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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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Mellifluous Paint

November 13, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World

So I guess we just saw one too many people texting from the third row that week.

We were trying to ease the burden on the poor box office manager at the Side Project and we decided to record a preshow announcement for the first time so the poor overworked ensemble could refrain from doing a hastily prepared curtain speech.

In recent years, preshow announcements have become part of the brand of the theater, not just a polite reminder to turn off your cell phones. They’ll announce the season, or invite people to participate in a survey. In the Side Project’s case, it’s a tiny tiny theater with 25 – 50 seats and some of the most intensely intimate staging you’ve ever seen. That’s the kind of “duck or the fight choreography might graze your cheek” image that we want to both cultivate and live up to – the brand we’re trying to reinforce. With a preshow announcement.

So we needed something, and it was midnight, and I got a little slap happy.

The announcement in question.

You know you sometimes do something and it strikes a chord?

For the love of god, I love technology as much if not more than the next guy, but blackberries can remove you from that wonderful human contact we were just talking about. Stop texting in theaters or we will find a way to paint you!

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I wish we had a League of Awesomeness

November 04, 2007 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

the LoAAbout a year ago, I started getting addicted to The Show by ZeFrank, a hilarious video podcast that served as the front end for a growing online community that built collaborative art projects such as the Earth Sandwich and Craft the Ugliest MySpace Page.

The Remixes for Ray struck me as a project that had big huge possibilities for theater. The story of Ray is pretty simple… Some guy recorded a short clip of a song (with the lyrics “I’m about to whip somebody’s ass”) and sent it to his daughter to cheer her up at work. He probably sent it to a few too many recipients, and suddenly the clip landed on YouTube. In this episode, Ze and his league of loyal viewers find this clip, and generate buzz to create not only musical remixes of the the little ditty, but a pretty kickass collaboratively-built video as well.

THEN… they find the original Ray, somehow, (don’t ask me… they only had his first name and that he was somewhere in North America) and PRESENT the remixes and video too him. Lives were changed forever, and there was much rejoicing.

All these projects are theater… they get the audience involved in the action, they have an arc of thought to build to the payoff of presentation. They often feel more like theater than sitting in a chair for two hours and listening to cell phone vibrations and crinkling cellophane.

Ze dubs his loyal followers “sports racers” and the secret community of really kickass creative and life-loving folk that he wants to be a part of “The League of Awesomeness.” It’s a little Colbert Report in its sheer playful audacity. I look at our community of storefront theaters, and its League… and I feel like there’s a missed opportunity for audacious cooperation and co-inspiration there. Hot Tix and Theater Thursdays are great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t exactly get the groundlings jumping.

As much as I’m jealous of their catapult to success, this is where I feel the House deserves their media cred. Walking in to their theater, you feel like you’ve been invited into a secret society. High Jacobean Drama this is not – they’ve got a lot of the flash, and I wish they were more disciplined storytellers (and more conscientious community builders – though they certainly have enough on their plate), but I will never fault them for not knowing how to create a little buzz of excitement and anticipation about seeing some theater. Secret Order of the Magic Pearl indeed. (I feel manipulated, and (yes, I love Heroes.))

People roll their eyes when I say maybe there’s a way to create an online community or collaboration network for these kind of audience-energizing projects and works… when I say crap like that, I don’t mean more myspace, facebook, blogosphere self-promotion. The weariness generated by the theater community’s blind and desperate self-promotion is a real problem, and a topic for another time. I’m talking about the things that Ze did – for free – in his year of the show.

Take a look through his archives of the show, you won’t be disappointed. Dream More, Work Less, Whip Somebody’s Ass.

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