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A Strategy for Educational Initiatives

August 09, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building, projects, Teachable Moments

I’m cross-posting my comment on a thrilling post from Laura at Trailing Spouse Blues – “What’s wrong with Educational Theater?” – which is itself a response to The Next Stage’s lament over the the perceived loss of opportunity as the next generation grows up without a broad exposure to theater.

I’m doing this cross-posting: Because it is apropos.

This is a freaking amazing thread, Laura.

Just got back from teaching 168 high schoolers in a summer program (Cherubs – Check it Out) , and let me tell you: the name of the game is immersion.

I’ve taught technical theater electives at a few high schools and middle schools, and I have to say the kids are always on your side to learn more. If there is a roadblock to learning coming from them, it’s that they don’t trust the motives of authority figures, which is a pretty simple roadblock to subvert. You work earn their trust – If a teacher demonstrates genuine excitement about a subject – which most of us are more than capable of – it NEVER fails that the kids pick up on that excitement. Do something jaw-dropping. We can all do it if we’re skilled at our craft. Reach into that little showstopper bag of tricks that you have – a directing exercise, a quick self-deprecating story, a design trick, or simple acrobatics. You’ll have ’em hooked and you can begin the lesson. Maintain that trust and you may lose them – but they’ll come back to you to learn more.

From what I’ve seen, the structure of primary and secondary Education with a capital E these days is challenging. Distractions are everywhere – classes are blazingly short, filled with cell phones, and many parents encourage a compression of their children’s lives with too many AP classes and extra-curriculars. You know. For a good college. You know. For a good job. You know. For happiness. Later. When it’s too late.

Now theater can be just another extra-curricular to stress kids out, to be sure. But while this schedule takes up their whole day, I’d argue that this structure isn’t really immersive – it’s full of stuff, but fails entirely when it comes to having the kids, you know, engage with the material.

Theaters are actually really well equipped to provide a rich learning environment, but not in the form that we first think of – performance and talkback. That’s simply asking kids to be polite, shut up for a while, and then reengage without really understanding the context of how theater gets made. The thing that kids need the most exposure to – if the goal is creating the next generation of theater appreciators – is the doing of theater – the choices that get made, and the excitement of text -> rehearsal room -> design -> stage. A small theater is a great place to learn the most basic of communication and teamwork skills.

When you immerse kids in a learning environment – with multiple teachers or even authority figures who are all committed to the idea of engaging, teaching, and pushing the student to explore the material on their own – amazing things happen. It’s actually a simple equation, but one that requires too many resources for most schools to provide. But theaters CAN provide those opportunities if they were to structure their educational initiatives with some care.

Just imagine the difference between a performance and talkback where the kids show up moments before curtain and when they show up two weeks before opening.

Let’s say you give a student or a small group of students an opportunity as say interns for a small theater. Don’t make them do your dirty work for you like bathroom cleaning – have them help you rehearse and make their own choices as the cast and crew make their choices. Have them watch your designers as they build sets, props, hang lights, program boards and set sound levels. Clue them in on WHY you’re making choices, and WHY other choices would change the show. Help them see how a big, unified production can be created by hundreds of small choices.

That is valuable training for any child. And if it makes them appreciate the work of the theater artisan, so be it.

I should add – my theater company New Leaf is really trying to make this kind of program happen right now – thanks in no small part to the lessons we’ve learned from teaching at the Cherub program, a program that as I’ve mentioned many times changed my life as a theater educator. New Leaf has already had our first successful high school-level internship (go Emma!), a student who assisted the sound department in designing two shows in our last season. We’re really looking forward to trying the format out in the directorial department and potentially formalizing the program after trying it out a bit more this season. Because we do want to teach, and it’s not about a revenue stream for us – unless you count a group of people who will be fans of theater forever a revenue stream.

So yeah, to The Next Stage: You’re right. College isn’t the time. It’s younger. But all is not lost on our hipster youth, and we definitely need to approach the problem with both seriousness and enthusiasm.

