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DCPA student matinee program immerses rural students in the arts

DCPA student matinee program immerses rural students in the arts
DCPA student matinee program immerses rural students in the arts 03:57

For more than 18 years Iris Mesbergen has been making the same trek to and from Denver with dozens of children. The English teacher at Weld Central High School in the small town of Keensburg has made it her mission to not only teach her students about different forms of literary genius but to let their minds expand upon what they've read through live performances.  


Mesbergen teaches a wide range of courses to high school students, most of whom were raised in rural Weld County. She teaches many courses including AP literature, college preparatory British literature, American literature, Greek and Roman mythology and more.  

"It demands attention. When a great author picks up his pen or quill, he is putting together a story. We ignore that story at our peril," Mesbergen said.  

Keensburg is a town of roughly 1,700 residents. Many students are bussed into the school each day from neighboring communities that are much smaller.  

"I think about where they come from. Some farms, some ranches," Mesbergen said.  

No matter their surroundings, or the lifestyle they were raised around, Mesbergen knows getting teenage students to not only grasp but explore, literary works of decades or centuries ago is no easy task. 

While some students naturally gravitate toward the stories and can comprehend the depth of the underlying tones, others need a little more encouragement and guidance. And for many, including adults, the depth of each fable isn't fully understood until it is seen. 

And that is where Mesbergen has formed a longstanding relationship with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.  

For nearly two decades students have joined Mesbergen for the 39-mile each-way drive to downtown Denver to see live performances of the very tales they've studied.  

"The connection my students can make with these plays have been absolutely fantastic," Mesbergen said. "I wanted to see the quizzical lift of the eyebrow, I wanted to see the upturn of the grin." 

Mesbergen said students who she never expected to find a passion or interest in the arts have done just that thanks to the DCPA's student matinee program, a service the DCPA offers to give children of all backgrounds and communities access to the performing arts. 


"This is definitely more than just your typical field trip," said Jessica Bergin, Associate Director of Group Sales at the DCPA. "Engaging rural schools is very important because students don't get these opportunities. It is not just about the story, it is about how kids interact with the story. It is very different from how an adult would interact with a story." 

Bergin has been working with Mesbergen since the early 2000s to make sure the kids from Weld Central High get the same exposure to the arts as students around Denver.  

"It is becoming the foundation of their feet," Mesbergen said. 

"We are here to see To Kill a Mockingbird, I am really excited for it," said Sydnee Klausner a junior from Weld Central High. "It really brings to life what we read." 

Klausner said she hopes future teachers at Weld Central High will pick up after Mesbergen's tradition, as the longtime teacher is retiring at the end of the year.  

As thousands of students packed into the Buell Theater, none paying more than $35 a ticket for seats that can sell for hundreds any given night, Mesbergen's students gathered to surprise her with a parting gift for all she has done for her students over the years. Each student signed a program from To Kill A Mockingbird with gratitude for all the trips and wisdom she has shared with them. 

"It is kind of a crazy experience because we are not really from here," Klausner said. "To bring to life all of these characters and things you don't get to see all that often is really important and opens up a new world to many kids, which I think is important." 


Mesbergen said one of the highlights of her time taking her students to the matinees came several years ago through a football player at her school. He had never been to a live performance before, and the class trip to see A Christmas Carole sparked a new tradition for him. 

Mesbergen said she received a call from the athlete's grandma. The student enjoyed the arts so much that he had rented a limo for his grandma and bought tickets for her to go see the show again with him, something they made a tradition of for many years.  

Over time Mesbergen said her field trips started featuring more and more athletes, noting that sometimes it looks like she's taking students to an athletic event instead of a performance, purely based off of the interest from student athletes.  

"The plays remind us what it is to be a human being. It shows us the human condition," Mesbergen said.  

From Broadway productions to the DCPA's "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot" programs, Mesbergen said she will miss all the times she has had with her students, watching them connect with literary works on a deeper level.  

"My students are dear to my heart, but I would never tell them that because they are high schoolers," Mesbergen said as she laughed. "Seeing what live performance can do for my students, that is why I take them over and over and over again. The plays are worth it. My students especially are. And DCPA deserves the credit." 

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