Monday, June 15, 2020

A Theatre Educator's Pledge

As a theatre educator, I am asking myself a lot of questions right now.  This is a time for deep introspection and hard truths. It is a time to challenge systems of oppression in all forms and to work for justice and equality. This is a time to assess white privilege and to define what is meant by anti-racist. It is a time for painful learning.  It is a time for change. It is a time for transformation.  It  is a  time for truth. I am asking myself where I have been complicit in perpetuating the status quo.  I am looking in the mirror to see my own unrecognized biases. I am seeking to educate myself so that I can be a positive example for my students.  
As a Theatre on Purpose practitioner,  I have been committed to giving students a voice through the arts. I have always believed that theatre is transformative because it offers students both a window and a mirror to see the world. Theatre is a window through which we can see others and thereby grow in understanding, empathy and knowledge. Theatre is a mirror because it allows us to see ourselves and reflect on our own reality, motivations and actions. 
Arthur Miller said, "I regard theater as a serious business, one that makes or should make man more human, which is to say, less alone."  I have always been moved by this quote. I agree, theatre is serious business. As a theatre educator and practitioner I can make a difference by exposing my students to diverse cultures and experiences while delving into the historic contexts across time and place.
In IB Theatre, the aim is to "develop internationally minded people who, recognizing common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world."  I embrace this philosophy but am asking how it can go further.
Language and words matter.  Here is my pledge:
         As a theatre educator,
         I pledge to listen more.
         I pledge to educate myself on race, white privilege and oppression.
         I pledge to pay more attention to the stories we tell on stage and the plays we read in class.
         I pledge to offer my students the opportunity to use their voices to make our world a
         a better place.  
         I pledge to maintain a theatre program that is a safe, judgement-free space for students to
         I pledge to engage students in meaningful, impactful, purpose-driven artistic projects that
         directly tackle difficult topics about race, identity, Anti-Semitism, harassment,
         and oppression.
         I pledge to maintain a spirit of goodwill.
         I pledge to resolve conflict.
         I pledge not to use violence in thought, word or deed.
         I pledge to work with others to build a world that is more loving, compassionate and just.
         I pledge to seek first to understand.
         I pledge to be more courageous.
         I pledge to use theatre on purpose.
         Theatre on Purpose - Now more than ever.


Friday, April 17, 2020

I Ain't Down Yet...But...

I find myself struggling during this open-ended time of waiting during the Pandemic of COVID-19.  I'm a highly organized person. As a director and theatre educator, schedules, deadlines and calendars rule.  I am also a problem solver.  I don't give up easily.  In high school, I was Molly in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  My mantra is "I ain't down yet." But right now all bets are off. What happens when the show can't go on?

I remember a line from the play, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the true story that bears witness to the children interned in Terezin during the Holocaust.  Irena, the teacher who inspires and motivates her students to write poetry and draw pictures about their experience, says to young Raja, "waiting days are long days."

These are long days.  I am waiting, like everyone, for this to be over. But that is not likely to happen any time soon.  Given the reality, what does that mean for my students who have rehearsed and were ready to perform their spring musical, Into the Woods in April?  At what point do I holler uncle?
I'm walking a fine line between tenacity and insanity.

We are not returning to school for the rest of the year. I have given up on the notion that we will be able to perform for a live audience. So what choices are left?   I've envisioned everything from the actors coming back when it is safe - maybe late summer  or even over Thanksgiving - performing with clear face shields. The cast members could apply their makeup, do their hair, dress in costume and warm up at home.  But is that even feasible?

There are a million dominoes. The set is installed but nothing has been teched. No light cues have been programmed.  Does this make sense? Or would we be better off figuring out a way to do an audio recording of the cast?  These students deserve some kind of "finished product," don't they?
Or is this just another casualty of COVID-19.  Another loss for the class of 2020?

I don't know. Will the answers come? At some point will the answer be obvious? Will it be dictated to me? Somebody, anybody, tell me what to do!?

