A Murder of ClownsBest times of my high school life.”

I just received this comment on my Facebook page after posting a PSA on how theatre transforms students’ lives. This comment does not represent a desire to goof off and party, nor is it an isolated sentiment. Theatre Education programs provide a safe place for students to be themselves, to explore relationships, to develop compassion, collaborative practices, and the idea of delayed gratification. Theatre Education programs are about understanding relationships and possible motivations behind the actions that people take.

These are the obvious take-aways.

Here’s some less obvious ones.

* Success in School. By any definition of “Youth at Risk”, the percentage of those who Song Rehearsalgraduate from high school is doubled—doubled!– when those students are coming from an arts-rich school environment. Click here to read the research study. 

At-risk students in arts-rich school environments also get better grades, have better attendance, are more likely to take upper-level classes and to succeed in them…. and on, and on, and on (more research here). For another take on how theatre education promotes success in school, watch this short (1.5 minute!) video PSA

* The business of theater is good preparation for other careers.

Here’s a short video PSA, if you prefer video, and below is an excerpt from Backstage Magazine, an article by Harvey Young (click here for the whole article).

Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago and formerly Chief of Staff to President Obama as well as a Congressman, majored in the Humanities in college with a specialization in dance. “Value” studies would look at Emanuel and identify him as not being successful because he neither works as a professional dancer nor earns income in the field of dance. Instead of adopting this flawed logic, it is important for us to 

Fourth Grade Science Arts!

acknowledge that the skills gained through theater apply to other jobs and careers outside of the performing arts. Theater majors frequently become makers and producers oftheater but they also (and probably in equal or greater numbers) become lawyers, politicians, management consultants, marketing executives, and community educators to name just a few of the many career paths open to them.”

What Can You Do?

* Vote pro arts-in-ed.

* Find a way to support/promote arts-in-ed programs in your community

* Take a moment this week to see a performance that moves you to laughter or love or understanding or tears, or to watch a child become invested in the performance version of something otherwise challenging, or a community discovering and celebrating its voice. Then thank an arts educator.

Want to Develop your Own Skills?

There are a number of organizations that hold conferences. The New York State Theatre Education Association will be hosting its 30th Annual Educators’ Conference this year on September 19, 20, and 21, 2014 in Niagara Falls, NY. This conference is designed for anyone who uses drama and /or theatre with students – drama teachers, teaching artists, music teachers who direct shows, after-school providers, English teachers, general classroom teachers and others.

NYSTEA logoThe weekend will be full of workshops, panel discussions, and performances that will provide up to 26 hours of professional development hours and help educators and artists build on past experiences, take stock of existing standards – including the Common Core requirements, and find new strategies and inspiration for the future.

 Register at NYSTEA EDUCATORSCONFERENCE

Need more convincing? Try Impact Creativity and there are more Advocacy Links at Art USA (Americans for the Arts).

I close with this quotation of Henry Miller: The arts teach nothing…except the significance of life.

 

 

 

 

 

The cast of A Class Act!My wonderful and amazing students from “A Class Act” with The Magic Paintbrush Project performed on April 27th (a play they wrote!) and hit the ball out of the park. They were amazing, they were incredible, they brought the house down. And every single one of them has a disability. I wrote about them last fall, when we were just beginning our process (see “Life is Washable”), but as a result of the show, folks have been asking about children, challenges, and performance, especially children who are on the Asperger-Autism spectrum.

I last posted some specific observations and activities about working with children living with such challenges in January of 2013, but it seems relevant to repost, so here it is. Please let me know if I can be of help to you or your group! I have also posted some additional links to resources at the end of the article.

I am a performer and Teaching Artist with a long history and much training in working with people whose perceptual/interactive experience of the world is on the fringe of typical association. In 2012, I was hired by 3 Tier Consulting to do theater workshops with children on the Asperger-Autism spectrum in Watertown and Fort Drum. Most of these children come from families with a spouse in the active armed forces, oftentimes also facing a possible move to another base; although we ran 2 sets of 2 weekly sessions about six months apart, only one boy was in both sets.

Were they scared at first? HECK yes. Another opportunity to not understand what is going on and feel out of place. Great. Kids in the show But once they realize that it’s the OPPOSITE of an informal social setting, they take to it like a duck to water. Of course the do! Even in an improv exercise, the facilitator sets out clear, strict relationship, narrative, agenda, and ‘milemarker’ guidelines, often providing ‘line kernels’ when not providing the lines themselves. And scripts? Especially short funny ones full of foibles by “regular” people that involve saying cool things to your peers and impressing dudes/chicks? DOUBLE HECK yeah. Over time, the safety and comfort of the class structure brings a freedom and joy not available elsewhere. One of the joys of performance for anyone is the opportunity to relinquish yourself to the script, to say things and do things that are completely new because you are pretending to be someone else. A perfect place to test drive a response to a social moment for anyone, or to work through, via a character, a problem or fear.

