Theatre Changes: Sign One

Journal Entry from October 5, 2014 for Theatre Methods

IMG_2406On the theme of reflection and change, Lazarus (2012) proposes a series of questions to engage with Appreciative Inquiry. The first question: what is it that has changed in the last year of my teaching; what has stayed the same? The simplest of my answers, I have enrolled in graduate school, MAT and certification. After seven years of developing my middle school drama program and ten years of teaching youth theatre, I have chosen to take this climactic step so that I can change my practice of teaching: in doing so it is my hope to become a better teacher with increased efficacy, increased student impact, and increased knowledge regarding the implementation of best practices.

This does not mean that I have lacked impact over my teaching career. I have had students enter college BFA Theatre programs at schools such as NYU and DePaul University. I have had students win awards for their work in my class; three of my former students have One-act plays produced and published by ACT Theatre; I have grown two youth theatre programs (the first an after-school/summer camp program and the second my middle school program). I have certainly grown over the years in my impact as a teacher. Specifically teaching middle school one of the largest systems that I have changed is the annual school production. When I first started, seven years ago, the tradition was to produce an all school musical that involved everyone. In this, as is the case in most every youth theatre production, a small number of students had the primary parts and 90% of the school had walk-on ensemble parts. The problem, I hope, is obvious. Too few students had the opportunity to shine in the show. The first change I made to this was double casting; the second was to create a class that was exclusively technical production and dramaturgy. However, this solved only a small part of the problem. Now, in my first year, 50% of the students had medium to large parts (due to the double casting), 25% of the students had small ensemble parts, and 25% of the students had no part on stage. I continued with this model for two more years. Each year to varied success. In my fourth year teaching, I did change the entire model. The only aspects that remained were: every student was involved in the show and the show remained in the spring. I took a risk and created the One-Act Play Festival, written by, starring, directed by, and designed by the students. One student in each class became an assistant director. All of the remaining students were cast in the productions. We produced 12 plays our first year; every student was featured across two nights of performances. At the heart of this change was my continual reflection on the previous year. After three years of refusing to accept that only a few students could get featured in the show, I did find a better way. These were some of the most challenging years. I knew there was a different way to do it. I simply lacked the innovation to make the change that I needed.

Lazarus (2012) proposes that the best teaching is reflective. I summation, I agree. Yet, I do think it is important to be cautious of change for the sake of change or change because it is “safer” or “easier.” A theatre artist/teacher/director must recognize that change is inevitable and take the creative risk of change in search of innovation and increased efficacy. One should not always throw out the baby with the bathwater. This praxis is difficult for anyone, as I have highlighted; this is especially true as we balance professional lives with personal lives, administrative pressures with student accommodations, and an incomplete (yet continually growing) basis of knowledge about the practice of theatre, teaching, and student impact. However, one idea proposed by Lazarus (2012) has provoked to do just that, one more time – throw out my entire program in the search of increased efficacy, innovation in my teaching practice, and the continual search for differentiated learning and increased student development. Lazarus (2012) describes one program, directed by Mandy Whitlock, where students get a “Meal Plan” for their theatre coursework. Example projects include, an Ad Appetizer, a Directing Dish, and the Dessert Drawing. Students get to pick and choose the projects of most interest to them. While the idea may not be achievable by my relatively inexperienced eighth grade, it may be highly achievable by my eighth grade. This idea has inspired me to change progression and implementation of a series of units in my eighth grade program. This January, I have four one-week “mini-units.” Instead of the class each completing the units in unison, I will give them the meal plan. Students will be able to work on their assignments in a sequence that makes sense to them, they will be self-directed, and need to turn in their work on a deadline. I look forward to this change in my program. I believe that my eighth grade students will appreciate the novelty and genuinely grow in their approach to drama with self-directed and individualized work.

Lazarus (2012) spends a great amount of time discussing the idea of best practice in theatre education as a practice. One must practice the art of teaching. Like any artists, there will be days that work better that the last and days that are dismal failures. I like to create a classroom of respect, so that students have the safety net to fail when they take a creative risk. I too must be willing to take a risk in my teaching and innovate in the face of failure. Sometimes, like the mythological phoenix, something greater can come only from the ashes of what came before.

Reference:

Lazarus, J. (2012). Signs of Change New Directions in Theatre Education: Revised and Amplified Edition. Bristol: Intellect.

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