Five Things I Learned Teaching Creative Drama

and Directing Musical Theatre as a Teaching Artist Intern

By Eric Gelb

“Can I get a drumroll please?”, I would ask. Students would use their hands to drum on the floor. This would lead into the following dialogue – “today’s question of the day is…” and on this day, the question was ’why is musical theatre important to the world?’”

“Musical theatre is important to me because I don’t have a lot of friends at school and when I come here, I feel accepted”, one student said. Another sitting nearby leaned in for a hug. “It doesn’t matter what kind of day you’re having because once you get onstage you get to be another person and live in their world”. Some students “snapped” to show their agreement.*

Doing the “question of the day” warm-up was one of the rewarding parts of my summer as a teaching artist intern at The Rose Theater in Omaha, Nebraska. Working at The Rose was an experience I could never have been perfectly prepared for.

The Rose Theater is committed to enriching the lives of children through theater and arts education, home to the Omaha Theater Company – one of the largest professional children’s theater in the country! Accessible to all, no child is turned away for economic reasons. Live performances are shared from two stages: the main stage and the Hitchcock Theater. Professional actor/educators offer classes in theater, directing, musical theater and more.

As a summer intern, I co-taught creative drama camps and assistant-directed a production of XANADU. With almost 40 hours of contact time with students every week, I had opportunities to lead classes, observe and lead lunch and before/after class activities. Sitting in on weekly education meetings, intern meetings and participating in lesson planning was part of my weekly schedule as an intern to gain a better understanding about how an education department at a professional theatre company works.

“How was Omaha???”, people asked when I returned. “I bet Omaha was like, super different than NYC”, some would say, almost sympathetically. So here are five things I learned…

1. Students will always meet your expectations if you give them the tools to succeed.

When I was assigned XANADU for the summer, it became my goal to make the show GREAT. I purposefully asked students to dig deeper into their roles than I knew they ever have been in the past. My co-workers often reminded me not to push them too hard, that they’re only 13. I was 13 when I co-produced my first musical. I knew they were capable of performing like professionals. And to be clear, performing like a professional doesn’t mean hitting all the notes or acting like Meryl Streep. It’s being a responsible actor and a team player. During the run, I was told by multiple people that the show was “the most prepared show of the summer” or “the best show in a LONG time”. Seeing their faces after opening night and hearing the applause confirmed my theory that we CAN test kids. They can handle it.

2. If you don’t do it, the kids won’t do it.

Teaching creative drama was particularly tricky because it asks students to be silly and LOOK silly in front of their peers. Part of our creative drama courses was spending part of the morning in-role as characters from the story we were studying. Of course we had students who suddenly “had a stomach ache” or “felt sick” as soon as we got in-role. In one class, we were pirates looking for Peter Pan! I didn’t dare step back and watch them act out the story – I was right there with them. If I didn’t join in, I wouldn’t be able to have gotten THEM to do it either.

3. Everyone teaches differently.

I am a tough teacher. I want my students to be the best they can be. When I am in charge, students do not sit out. They do not pass, and they do not skip. Everyone has to attempt or try the activity before they decide they don’t like it. Why? Because this is a theatre. We instill the concept of speaking in front of others, being a team player and taking responsibility. So if I let a student skip because they’re scared, or quit because their team isn’t winning… I’m not letting them learn those lessons. I often say “we don’t quit things because they’re hard”. Not everyone agrees with me – some have a softer, gentler approach. And that’s okay! We all approach students differently.

4. Your lessons will never go as planned.

I spent, probably, at least ten man-hours on the two lesson plans I presented solely by myself in classes at The Rose. I’d say we actually did about 60% of both of them. The truth is, no matter how hard we try, as artists, we can never really accurately estimate how long something is going to take in class. Sometimes inspiration strikes and we think of a fun medication to a game and it takes longer. Sometimes a new game doesn’t land well with the students, and it’s clear that you have to move on earlier than you expected. And that’s okay.

5. Everyone has a story.

No one teaches to be rich. People teach because they simply cannot live if they are not impacting the lives of young people, so those that do choose to work inside of a children’s theatre have some sort of passion for it. The people that work in the costume rental shop, those that work upstairs in accounting and even the teaching artist you may teach with daily – they all have a very heavy tie to the arts. Stopping to listen and hear their stories are fascinating.