Unwinding the show will have its own set of complications - set, props, costume returns. Negotiating contracts. Retrieving musical scripts and scores. What else?  I don't know what I don't know.
But what will the emotional toll be on those kids?

Waiting to mount the show some time in the future without any idea of when that might be seems unreasonable. Reassembling a cast that would then include graduates,  reinstalling the set, re-assembling the costumes.... at what expense? Is that even possible?

I always say, "safety first." This is the ultimate, "heads up!" call.
We cannot do the show until it is safe to do so.  That line is clear.
How long to hold on to a full scale production is not so clear. When do you cut your losses, regroup and create something lasting in a different way?

Waiting days are indeed long days.  I ain't down yet...but it's feeling like the iceberg is on the horizon.
I'm willing to row. But where is the life boat?

Monday, April 13, 2020

From Football to Theatre: A Lesson on Great Coaching

I just listened to a new podcast episode entitled Flying Coach With Steve Kerr & Pete CarrollTwo Champions on Mentors, Philosophies and Why They Coach on The Ringer NFL Show.  Why would a high school theatre educator be the least bit interested in listening to a sports oriented podcast? Well, truth be known, I'm a huge Pete Carroll fan but more than that, I am an avid student of great coaching.  I'm fascinated by how coaches motivate their teams to win game after game.  I am wildly curious about what it takes to have a championship mentality.

 I love college football and (full disclosure) I am one of four USC alumni in our family so USC football has always been a favorite fall pastime. Over the years, I've observed differing coaching styles on display along the sidelines of college football games; the stern-faced authoritarian,  the clipboard-throwing bully and the exuberant enthusiast. Pete Carroll falls into the latter category.

When I saw that there was to be a podcast interview with Pete Carroll about his philosophy of coaching, I had to tune in.  Never a big NFL fan, once Pete left USC and joined the Seattle Seahawks, I suddenly cared about the Super Bowl.  Pete Carroll's energy, focus, and enthusiasm is effervescent. Watching Pete on the sidelines, chomping his gum is pure fun. He loves what he does. His passion is evident. His intensity is palpable.  His positive spirit is infectious.

Now, forty-years in, Pete Carroll's personal charisma combined with his skill, daring and determination are legendary.

Here are my five takeaways on coaching from Flying Coach With Steve Kerr & Pete Carroll: Two Champions on Mentors, Philosophies and Why They Coach  that can be applied to high school theatre directors:

1. Be authentic: It's not all about the "X's and O's" of play calling. Translated for theatre - it's not just about the blocking.  Bring yourself, your passion, your unique approach to directing and trust yourself.

2. Be consistent: I couldn't agree more. In high school theatre, consistency provides clarity of communication and expectation. This is not easy because there is always the exception to the rule. Theatre educators need to be aware, intentional and fair. Five minutes early is on time for everyone!

3. Have a philosophy: This falls right in line with my belief in the Theatre on Purpose approach to teaching. Know why you are in educational theatre. It's not something to "fall back on." It's a calling.

4. Do the hard work: Training, discipline and developing the tools necessary to create theatre are imperative. It takes practice, rehearsal, and self-discipline. Theatre, like football, requires a team effort. Not everyone can be the quarterback. But without the kicker or receiver there isn't a team. Technicians, stage crew, and the ensemble are equally important as the leading actor.

5. Make sound choices: This one is personal. Life-work balance. To thine own self be true. Not always an easy thing to achieve, but regret is real so think about the choices you make along the way.

I once heard that Pete Carroll would tell his team to  "go out there and do it better than you've ever done it before." I have quoted that "Pete Carrollism"  many times to my students. You've got to show up ready to perform; seasoned, healthy and focused.  The simple notion of doing something better than you've ever done before is a straight forward and clear directive.

And that's how we should live our lives, too, isn't it? Each day, shouldn't we be striving for excellence? Each day shouldn't we be trying to be the best version of ourselves?

I appreciate great coaching in educational theatre and recognize that it is all about the process. As I always say, if the process has integrity, the product will have integrity.