Fabulously enough, targeted performance skills are targeted performance skills, regardless of whether the workshop participants are professional adult actors or children with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Working on a stage-sharing Ensemble, creating and understanding dialogue, unpacking meaning, developing a gesture repertoire or honing gestural language are things ALL actors must constantly revisit, which means that ‘Going to Acting Class’ is something an eleven-year-old boy can talk about at school with pride. It is also a context that can comfortably absorb people with a wide range of social skills, including typically-developing children.

We had two groups, one for children from four to seven years old, and one for children (who turned out to be all boys) from nine to thirteen years old. The younger group had children all over the Asperger-Autism map (I have found that ‘spectrum’ implies a linearality that is not really helpful or accurate in a performance context), and the older group was made up of boys with various manifestations of Asperger’s Syndrome.

With the younger group, I chose the theme of Weather, specifically wind and snow, because it was late fall/early winter, imageand kids ‘on the spectrum’ in particular respond well to themed structure. I knew that they would need the space and a variety of concrete visual, sound and text clues to guide implicitly, so I created a circle with one “opening” made up of soft blankets with differing colors and designs, folded to create a large ‘mat’, knowing the children would gravitate toward them a places to be, lie down, watch, etc, and that they would choose the design and color best for them.

In the middle of the circle were picture books (fiction and non-fiction) and some magazine photographs about winter, as well as crayons, markers, and paper. As children drifted in, they were given the opportunity to draw, listen, read, look, or talk about the weather and the coming winter. Once we were all there, we shifted from drawing, etc to recounting to imagining we were going to go outside and play in the snow.

Each child in turn (the idea of waiting to take your turn and knowing what the appropriate social cue is for that is HUGE) imagesuggested something we had to wear or bring in order to go outside and play (reinforcing life skills). Once we all agreed we were ready, we got off our mats and pretended to do snow things—skate around the circle to music, sit on our mats and go ‘sledding’, make snow angels, and even rip up paper and throw it into the air for it to fall.

The last snow activity we did was make imaginary snow beings and snow creatures in the air, as though the air was the snow that we rolled, stacked and shaped. The children took turns explaining what their snow creature was (“Bunny”) or what their snow man was doing (“throw snow!” or gesturing a pose, sometimes with help). We then took a BIG step. After taking off our pretend outdoor clothes, everyone got a partner.

I demonstrated how I was going to gently turn my partner into a sculpture, we brainstormed some movement ideas and then each child had a turn to turn their partner into something. They could touch, gesture, use words, whatever, but it had to be gentle and it had to be more than one action (we encouraged both arms and legs with optional silly face). The receiver had to wait and then only take the pose suggested. All sculptures were applauded, and then we had quiet music movement time, where children had the option to enjoy the music on their blankets or move around the room to the music as they wished or as the elements of winter I offered (“What if you were a snowflake?”).

imageI try to think of a class plan as being full of the patterns of breathing, inhale and exhale, collect/focus in and expand/focus out, with the pattern of such changing tempo depending on whether I want the ‘heartbeat’ of the group to quicken, steady, or slow. This kind of planning is especially important in working with these children, and one must be constantly on the lookout for when it is time to slow down in stretching ebbs, like mathematical ellipses. The movement-to-music time was necessary to break free the intensity of having to focus on and touch (!) another child, but it had to be gently controlled up to a release and brought ebblingly back to a sweet quiet, each on our blankets after only about 5-7 minutes (which is less than other populations might need).

I then skim-read them Jan Brett’s The Mitten, mostly focusing on the next animal, the actions, and asking things like, “Wow! Look at the bunny’s face! How do you think he feels?” or “Oh no! The prickly hedgehog will be squished inside too! What would it be like to be in the mitten with a hedgehog?” or “What do you think will happen next?” targeting reading expressions and gestures, putting oneself in other’s place, and predicting outcome.

Then we started over from the beginning and everyone’s blanket was a mitten! We could be whichever animals we wanted in our mitten, yelling out “Ouch” or “Move Over!” or “Please let me in!” if we chose. The most fun, of course, was exploding out everywhere at the end when the bear (also in the mitten) sneezes. We finished up with me reading/gesture-performing William Steig’s Brave Irene, with all of us chiming in with movements and sounds and phrases as we went along through the story (sort of participatory street-theatre style), and stopping to imagine how the characters felt or what they wanted or what they would do.

