Wednesday, July 25, 2018

T.O.P. Needs Assessment and Planning Tool

As a Theatre on Purpose practitioner it is time to start thinking about your intentions for the upcoming school year.  Remember, Theatre on Purpose is the opposite of theatre by accident! I shared this needs assessment tool with participants in my T.O.P. workshop at the International Thespian Festival. I hope it will help theatre educators make purpose-driven choices!

Amy Luskey-Barth, MPC

“A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task is the hope of the world.” From a church in Sussex, England.

1. What specific skills and talents do you possess that you can use in your theatre program?

2. We have the greatest impact when we are in touch with our gifts and in an environment that fosters those gifts and passions. What projects, subjects, and activities would you like to introduce in to your program?

3. In teaching, who we are is often a far greater example than what we do.   What are some qualities, personality traits and life experiences that make you YOU that can benefit your students?

4. Are there challenges you currently face that may be impacting your teaching? Are there issues that need clarification, refining or restructuring in your current job structure to make you a more effective teacher?

5. What is your purpose as a theatre educator? (In one sentence)

6. What needs do your students have that you believe you could better serve?

7. What kind of team, additional resources,  structures or support do you need to better serve your students?

8. What additional training, professional development , networking, or artistic outlets would make you a more impactful theatre educator?

9.  To whom  can you turn  as a mentor, guide, or advisor?

10. What is your vision for growth of your theatre program?

11. What can you let go of? 

copyright 2017 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

T.O.P. Workshops

Check out my Theatre on Purpose Workshops at the International Thespian Festival  at the
University of Nebraska, Lincoln Henzlik Hall 203

Creating and Empowering Artists for the 21st Century using Devised Theatre
Tuesday June 26th 11:00 a.m.

The Drama Teacher's Mentor Take it from the T.O.P.
Wednesday June 27th 9:00 a.m.
Friday June 29th 1:00 p.m.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Artistic Activism

One of my favorite quotes by the late artist, Fred Babb, is "Go to your studio and make stuff."  Content creation. It's my latest obsession.

When teaching theatre history, I have my students examine various artistic movements in the social, cultural and historical context of the times. I then ask them to come up with a name for the present period based on the events and issues of the day. The next step in the process is for them to create a dramatic collage that expresses the current time through poetry, music, projections, movement and dialogue.  The results are often startling and always enlightening.

Were students to name the period in which they live today, it might be called the "Age of Anxiety."  There is an overwhelming sense of fear related to multiple threats, real and imagined facing teenagers today.  The mental health and well being among high school students is drastically impacted by the seemingly endless news of school shootings and other troubling issues. The level of angst among teenagers cannot be ignored. As a theatre educator, I constantly ask myself  how I can ease my students' stress despite the bombardment of bad news.  It is then, I remember Fred Babb's quote. "Go to your studio and make stuff."

The counterpoint to the "Age of Anxiety" might be called the "Age of Artistic Activism."  Giving students a creative outlet to wrestle with their fears moves them from feeling powerless to being empowered. Giving students a voice breaks through the silence and allows them to speak truth to power. Since Parkland, teenagers have proven that their voices are vital and that their activism can impact change. The beauty of educational theatre is that it provides both a window and a mirror for students and audiences.  Theatre as a form of activism can be an effective way to encourage conversation, ignite debate, and present alternative views.

Historically, theatre has played a critical role in social commentary and political activism. Standing on the shoulders of playwrights and theatre practitioners like Brecht, Vaclav Havel, Athol Fugard, and Anna Deavere Smith, theatre students can be motivated to create content that will have a lasting impact and affect positive change.

So, teachers, tell your students,  "Go to your studio and make stuff."
It will ease their anxiety...and yours.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Power of Process

As a Theatre Educator, one of my favorite things to do is to develop new works with my students.  There is nothing that teaches the importance of process more effectively than play development.

Over the past year, I have worked with a group of students on a new play that began as a collaborative project in the IB Theatre class.  The initial script was a series of four monologues. There was no arc to the individual stories nor to the characters.  They were connected solely by a thematic through line that dealt with the very serious topic of teen suicide.

Inspired by Project Semicolon, the students were highly invested in the project and agreed to rewrite the play. After multiple revisions and readings, the play was presented at the International Thespian Festival in the Freestyle event this past June under the title Semicolon.  The playwrights also performed the play which ended with the definition and tagline "A semicolon is used when an author could have ended a sentence but chose not to. The sentence is your life." The response was overwhelming. It was evident that the subject matter touched the high school audience in a profound way.

