In Sean Chambers’ view, programs like his at Wayne’s Valley Forge Military Academy and College build confidence and emotional resilience. Typically, his cadets are lonely, homesick, combating late adolescence, and fleshing out their identities. That amounts to plenty of real-life drama—and he hopes his Soldiers Theatre can be an outlet for some of it.
An English and creative writing instructor at the two-year institution, Chambers launched the student-run drama club last year. Believing it might be a turn-off to those “focused on being manly men,” he isn’t running it in a traditional format. The focus hasn’t been on performing so much as appreciating film and drama—and self-discovery. “The best soldiers and best men (and women) build themselves inside and out,” he says. “Ask any war-torn solider what’s important as a soldier and a man, and I know caring about your troop comes up. You have to learn to show emotion and modulate your emotions. If not, you won’t be the one chosen as a leader.”
Valley Forge administrators have begun funding several other like-minded extracurricular opportunities designed to stretch the cadet experience. Others include a meditation-yoga group and a Spanish club. While not directly connected to curriculum, Chambers uses personal essays from his classes to connect with club members of varied backgrounds and artistic interests. “Art can come from your heart—from inside you,” he says.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, Chambers arrived at Valley Forge two years ago, following adjunct work at West Chester and Arcadia universities. A Virginia native and the son of a retired U.S. Army veteran, he was immersed in military culture. But he also gravitated toward TV game shows and classic series like The Flintstones and Leave It to Beaver. He was particularly drawn to the credits at the end of the shows. “I became curious,” he says. “Who’s making this stuff?”
In high school, English teachers encouraged him to read and write. After a class trip to see Oedipus, Chambers caught the fever. He read more, wrote more, and joined the newspaper staff and video club. In college, he landed an internship with Oscar-winning director Spike Lee. His first job was as an office assistant in Brooklyn, N.Y., at Spike Lee’s record label. He also did some part-time copyediting, substitute teaching and public relations work for Panasonic, where a school partnership program landed him in education full time. “I get excited to talk about it,” says the 47-year-old. “I was excited then, and I remain excited to connect to TV, movies and popular culture.”
Soldiers Theatre members have attended a People’s Light production of Lights Out in Malvern and met with Lexa Grace, a recent graduate of Villanova’s MA in Theatre program, who shared her experiences in directing a project for Nova’s annual Studio Show while completing her degree. At the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, Soldiers members took in the rock opera Passing Strange, then had a post-show chat with the performers.
A newly awarded $2,000 grant from the Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania will allow Chambers to do more this year with strategic planning, professional development and trips. “It’s inspiration for us to be creative,” he says. “Once other funders see we have money, they’ll be willing to give money. It just raises awareness about the program.”
Anne Holmes, education director at the Wilma, sees where Chambers is heading. “He’s working toward something very cool, and it’s uncommon because they’re college students,” says Holmes, who grew up in St. Davids and even attended a few dances at Valley Forge. “It’s easy to think that the arts aren’t relevant, but they’re life, stories and humanity. It’s great that he’s so passionate about this.”
Among Chambers’ goals is career planning—introducing cadets to bachelor’s degree programs where they might transfer after their two-year stay in Wayne. “At Valley Forge, not necessarily everyone is trying to be a soldier,” he says. “In the lives some students have led, they’ve been taught to be hard-nosed, to wall up in a shell. With Soldiers Theatre, they’re laughing, letting those walls down, and connecting without necessarily giving anybody permission. Young people have a lot to say, so it still comes back to being creative—and if everyone is doing it, then it’s OK.”