In the winter, I will be joining the team at WICKED on Broadway in the stage management department as an intern. Broadway has always been the dream, and although not too similar to the work I did at The Rose, I am POSITIVE I will, probably without knowing it, allow all I learned at The Rose into my work at WICKED, which leads me into bonus number 6 – once you’re a teaching artist, you’ll never shake all you learn.

Eric is a published author; you can buy his book “Growing Up in the Wings” on Amazon at www.bit.ly/GUITWBUY or at the NYU Bookstore. Follow him on Twitter (@DirectorGelb) or visit his website www.bit.ly/ericgelbofficial for more content.

* Answers have been fabricated to be generic and protect students’ identities.

 

Vibrant, Profound Love: Looking for Shakespeare 2016

By: Dr. Nan Smithner

This summer the Program in Educational Theatre presented Looking for Shakespeare’s 2016 production of Romeo and Juliet. I was fortunate to be the director of an ensemble of 19 excellent young people, 13 dynamic NYU graduate students and a robust and stellar creative and production team of light, set, costume and designers, stage managers, fight choreographer, hip hop dance instructor, dramaturg and assistant director/producer.

We explored universal themes of love, conflict, family, identity and fate, which resonate as strongly in 2016 as they did in 1596. Our play was set in the 1990’s, a time of existential crisis that foreshadowed the 21st century and formed a bridge between new and old ways of thinking and living. It was a decade of jarring, sometimes incongruous events, including the ripening of the technological revolution and a new global awareness, and also foreshadowing explosions of national trauma and cultural conflict. As an ensemble, we lived through and discussed the turbulence of our present day times, as, in a few short weeks, the students delved into the complexities of Shakespeare’s language.

We framed our play in a hip hop world that explored discord, tension and opposition, and also embraced joy, hope, passion and knowledge.  It was truly an ensemble effort as astute graduate students worked in depth — coaching language, acting and physical expression, as did the incredible dramaturg and perceptive assistant director. Students made visual art that was on display in the lobby, and wrote original poetry and performed songs about love in the pre-show and intermission. It was indeed an honor for me to work with such an inspiring and vibrant group this summer, to produce a profound show full of humor, tragedy, and above all, expressing the overarching importance of love.

A group of the stellar production team for Looking for Shakespeare 2016, left to right: Steve Hart, Fight Choreographer; Nan Smithner, Director; Anthony Montes, Assistant Stage Manager; Lily deButts, Production Stage Manager; Ashley Thaxton, Dramaturg; Robert Stevenson, Producer/Assistant Director

 

 

 

 

Study Abroad London – Drama and Youth

By Isaiah Bent

NYU Steinhardt sent nineteen graduate students to London for three weeks; jam packed with new and exciting ways to approach theatre.  We experienced theatre for children with special needs, opera for children, process drama with the brilliant Cecily O’Neill, and of course, all the Shakespeare we could handle.

Isaiah with Cecily O'Neill

It was a once in a lifetime experience. Not only did we get to see around fifteen theatrical productions, but Dr. Philip Taylor put together an all-star group of British educators for us to work with during our stay.

A new wrinkle in this year’s London program was the amazing opportunity we had to devise a theatrical experience for second graders.  We guided sixty children through different “imagined worlds” we created using the new techniques we learned from our London professors.

When we were not knee deep in theatre (which was rare), we were enjoying the beauty of London.  Our lodgings could not have been better, given they were in Russell Square, smack dab in the middle of London.  Museums, world-class pubs, and extravagant gardens were all in walking distance.  My favorite local experience was when we dined on meat pies in the building where Sweeney Todd’s barbershop once stood.

Every student should make an effort to take advantage of this truly special program.  For more student stories, please check out our fabulous blog: http://nyulondon2014.blogspot.co.uk.

Study Abroad options for 2015 include our Theatre Practices January program in Puerto Rico and our Community Engaged Theatre summer program in Ireland.

 

 

Inquiry, Reflection, Action!

By E. Okobi

Helen Barns in a scene from My Name is Rachel Corrie, their scene presentation for the 2012 NYU Steinhardt Educational Theatre Youth Ensemble scene showcase.