Since then, the playwrights have continued to revise the play. The process has included more than ten revisions and readings. They have done statistical research and engaged in discussions and talkbacks.  What began as four separate monologues has developed into a thirty minute one act play with interwoven storylines and complex characters.

Through the process, it became clear that the original title no longer fit the play.  This was one of the harder editing choices for the authors to accept. The message of the play and the point of view of the characters shifted to a call to action.

The revised play with its new title, Speak Up! was presented at the Southern California Thespian Play Festival in January and was awarded second place out of eleven entries. The only original play in the festival,  the authors engaged the audience in a talk back after the performance.  The feedback from the teenagers and teachers affirmed that, sadly, there is a need for this play.  

I was uncertain whether the plot lines and character connections were clear.  Had we made the play too complicated? Had we watered it down? Did it still have the punch it had in its earlier iteration?  There always comes a point when one is too close to the work to be objective. That is why the opportunity to perform the play again  was such a valuable experience.  Indeed there was confusion about some story points. It didn't help that the author/actors also dropped some lines which impacted an important revelation.

Lessons learned.  The play is now undergoing one more revision.  The revised version of Speak Up! will have a reading done by other actors so the authors can hear the play rather than worry about performing it. Acting and writing are two separate roles and it is time for the student playwrights to hear what they have written without worrying about memorizing lines and emotional connection to the characters they created.

For these students, this process has included struggling over sentence structure, punctuation, word choice, character development and dramatic action. Most importantly, these student playwrights have engaged in an authentic play development process that will result in a play that could save lives.  What better way to discover the power of Theatre on Purpose?

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Power of Context

In IB Theatre, a great deal of time is devoted to discussing the personal, cultural, and societal context of artistic expression. Students are asked to explore their own context, giving them insight in to how their life experience might inform and inspire their creativity.  Social, political, and cultural context can provide rich subtext for original works and breathe new life into existing works. Never was this so evident than in my most recent directorial endeavor with GODSPELL at Santa Margarita Catholic High School.

Initially, I found GODSPELL, a musical by Stephen Schwartz and John -Michael Tebelak, based on the Gospel of St. Matthew to be a challenging show. The first act, which according to Schwartz, should focus on developing community and relationship among the cast members  through the telling of  Parables, relies on various story-telling devices and clownish humor. The second act follows more closely the Passion of Jesus from the Last Supper through His Crucifixion. The transitions between the parables and songs and the style of storytelling are left entirely up to the director. While this allows for a great deal of creative license, it makes for a highly improvisational and unstructured rehearsal process.

Whenever I choose a play or musical, I try to consider the space in which the show is to be performed. In this case, the venue was a sprung tent-like structure called "The Dome." The dome is an unconventional space which lends itself to environmental theatre.  As I began to consider GODSPELL, the dome seemed to provide the freedom in staging that I felt the show required.

Given the nature of educational theatre, I also seek to give as many students an opportunity to perform as possible. GODSPELL is written for a cast of ten performers. Adapting the script for nearly forty performers was a daunting task.  Without any character names, the casting of each parable, song, and role was based entirely on the personalities and qualities of the individual ensemble members. Each ensemble member also took on the role of a homeless person in the encampment and created their own back story. Those characters then took on roles within the parables adding to the "story within a story" casting complexity.

In the early conceptual phase, my intention was to set the show in a refugee camp. That initial concept morphed into setting the show in a motel and adjacent parking lot where "homeless" families are housed close to  Disneyland. Ultimately, it was the set design created by one of my students that inspired us to set the show right in our own back yard in a  fictitious homeless encampment under a freeway overpass near Angel Stadium.  The setting of an actual homeless encampment along the Santa Ana Riverbed had been the subject of frequent news stories thus our setting for GODSPELL resonated deeply with the cast, crew and audience.

I had been inspired by a faculty service project I had participated in at Santa Margarita during which the faculty filled back packs with essential items for homeless members of the community. I envisioned a similar service project involving audience members filling backpacks as they entered the dome before GODSPELL. Initially, I thought that we would create a human assembly line and pass the backpacks from the audience members to the stage. However, in the end, we decided to have the audience members actually bring the backpacks down to the stage on their way out to intermission. In the second act, I knew I wanted to build a mound of back packs to create Golgotha for the Crucifixion scene. This idea remained in tact and was a powerful image.  Ultimately, I chose to have the cast wear the backpacks as they processed out singing "Long Live God and Beautiful City." It was a highly symbolic  and moving visual metaphor for the Resurrection.

The context of homelessness provided a powerful focus for the show and shed new light on the parables and the Gospel message of Jesus. Interwoven throughout the show were projections that juxtaposed images of homelessness with the Beatitudes, the parable of the Sheep and Goats, and a soup kitchen during the song, "Beautiful City."

