Seeing through a lens of empathy |

Seeing through a lens of empathy

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Hundreds of kids, from first to fifth grades, settled onto the floor of Keystone’s new Warren Station last week for the debut of the Lake Dillon Theatre’s presentation of “Alice in Wonderland.” As Alice appeared on stage with a cheerful “jHola!” asking if they were ready for the 35-minute show, she encouraged the students to reply in Spanish: “Si, si.”

“Alice in Wonderland,” written by artistic director Chris Alleman and executive director Josh Blanchard, seamlessly blends English and Spanish languages to tell an enchanting story about a girl encountering the “exotic musical language” of Spanish. El Gato (The Cheshire Cat) interprets the language and teaches Alice how to speak it along the way.

Alleman and Blanchard’s intention through the production involves bridging the gap between two prominent cultures in Summit County: Anglo and Hispanic. They approached Summit School District principals, who embraced the idea with enthusiasm, Alleman said. Both parties saw it as not only a way to expand their cultural proficiency program, but also a way to teach kids theater etiquette.

As part of the show, the Lake Dillon Theatre Company prepared a study guide for students that included theater etiquette, dramaturgical definitions and discussion questions intended to help kids draw more meaning from the show.

Though Dillon Valley Elementary school principal Gaily Jones-Westerberg said understanding cultural differences is almost a daily discussion with students, she appreciated how the play taught kids – through an artistic medium – how to be open-minded.

“Without Chris having a deep understanding of what we do, (the same messages) really came through,” she said. “I saw that play as really touching on many points – understanding, empathy and the thirst for knowledge about cultures. … Our students had a very deep understanding and appreciation of the play and could follow it in both languages.”

One of Alleman’s main messages from “Alice in Wonderland” is: “Wow, it’s OK to be a little different. We can still communicate. We can still interact with each other,” he said. In the play, Alice encounters different people, and when she’s asked, “What is wrong with being different?” she replies: “I don’t know. I guess I’m just not used to it.” At one point, she believes the Queen of Hearts hates her, but as El Gato points out: “She doesn’t hate you. She just doesn’t understand you.” So it’s up to Alice to learn to speak her language.

Alleman and Blanchard decided to open the play to everyone in the upcoming weeks, because as Blanchard points out: “This is a community-wide discussion.”

“Theater is such a neat way to reach out to people,” said native Coloradan Debbie Swartz, who plays Alice. “I wish I had been exposed to more foreign language when I was younger.”

She performs with two native Spanish speakers, Edlyn Gonzalez and Isabel Cristina Obando, whom Alleman found in New York City.

“It’s important to maintain (connection to different cultures),” Obando said, “and give kids that idea of not only acceptance, but appreciation (for others).”

Alleman hopes to expand the program in two to three years by bringing it to schools throughout Colorado, because through his research he hasn’t found another dual language program for kids.

This inaugural production is made possible through grants from El Pomar Foundation, Climax Molybdenum, Target, Bank of the West and Wells Fargo.

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