Theatre on Purpose is student-centered, nurturing, disciplined, passionate, authentic and above all, joyful!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Into the Woods and Through the Fear, You Have to Take The Journey

My spring musical, Into the Woods, scheduled to open April 1st is postponed.  This April Fools' is no joke. Sets abandoned, costumes hanging on their racks, wigs sitting idly on their styrofoam heads in front of makeup mirrors all waiting for somebody to call "places."

Technology has allowed me access to my cast. But when you're trying to rehearse Parts 1 - 9 of the prologue of Into the Woods on Zoom from 56 remote locations, let's just say, it doesn't work.
Wifi signals vary. Lags in transmission play havoc with Sondheim's already complex rhythms creating a cacophony more dissonant than the score itself.

Anyone who knows me, knows that Into the Woods is my favorite musical. But as the Meme going around theatre circles says, "When I said I wanted life to be more like a musical, I didn't mean Act II of Into the Woods."  Eerily on point. Equally chilling was my choice of our 19/20 season theme - Courage.  Irony? Premonition? Intuition? Coincidence? Bad luck? You pick.

"No more questions. Please. No more tests....comes the day you say what for... just no more!" 

The drama we are living will no doubt result in great art.  YouTube is already bursting with creativity.  I've always said, theatre people are the most generous of human beings. With no lights and no stage, they are finding ways to reach out to support the community of out of work performers, writers, directors and most notably, young theatre students through multiple social media platforms.

It will be left to this generation of emerging theatre artists to tell the story of "how it all happened."
An unseen, microscopic giant has come into our midst.
Through our social isolation, we are conversely coming together out of responsibility to the community.  "Careful, no one acts alone."  

As a theatre educator, I am reminding myself every day as I strive to keep my cast inspired, hopeful and connected through tablets, iPhones and computers, "Careful the things you say. Children will listen."

It may be "Hard to see the light now. Just don't let it go. Things will come out right now. We can make it so. Someone is on your side. No one is alone."