The initial directorial challenges I faced began to melt away as it became clear that the context of the show's setting  was providing potent meaning and relevance.
I was reminded again of how important it is to be patient with the process. GODSPELL also reinforced my belief that if the process has integrity, the product will have integrity.  By all accounts, GODSPELL touched the hearts of the audience.  Ultimately, 650 backpacks were delivered to the Illumination Foundation to be distributed to members of the homeless community.   A total of $3000  was raised from ticket sales and donations for first and last month's rent for a homeless family.

The process of producing and directing GODSPELL with a group of committed, creative, and passionate student designers and performers made this experience one of the most satisfying of my educational theatre career. The transformative power of Theatre on Purpose was on full display and continues to move in the hearts of those touched by the show.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Building a Beautiful City

SMCHS Talon Theatre's production of Godspell opens on November 2nd in the Eagle Dome and runs through November 5th. The show is set in a fictitious homeless encampment and is being done in partnership with the Campus Ministry to raise awareness and support for the homeless community of Orange County. The cast and crew have undertaken a service project in conjunction with the production that includes a back pack and hygiene drive. The goal is to fill 650 backpacks with necessities to be donated at the end of the run. $1.00 of every ticket sale is being donated to the Illumination Foundation for first and last months rent for a needy family. Junior and senior students visited the Children's Resource Center of the Illumination Foundation in Santa Ana on a rehearsal day to play theatre games with the children and to learn more about the important work being done through the Illumination Foundation. The students also visited the Isaiah House at the OC Catholic Worker where they performed the song "All Good Gifts" from Godspell for the residents. The set, lights, costumes, projections, and makeup for the show are being designed entirely by Talon Theatre students. They have researched and studied the issue of homelessness in Orange County over the course of the production process and have been awakened to the shocking statistics and misinformation about many in the homeless community. Godspell, a musical by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, based on the Gospel of St. Matthew, provides a context to explore social justice issues through the parables and the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The musical score, composed by Schwartz, includes such familiar hits as "Day by Day," and "Beautiful City." The Talon Theatre production of Godspell is another example of how the arts can be used to make the world a better place. Together, we can "build a beautiful city - yes we can." This is Theatre on Purpose. 
Godspell is directed by Amy Luskey-Barth, Choreographed by Casey Garritano with Musical Direction by W. Chris Winn and Technical Direction by Mark Robertson. For ticket information contact

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Week of Hope

I have been taking students to the International Thespian Festival at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln since 1995. People who don't understand why I'd spend a week of my increasingly shorter summer in hot, humid Lincoln give me looks that say, "I'm so sorry" or "how awful." It's hard to explain why living in a dorm with a bunch of teenagers, staying up until 1:00 a.m. for bed check at curfew, eating meals in the cafeteria, and walking miles across campus in blistering heat, on  blistering feet is one of the most enjoyable weeks of my vacation.

Years ago, I read a book by Jean M. Auel called Clan of the Cave Bear.  While I don't recall a great deal about the story, I do remember the impact that the idea of a clan had on me.  According to Webster's dictionary,  one of the definitions of  a clan is a group of people with a strong, common interest.  For theatre students and teachers, being at the International Thespian Festival is like finding one's clan.  This clan is energetic, passionate, generous, kind, helpful, creative, serious-minded, skilled, and accepting. For over twenty years, I have found this to be true.  For as much change as there has been since I first started going to the International Thespian Festival in 1995 (I'm not sure how we managed without cell phones, texting, and Guidebook apps) the essence of the experience has remained exactly the same - students, teachers, guest artists coming together in a massive celebration of educational theatre.

For anyone who has lost hope in the next generation, there is no need to despair. The 2017 International Thespian Festival,  bursting at the seams with over 4,000 theatre artists, proved to me again that our future is bright.  It is a privilege to spend a week where hope is alive and well. We witness remarkable performances by talented young actors, listen to new plays and musicals developed by high school students, laugh together at improvisation and cry together as topics such as teen suicide and gun violence are tackled by emerging theatre artists finding their voices.

Spend a week with this clan, and cynicism melts away. I am more convinced than ever that theatre is one of the most powerful and transformative tools we have as human beings to affect positive  change in our world . Empowering students by giving them the  opportunity to come together with other working artists is affirming, encouraging, and inspiring.

I highly recommend that anyone new to educational theatre, spend a week in Lincoln with this Educational Theatre "clan."  You will come back knowing that your work is not only a noble profession but a calling. What you do matters not only to your students, but to our world.   What greater example of Theatre on Purpose can there be?