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3 Comments to “A Strategy for Educational Initiatives”

  1. I taught Musical Theater techniques and Musical Improvisation for the Cherubs several years in a row and I agree that it is a spectacular program.

    Two quick thoughts:

    1) If your motivation for creating something is primarily to make money (say, starting an educational theater program as a part of your company) then that’s exactly what it will be and pretty much nothing more. I agree that the focus should be immersion – get ’em young and enthusiastic before life has told them how limited they are and how unreasonable a life in the arts will be.

    2) The challenge of *most* Primary and Secondary public education systems is not too many extracurriculars (those are for the mostly white, mostly middle class schools) but a dogma that insists that the arts are a waste of time and are only there to create breaks for the teachers of *real* subjects. As much as we imagine most high schools being some sort of version of “The Breakfast Club” the truth is that most don’t resemble that at all – the buildings are crumbling, the books are decades old, there is far more money spent on metal detectors and the removal of spray painted tags than on funding programs that inspire the students to grow.

  2. Nick, I totally agree, and when I threw in the special performances/talkback idea, I have to admit it was my least favorite idea in the list. Because I think you’re absolutely right that what is going to get kids excited about theatre is DOING it. I’m planning to pick the brain of the 17-year-old stage manager I’m working with right now. You can take one look at her and tell that she fell into the “cool” category at the high school she just graduate from, and yet here she is choosing to spend her evenings and weekends with a bunch of people twice her age or older writing down our blocking and sweeping the stage. She’s totally engaged in the process and full of ideas that she’s not shy about sharing, and it’s awesome. I’d love to pick her brain – what made her choose this activity? What are her friends choosing? Why? I’ll get back to you guys on that…

    But to address Don’s point, I don’t think it matters why kids aren’t getting immersed in theatre. The rich kids are too busy, the poor kids have few resources – the end result is the same: the exposure is fleeting at best. And the kind of specializing choices that Dennis talks about over on his blog do happen, but less and less. Being brilliant in one activity doesn’t impress on your college application these days as much as dabbling in 12 different things does. But that’s a whole secondary concern. I think if whatever those fleeting exposures are that kids get to theatre are totally outside of their realm of expectation and experience, that is the way to hook ’em. Web 2.0, all that kind of thing are going to be crucial to retaining their interest. But getting them hooked in the first place is going to require taking those rare, brief opportunities we can get to bring theatre to them… and making them love what they’re doing so much that they’re willing to commit to it. If the kids are really committed, educators and parents and theatre professionals are going to fight harder to overcome obstacles of resources or time or whatever. Hell, kids might even be BETTER at overcoming all of those obstacles than us because maybe, just maybe, they can still remember that coloring outside the lines is an option.

  3. Hey everyone! I’m an administrative intern with The American Place Theatre in NYC. If you haven’t hear about us before, you should definitely logon to our website, Our program Literature to Life® is a performance-based literacy program that presents professionally staged verbatim adaptations of significant American literary works. The program gives students a new form of access to literature by bringing to life the world of the book with performances that create an atmosphere of discovery and spark the imagination.
    I’m writing to let you all know that in almost a week we will be holding our Fourth Annual Literature to Life Festival!
    The Festival takes place September 20-21st, 2008 at the Scholastic Auditorium.
    Some of the adaptations we are including are BLACK BOY by Richard Wright, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O’Brien, COUNTY OF KINGS: THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE by Lemon Andersen, ZORA by Laurence Holder, TEACHER MAN by Frank McCourt, THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini, and FLIGHT by Sherman Alexie. Please visit us at for more information or call 212-594-4482 x10 to reserve tickets.
    Hope to see you there!


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Theaterosphere thoughts on Educational Theater | New York Acting & Theater Blog 10 08 08
  2. One Year, One Day & One Hundred Posts | Theater For The Future 06 11 08

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