With the older boys, we targeted many of the same skills, but in different ways. We began with shadow puppets, and after imageencouraging them to experiment with design and create whatever characters they chose, they had to tell a short story (it could be silent) using the shadow puppets and the other boys as puppeteers. Each child had an opportunity to be the boss, but was not required to be in any one else’s . If they chose to be, however, they had to take direction and not take over the narrative. It was an interesting challenge for them, as the idea of hiding behind a screen and seeing the shadows appear in the dark room is pretty compelling, although the idea of doing what you were asked and not your own idea until it was your turn was daunting indeed. The ‘cool’ factor won out!

From there we progressed to me reading/showing a book with paper-cut illustrations of the Japanese legend The Warrior and the Wiseman. We unpacked the story as we went as well as afterwards, and then created masks of the characters to wear to act out the story. Mask-making was such a hit, we didn’t have a chance to perform the narrative, although the boys would put the masks on and act out as they developed their masks. Boys with Asperger’s are usually well aware by the time they are 10 or 11 that the language of facial gestures, expression, and subtextual meaning is pretty easily interpreted and used by their peers, but still a murky, seemingly disconnected gobbledygook to themselves. They are therefore, very sensibly, generally resistant to taking risks with face/gesture/subtext/meaning; that they spontaneously took risks and played with this crazy alien language is remarkable, and I believe the masks/mask-making made that possible.

Having explored shape a bit with the shadow puppets, they had to think about color and expression and feeling as it was established in the strong characterizations of the Elemental ‘Demons’ and two main (and diametrically opposed) characters. It’s a great book for pre-teens in general, as it is about what the longer term consequences are of taking what you want versus being generous, and what it means to be a man. It’s even more appropriate for pre-teens with Asperger’s Syndrome, as the Demons respond immediately and impetuously to their circumstances and the Wiseman has to deduce from their actions, dialogue, and expressions how they feel, what his brother the Warrior has done, and what he himself can do to set things back on the right path.

Theatre is always an effective and exciting medium in which to explore, discover, and practice emotion, relationships, and social meaning, but it is especially beneficial for children for whom this kind of stuff is like an alien landscape. The main difference is that the ‘steps’ between one idea/practice and the other need to be closer together and more carefully illuminated.

Helpful links!

http://tajaltspace.com/post/25861086620/arts-and-udl-part-7

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/08/14/autismcamp/

http://www.autismsupportnetwork.com/news/getting-past-blame-and-worry-help-your-autistic-child-39382922

http://www.autismbrainstorm.org/

 

IMG_1094(Music plays) “The Earth is a magnet. It’s the (beat) third planet from the sun. Flowing electrons and protons/come together to make things run!” The Kid Scientists and Benjamin Franklin sing valiantly through an explanation of their thinking while the storm rages and the flying kite conducts electricity down to their home-made motor. The adults watching in the seats of the professional theatre are grinning, completely enchanted as the first group of fourth-graders performs the play they wrote—complete with important plot-driving song, thank you very much.

I am once again at the Hangar Theatre for the Project 4 performances, crouched down-stage-right near the ‘vom’, next to musician John Simon, battered script in hand for the occasional whispered prompt. This is my 17th year with the Hangar Theatre’s project in the fourth grades, and I have loved it throughout its many incarnations, performance locations, and structures. I have IMG_1075loved it when I am up at 2am and growling at my computer as I try to piece together the scene bits and improv moments the students have created; I have loved it when I am scraping my car at 7am to get to school and sleepy nine-year olds who aren’t terribly keen on an 8am acting warm-up and a theatre/science lesson; I have even loved it in moments of miscommunication and distress that compel me to call my supervisor for help and advice.

What keeps me coming back is the dynamic, intriguing, social justice-laden, mutual listening and learning process that makes the project happen. That and I fall madly in love with a couple dozen brilliant minds and wonderful souls every time.

IMG_1166Logistically, what we Teaching Artists do is first meet with the teachers, who target a specific piece of their academic content that they feel the students need to understand more deeply, and often talk about how they want the students to grow socially. We as Teaching Artists plan the arc of our lessons accordingly, each day with academic, social, and theatrical goals; each day forwarding the delicious and terrifying progression of moving from having absolutely nothing to conceiving, then writing, then rehearsing, then performing an original piece of theatre. Did I mention the kids are nine and ten years old?

I return again and again to this project because it is like magic. I am well versed in the science and social science behind the success of performance modalities as ideal teaching tools, so I am not surprised at the deep learning of the curriculum content and of language arts skills that happens. It is nonetheless a delight, anticipated and appreciated like a favorite dessert. But for me, that which strikes me with wonder anew in the way that sunsets, stars, and storms do, is their deepened compassion for each other, their growing awareness of social structures and how they can be changed, and their discovery of their own bravery. It’s pretty IMG_1134hard to perform in front of people, especially something you yourself wrote. What better circumstances to practice going forward anyway, even though you are scared, than in this gentle, fun, supportive environment? Life presents us with bullies and plenty of situations where we are pressured to keep silent in the face of something that is wrong. This project is about having an idea and finding a way to voice it—in collaboration, on paper, and out loud in front of lots of people you might not know.

