from a space of “scarcity”, “internalized racism” and “lack” rather than because they merely “exist” and have a “deserving’ right to experience all that life has to offer, including the arts.  The non-profit industrial complex makes this inequitable service to the community. Jennifer Ceema Samimi writes in her 2010 essay, “Funding America’s Nonprofits: The Nonprofit Industrial Complex’s Hold on Social Justice” 

People working for social justice in the United States today are limited by the dysfunctional funding system that sustains most nonprofits. A significant number of people who believe in and work for social justice are employed in the nonprofit sector: an industry that requires organizations to compete for government and foundation funding. Known as the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (NPIC), this system forces nonprofits to professionalize, wherein  they must focus on maintaining their funding sources rather than fulfilling their mission.  When organizations participate in the NPIC and perpetuate this cycle of sacrificing mission for funding, they disenfranchise their constituents. Such organizations become more concerned with remaining in business, and goals rooted in social justice become of secondary importance.

Therefore during my time as Director of Education from 2016 to the present,  I began to work from an anti-racist, social justice, inclusive and equitable lens, I knew that I could no longer uphold the old ways of producing the program.  Those methods continued to place POC communities in the disenfranchised corners of a white supremacist system. Working with the Public Works Department, Development Department and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, we are moving to implement language, policies and actions that support those we serve rather than the self interests of the donor or white supremacy. The mission of Dallas Theater Center Education Department is to maintain a person-centered culture of inclusion, equity, compassion and anti-racism that empowers all people to engage in enriching theater centered learning experiences. Key phrase, “empowers all people”.  The magic in Project Discovery is that it brings students from various experiences, cultural/religious backgrounds and gender identities to a space where there is respect and equity rather than social and economic divides.  

“Thanks to this program I’m able to understand more people’s opinions and to respect them.” –— Luis, PD Alum (2017) 

In Project Discovery, students come from rural and city schools to convene in safe and brave spaces.  Students arrive from their communities on a bus provided by the program at no cost.  The students then come into the pre-show workshop space where they first acknowledge community agreements before engaging in activities and discussion revolving around the themes in the show. 

Within this safe and brave space it is imperative that students see themselves as part of a community with collective understanding and respect for one another. 

We listen to each other. We share our own ideas and explain them. 

We respect one another’s ideas, even if they are different. 

We respectfully disagree and try to see the other view. 

We let others finish explaining their ideas without interrupting.  

We take turns and share air time. We understand that this is a brave space to share your stories, and we will try our very best to also make it a safe space. 

Afterwards students act together, write together and debate or discuss topics important to them as a community. 

“The Christmas Carol workshop made me realize that we all make mistakes and realize that [even though we have] done so and we can grow together and get past it.” — Danielle, 12 grader 

With the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic students were no longer able to join us as they would 5 times a year at one of our local theater campuses.  As of April 2020,  we met online.  Students had access to digital resources and social media engagements.  Students could share the performance with their parents and siblings.  Something that they never could do before.  Parents had greater understanding of the program and they themselves had more access to theater by viewing the show American Mariachi by Jose Cruz Gonzalez. 

American Mariachi was the first show to make me cry. The way it touched home truly was like no other show as the story reached all points of discrimination for me– sexism, racism, xenophobia, and family issues in general. I believe because of the all-around essence the American Mariachi holds, everyone would find this show to be a light in at least one area of their life.” — Garland ISD student

We don’t know what the future will look like for live events and professional theater.  This year we decided to make theater accessible going into the 2020-2021 school year.  Students will have access to past shows from years spanning from 2016 to 2020.  They will have full access to online study guides, videos, discussion questions and activities.  Teachers will be able to stream content within the virtual classroom. 

“Who knows what theater will look like during the next school year but I can’t wait to use what I learned at PD to engage my kiddos and make my classroom a better place!” — Ms. Williams, middle school instructor

We invite schools to apply for our 2020-2021 virtual Project Discovery Season.  

Visit https://www.dallastheatercenter.org/2020-2021-project-discovery-grant-application/  to apply.  Email projectdiscovery@dallastheatercenter.org to learn how you can apply, donate or obtain access to show resources.