Paulo Freire’s theory of the student-teacher and Augusto Boal’s innovative work with “spect-actors”, and their espousal of an academic and artistic process based on inquiry, reflection, research and action inspired me to apply their theories in Theater: Pedagogy and Practice, a course taught in the Steinhardt Educational Theatre department by Amy Cordileone in Spring, 2012. The coursework involved working with members of the Educational Theatre Program’s Youth Ensemble.

The first thing we did as a group was sit and share our stories with each other, a feature common to Participatory Action Research, or PAR, a methodology deeply indebted to Freire. Through stories, we learned that not all of us had been born in the States, and that the majority of our little group was familiar with the immigration story, and its themes of cultural casualties (such as lost languages), code-switching and crossed signals. Together we reflected on the similarities and differences of our paths to the performing arts, and what we hoped to get from working together. We then set ground rules and established common goals together.

My colleague Justin Daniel and I were assigned three young women of varying performance experience and skill levels. Beyond meeting the challenge of finding scripts written for a multicultural, all female cast, I determined early that I would work with an intentionality that drew upon the work of Freire and Boal, and that developed their critical thinking and performance skills. After selections from the play My Name is Rachel Corrie were chosen for our scene, we set to work on character development and establishing the world of the play, which is based on the journals, letters and recordings of a young American woman killed while protesting Israeli government actions in Palestine. The young actors had all expressed a desire to take on challenging material, and this selection had been made with that request in mind. They immediately identified with the play’s young heroine, whose upbringing was quite different from their own, but whose words resonated with them nonetheless. We began establishing the world by first sharing the questions we had about Corrie’s life and writings. These questions informed the dramaturgical research undertaken by the young actors. Once this information was gathered, we reflected together on its content, and the emotional impact it had on us, and on ways to express what we’d learned through visual as well as physical performance. Each actor was cast to play Corrie at a specific time in her life (age twelve, nineteen and twenty-one respectively). Our questions and reflections led us to establish a spare set that provided not only visual context, but contributed its own narrative by tracing Corrie’s journey from sheltered young girl to worldly advocate.

Steinhardt Ed Theatre Youth Ensemble veteran Jackie Rivera portrays Rachel Corrie at age 21.

It’s a challenge to dramatize literature not written for performance. Our young actors repeatedly relied on inquiry, research, reflection and action to find the dramatic truth in Corrie’s writings, and to identify their own objectives and beat shifts. We discussed words, images and ideas found in Corrie’s writing that resonated with us, and used information gathered and reflections gleaned from conversations to ascertain their significance to Corrie, and in service to the story we were trying to tell. For the traditional director, this process can be frustrating. It is long, prone to tangents, and often takes time away from standard practices such as blocking and staging. It can be, however, invaluable to the young actor, particularly for those who join drama programs wishing to gain key pro-social, as well performance skills. The young ladies’ deep commitment to the subject matter provided incentive for them to memorize their lines, their curiosity led them to undertake exhaustive research well and beyond what they’d been asked to deliver, and the knowledge gained from this process bolstered their confidence in their ability to make thoughtful contributions to costume, props and staging for the piece.

By the time we began blocking our scene, their movements developed naturally and fluidly, shaped and informed by the research they’d done, their contributions to props and costumes, and their commitment to enlivening the words of a woman with whom they’d come to strongly identify. While Corrie’s words remain compelling more than a decade after her death, it’s uncertain that the actors we’d worked with would have produced the performances they gave without the freedom to fully engage with the text. If I had not come to this process convinced that the students I’d be working with had just as much to teach me as I did them, I would not have learned what I needed to know about their backgrounds and motivations to seek out a text that engaged them on both an academic and performance level. By treating my students as my intellectual equals, I co-facilitated a process through which they experienced marked artistic and academic growth. This experience underscored for me the genius of Freire and Boal, who assert that within each of us lies infinite, singular expertise. By allowing myself to acknowledge the skill of the students I worked with, I facilitated not just their growth as scholars, but also my own growth as an educator.

Members of the NYU Steinhardt Educational Theatre Youth Ensemble take their bows at the conclusion of their Spring 2012 showcase.

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The Program in Educational Theatre’s Youth Ensemble is comprised of young people aged 13-18 from the New York City area. They work with NYU students in Shakespeare’s Theatre I in fall and Theater: Pedagogy and Practice in spring with a culminating performance in April.