My second group of fourth graders comes to the close of their show, the Kid Scientists having learned about wind, water, and solar energy with the help of various mythological gods. They sigh with relief and triumph as Zeus delivers his final lines, and musician John Simon plays part of the song they wrote. They take their places and bow all together, radiant and magical.

I have spent the weekend with 15 driven, crazy, garrulous, impassioned, over-scheduled people who have one thing and one thing only in common: the belief that all children benefit from theatre education.

We work from noon on Friday till 10:30pm, 8am to 10:30pm on Saturday and 8am to 1pm on Sunday. We work in committees, we work as a large group, we go to drinks at 10:30 and inevitably talk shop (usually social justice issues in art accessibility or exciting ideas/projects about community impact). We do the heavy duty work in prep for our annual Educators’ Conference (in NYC this year) and our annual Student Conference (attended by over 700 students from across NY state). We explore targeted research and design new advocacy tools and toys, we put plans in motion for education and outreach, we prepare to use new tech tools. We review interactions with State Ed, note progress, and brainstorm how to support schools in forgotten or ignored districts….and so much more.

It is mind numbing.

It is also, however, inspiring, personally growth-full, and effective (however slowly). We have, over the years, compelled New York State to require certification for school theatre teachers and drama/movement credits for students. We have helped create/change assessments and develop resources and curriculum. We forge new ways to support performance art programming across the state fiscally, curricularly, advocationally, and, for lack of a better word, productionally.

Please take a moment this week to see a performance that moves you to laughter or love or understanding or tears, or to watch a child become invested in the performance version of something otherwise challenging, or a community discovering and celebrating its voice. Then thank an arts educator.

I close with a link to a PSA…… cheers to you, performance educators everywhere. Thanks for your dedication and courage.

Booo!! Hisss! You must pay the rent!

I admit I LOVE melodrama, the true stuff, the new stuff, and the mustachioed tongue-in-cheek stuff. That being said, I weep copious tears, gnash my teeth and rend my garments when folks use ‘melodrama’ in solely disparaging ways. In truth, melodrama grew from a dance hall, peoples’ cheap entertainment (thrills, chills, and crazy love stories!) into a means to forward a progressive a social agenda and large-scale cultural and system reform.

WHHHHAAAAAT?!?!?! NO!!!

Yes, my friends, yes.

In Victorian England, if you were poor, ‘ill-figured’, dark, ugly, ‘uncivilized’ on the outside, that was because that’s who you were on the inside. You were made that way by God, because you deserved it. If you were enslaved or in servitude, it is because you were meant to be, and if you were a ‘fallen woman’, you were as the fallen angel and should be cast out to hell, where you belonged. Towards the end of the 19th century, the rise of the Industrial Revolution exacerbated the existing poverty and disparities, in addition to creating new ways for the rich and powerful to use ‘disposable’ people for personal gain.

How to create large scale awareness and promote change?

Hello, melodrama!

It is here that we see, for the first time, suave, smooth, rich, handsome VILLAINS. Men of society and culture, who, in a private moment on stage, reveal a purely evil heart with no sense of honor or compassion. We meet ill-figured, ill-fated common folk with a heart of gold, women forced to steal or ‘give themselves away’ to save their children, street urchins who do a kindness and come through in the moment of truth, and even people whose souls are ‘lost’ committing an act (an often dramatic, final act, or course) of love or valour. Inevitably the villains are mill or mine owners, land grabbers, railroad tycoons, et cetera, and the inhumane practices in their acquisitions, mines, mills, and so on, are revealed. By the early 1900s, there were even—GASP!– FEMALE HEROES!!!!!!!! Women who saved the day and the play, after being downtrodden, who faced down the rich, scheming, handsome male villains! Holy cannoli, right?

Of course, the ‘regular folks’ loved these plays and were emboldened by them. The plays themselves mark a growing rise in ‘regular joe’ action. But wait! There’s more!

By this time, even people (mostly women) of the upper classes might also watch plays of melodramatic style. Such plays fueled the rise in women of the upper classes working to address hardships women and children of the lower classes had to face.

Cool, huh?

Sure, melodrama came from a time of heightened performance styles (often called ‘the realism of our dreams’), stark right and wrong, and plots drawn in black, white, and red (yes, like a comic book or certain graphic novels, a lovely and telling legacy), and tying Sweet Polly to the tracks seems outrageous and ridiculous…… but they are nonetheless an important part of rising social awareness and action. And HEAPS of fun!