Willa J. Taylor: Reaching the Youth Through Arts

Will J. Taylor
Will J. Taylor

The Goodman Theatre has been a solid stable in the Chicago performance arts community for the past 90 years. Established in 1925 by the Goodman family, it has produced countless theater plays, musical works and educational programs that have become a national model for other reputable theater companies to follow throughout the country.
Considered the best regional theater, earning two Pulitzer Prizes, 22 Tony Awards in the last 30 years — resident artist directors include Chuck Smith, actor Brian Dennehy and Golden Globe actress Regina Taylor.
Last week, Goodman Theatre premiered the Alice Rapoport Center for Education and Engagement — a new addition that expands the theater’s ability to use its practice of art as education in service of positive social change opened last week. The first theater of its kind to a facility expressly dedicated to education and engagement initiatives.
Since 2007, Willa J. Taylor has led the theater programs as Walter Director of Education and Engagement.
“The Goodman has a national reputation, so I’ve known about the Goodman forever. I had known Steve Scott, a producer here and once was the Educational Director from the time I was at Arena Stage in D.C., so we had known each other for over twenty years. Always really admired and frankly honored the Goodman by stealing a lot of their ideas around programming everyplace else I was —both at Arena and at Lincoln Center and at New Victory Theatre. “
Prior to accepting the position at the Goodman, she moved to Chicago but when New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina —Taylor shifted her efforts to help rebuild the city. Coming back, she no longer had a job waiting and found herself reaching out to her friend Steve Scott, then the Goodman Theatre’s Education and Outreach Director.
She said, “I’m looking for something that I could really feel passionate about making a difference in the world. I didn’t know what I wanted to know so I made a list of ten people I knew who knew me well —Steve was one of those people.” He was transitioning into another role and offered Taylor his position, which she happily accepted.
Taylor has a depth of experience that is rooted deeply in the performing arts world establishing the Allen Lee Hughes Fellows Program at Arena Stage, creating the Lincoln Center’s The Urban Ensemble along with designing an arts education program for the New Victory Theatre’s inaugural season.
Willa Taylor teaching adults at teacher training. Photo Courtesy: Goodman Theatre
Willa Taylor teaching adults at teacher training. Photo Courtesy: Goodman Theatre

During Goodman’s production run of Carlyle, high school students were invited to attend matinée shows as part of the Goodman’s student subscription series program, which has been in place for 30 years. Directly after the production, audience participants talk directly to the actors and creators of the play—led by Taylor.
“We talked about this notion about how Carlyle has a line earlier in the play of sort of being perceived acting white because he was smart. We talked a lot of what that meant.
Whether or not that was still a thing, what it meant in terms of their own education. If they felt like they were getting the quality and the kind of education they should be getting to prepare them to function in the world? We had a fairly intense discussion about what that meant and why they felt they weren’t getting that.”
This type of interaction with students is what creates solid exchange of thoughts and ideas to give young people “food for thought,”. A model Taylor grew up with in her own upbringing.

“Over the course of the time, you sort of understand and come to identify what your tribe looks like. People that share the same kind of ethical values. People who see the world in a similar way and people who are working and striving for the same things. You find those people then you try to hold them close and keep them dear,” she said.

With the Lorraine Hansberry tribute running until June 5, theater goers will have a chance to check out one of her critically acclaimed works, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
“Lorraine Hansberry is a no-brainer. She was from Chicago, as one of the most famous playwrights from Chicago and certainly one of the most famous African-American women. Her work is not as well-known as it should be. Everybody knows ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ and it’s the play that you read. Certainly in school you read it during Black History Month, but there’s a wealth of her work and a lot of her life that should be explored and used as an example to broaden people’s knowledge about who she is.”
For Taylor, this was the reason they wanted to look at these events as a celebration of Hansberry’s life while producing The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
For the past nine years, Taylor and her staff continued their commitment by going into the schools and connecting with various community resources to bring students into the Goodman Theatre programs.
Taylor explained. “Once they decide to come here, how do we give them the kind of experience that makes them know that they belong here but they are part of the family and the fabric of what we do? That is something that I think my staff because we all come from an activist background — that is something we are wholeheartedly invested in,” she said. “We recognize our skills as artists are some of the skills that young people need to just function in the world — not necessarily to go on to become actors.”
This summer, students are invited to participate in a six-week summer program where they work with the youth engaging them on skills from acting, writing and other vital behind the scenes roles that give young people another look into a viable career path.
Growing up in the Deep South amid racial disparities and segregation, Taylor feels it’s important to keep family values she’s carried throughout her personal and professional life.
“My Grandmother was a huge influence in my life. Two of things she told me that have really stuck with me. One, you should always listen more than you talk, and two — you should always be a person of your word. Your integrity is really the thing that matters the most.”
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