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

VOICES OF COURAGE: A lesson in devised theatre and life

     VOICES OF COURAGE just closed.  The show ended up being a promenade-style semi-immersive hard-hitting experience performed in six locations around the campus culminating in an inspiring and uplifting finale.  
     We began in August experimenting with various approaches to devising.  Given most of the students had never attempted an original work, it was important to introduce them to the process of creating original theatre using various starting points. At the end of the first session, the students began to feel confident that they could do it.  
     For three weeks we played with style, approaches and techniques equipping the students with a vocabulary for devised theatre.  We drew from practitioners such as Anne Bogart, Brecht, and Grotowski. We explored the physical theatre techniques of Jaques LeCoq and Frantic Assembly.  We also explored and unpacked the theme of courage.  Vast and unwieldy, one of the most challenging aspects of the process was narrowing the theme to digestible topics. The whole group brainstormed on the question of what courage looks like.  Their responses ended up as a word collage in the finale of the show.  Each student had to ask themselves where they have been courageous in their own lives and where we lack courage in society today.  We then took all of these ideas and sorted them by different types of courage: Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, Moral and Personal. 
     The structure of the piece began to emerge – certain topics continued to bubble to the surface.  Students took an inventory of their passion, interests and skills and groups began to organically form.  Ultimately the casting of each ensemble was left to the Story Weavers (Directors) based on the requirements for their performance.  We all agreed that the whole piece had to have a variety of theatrical styles and topics. The issues the students selected for their individual ensembles were: Anxiety, Body Image, The Environment, and Disabilities.  We agreed that the finale needed to bring it all together by focusing on voices of courage throughout history. We ultimately used projections, tableaus and music for the ending. 
     Some of the creative choices were dictated by logistics. Our black box can hold up to sixty people. Were we to have a capacity audience of 240 this would necessitate that we have four ensembles. Each Story Weaver was given the freedom to scout locations on campus to fit their particular piece.  The site- specific locations were anchored by the black box and our main stage theatre which we had determined would be the site for the finale.  The audience would be divided into four groups and would take different paths to the theatre while watching ten -minute performances in a different order. 
     We wanted to tackle the issue of immigration so we elected to start the show  with a prologue at the front gates of the school which became an immigration processing center where the audience was processed in a harsh, dehumanizing way and divided into their groups by being separated into detention centers. We knew there would be some push back from some audience members who did not want to be separated.  This of course, was an intentional choice emphasizing the dehumanizing effect of family separation at the border. Images of Ellis Island and contemporary immigrants at the southern border were used to establish the setting.  
    The marketing team went to work creating tags akin to the identification tags worn at Ellis Island. Biographies of famous immigrants who had made a contribution to the USA were affixed to the back of each tag. As the audience was processed they received a Voices of Courage lanyard with a stamped number corresponding to their assigned detention center.  A guard stood watch, dressed in a costume that was vaguely suggestive of a Nazi concentration camp guard. Lighting was harsh and bright and the feeling was intended to be disorienting.  The show opened with narrative and poetry showing three points of view about the issue of immigration: Those opposed, those supportive and the voices of the immigrants seeking safety and  work. 
     The paths were revised numerous times by a student who created elaborate, color-coded maps. The sets, lights, and sound for each location were designed by students.  The costume design team decided to use a similar lyrical dance-wear style with each ensemble being assigned a specific color. This provided a unifying effect throughout.  Tour guides led each group along the path to each ensemble. The performances drew from original material, poetry, and song. The students incorporated voice over, video, and projections in their performances. They staged their pieces to fit the sites they had chosen. 
     The Environmental ensemble effectively used a grassy, tree-lined area of campus for their piece entitled “Our House is on Fire.”  The ensemble that focused on anxiety in “Alex and You,” selected a courtyard surrounded by classrooms. The physical theatre piece that included “mind monsters” progressed along a path as the story unfolded forcing the audience to move along with the characters on the journey to healing.
     In their piece “A World that Wasn’t Made for Us,” the black box ensemble transformed the space into a fractured and multi-leveled environment using projections and sound to capture the experience of disability. The piece incorporated poetry and movement in a highly impactful way which elicited empathy and enlightenment. 
     In “Adjusting to a Sick Society,”  the ensemble interpreted lyrics through three choreographed pieces focused on domestic violence and body image.  A dance floor was set up in a courtyard with imagery painted on flats.
     There were four rotations. The audience was then immersed in a human rights protest march during which the cast of each ensemble converged outside the theatre chanting “Listen to our voices of courage. We rise up with voices of courage.”
The doors of the theatre were opened and a loud sound- scape of  famous protests from the march on Washington D.C.  to Parkland were played with images of the protests projected on stage.  Ensemble members carried signs and banners were hung over the stage with messages that reflected the issues addressed in Voices of Courage.
     The show ended with a performance of the song “Draw Your Own Conclusion,” by Andrew Lippa debuted at the International Thespian Festival for the 90th anniversary of the Thespian Society. 
     The process was not without its challenges.  One of our greatest artistic difficulties was how to transition the audience from one performance to another. We experimented with numerous approaches and ended up simply tying each piece together by asking the audience a question that began with “Do you have the courage to….?”
     We had hoped to encourage discussion among the audience members but this was only moderately successful.  Ultimately, the subject matter of each performance was so profound that the audience needed time to process before transitioning to the next piece. We adjusted our talk back approach multiple times. 
     Another challenge we faced was that each performance started at a slightly different time. While they all were ten minutes in length, the staggered timing created an issue for the actual transitions.  Thanks to walkie talkies and trials, we opted to allow each performance to begin as the audience settled and then to transition at the same time once the “talk backs” had concluded in each location.
     Weather was on the whole favorable for us given that three of our locations were outside.  It was a warm, October California week. Wind provided a few challenges leading to a lot of gaff tape and sand bags to prevent sets from blowing over. A rainy-day plan bringing all performances into the main theatre was put in to place. Light cues and transitions were recorded just in case of foul weather. 
     The cast of each ensemble was responsible for set up and strike of their individual performance areas each night of dress rehearsal and performance since the campus needed to be cleared for the next school day.  It was a labor-intensive job but provided a lesson in teamwork for all. 
     The result of the entire experience was nothing short of a success.  The students had total ownership of the piece.  They grew by leaps and bounds both personally and artistically.  Each night, I asked them to find their center and to feel the ground beneath them. They stood, solidly rooted to the floor. That center, I told them,  is the strength from which they would find their voice of courage.  I took the opportunity to remind them that while this process was based in devised theatre, the take away are many life lessons.  They overcame challenges. They worked collaboratively as a team. They used their individual gifts to do purposeful work. They persevered. They questioned and doubted but kept going.  In this age of angst and anxiety, they are stronger than they know. I urged them to draw on their experience to always remember that they are not victims. They are strong and resilient.  They are voices of courage.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

VOICES OF COURAGE ....The Journey Begins

Over forty Talon Theatre students are courageously diving in to the devising process for the fall production VOICES OF COURAGE.
The journey thus far has been creatively stimulating, thought provoking, and logistically challenging.  We began with a non-traditional “audition” process of collaborative exercises requiring students to develop short performance pieces based on images, news stories, and narratives.  For the first several rehearsals, the cast and design team were introduced to a variety of devised theatre and composing methods, styles, and processes equipping them with tools to create original material. The cast and crew have examined and discussed different types of courage and heard a presentation on courageous figures throughout history.
The whole ensemble was then divided into five individual ensembles lead by story weavers who are serving as the directors of the project.  The make-up of the ensembles was based on the topics, interests, skills and passions of the individual members.  Set, light, costume, prop, sound,  projection, makeup and hair designers have been assigned to each ensemble. 

The first production meeting produced some incredibly creative ideas.
Some of the logistical issues we will face include site -specific technical needs and how to implement the design concepts.

The five ensembles will be developing ten minute performance pieces in different styles dealing with specific topics related to the theme of courage.  These five pieces will be woven together into one dramatic, musical, and movement collage.
Some of the topics being explored include immigration, the environment,  body image, mental health, discrimination, and equality. 

The marketing and publicity team is developing the graphic design and logo for the piece and visual artists are creating a series of murals capturing the overall theme.
The commitment and energy of these students is inspiring!  There is something utterly thrilling about devising original theatre with students.  This truly is theatre on purpose!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Voices of Courage

The feeling is familiar. I can only describe it as a surge of energy pulsing through my veins accompanied by a quickening that can only be compared to expectancy. Equal doses of fear and anxiety - a mixture that is more exciting than scary.  On the precipice -  it is the beginning.  It is the unknown and it is certain - both.
Absolute. Driven. Determined. Important.
At this stage of my career in educational theatre, it is the only thing that matters to me.
Urgent. Necessary. It feels like the only thing I can do and must do because I can.
Theatre on Purpose.
For the next few months, I will be collaborating with students on devising an original piece of theatre focused on the theme of courage.  Why? Because I believe theatre can make a difference. I believe theatre can change the world. I believe theatre can inspire. I believe theatre is essential. I want my students to know that. I want them to have a voice. I want them to be empowered.
Our world needs to hear what they have to say.
They are coming of age in difficult times. I want them to know what it feels like to use their creative gifts and talents for positive change.  I want them to know what courage is, where it comes from and what it looks like. I want them to find their own personal courage.
We will look for examples of courage in our daily lives and throughout history.
Together, we will summon creative courage through collaboration and community to instill and inspire hope.
I will document our process and reflect on the experience of devising an original piece of theatre from beginning to end in weekly blog posts in the hope of inspiring other Theatre on Purpose practitioners.

Definitions of courage:
Merriam -Webster:  noun
mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty

Oxford: noun
The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery

Original definition: The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant "To speak one's mind by telling one's heart."