From Cardboard to iPads: Teaching Theatre Before, During, and After the Pandemic

By Hayley Sherwood

Posted on Friday, May 8, 2020

This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. 

A few weeks ago, I was checking in with a few friends who all work in the community engagement department of their respective theatres. Many of them manage teaching artists across the country and many of their departments have seen devastating lay-offs and furloughs in the past few months, not to mention a sobering shift in the landscape of their entire organization. We were reporting on what has changed and how all of our plans for the future were foiled. The air of this Zoom call somehow felt warmer, which was an imagined experience we were all happy to indulge. In one report, a friend not-so-jokingly said that he felt like he suddenly worked for a media company. As he said this, visions of my first couple days working from home hit: googling “how to edit a video” and trying to recover my password from a dusty Skype account. I agreed—I was suddenly performing a job that no one had trained me to do and so were all of my peers. 

This, of course, was no fault of the organizations I work for. For decades, all of the theatre organizations I work for had been dedicated to make having no screens (live theatre) even remotely as exciting as having screens. In order to do this, these organizations, my community of fellow teaching artists, community-engaged theatre practitioners, and I all became experts in in-the-moment relationship building. I work amongst some of the best fast friends in the world. These people can read a room in a second. 

Give us a piece of cardboard?  We’ll have a three-act play in 15 minutes. 

Give us a bunch of iPads? First of all, I would have been amazed the theatre department had the budget for that but I probably wouldn’t have known where to start. 

My imagination around technology is at a deficit because the departments I work in have been forced to operate in a deficit. Inside of this, though, we have created magical tools from scratch, fashioned entire operations out of thin air and we’re very proud.

During my first attempt at lesson planning for my first online workshop, I felt like someone had emptied out my toolbox. No cardboard in sight and a whole bunch of iPads. Even as a wave of webinars on how to operate Zoom hit my inbox, I still felt lost. How could I convince my students that I’m there for them in these circumstances? I’m not. 

Suddenly, I was a brand new Teaching Artist trying to figure out how to do this. I hearkened back to my first Teaching Artist gig. A staff member at my university asked me to teach some theatre classes at an arts festival at her child’s elementary school. I lost sleep over my lesson plan (something I had never written before). The chaos of the school’s arts festival was invigorating but with each step closer to my classroom, I felt like a bigger impostor – “they definitely will not think I’m cool” I thought. When I got to the room, there was a big sweeping set of stairs and my fear dissolved. A tool, I thought. I’ll be fine, I thought. I’ll just guide them toward turning that staircase into a volcano.

“I go into a room expecting one thing and suddenly I realize that a beautiful surprise gift was waiting for me all along.”

My career as a teaching artist so far has been a lot of building volcanoes – I go into a room expecting one thing and suddenly I realize that a beautiful surprise gift was waiting for me all along, whether that’s in the form of the number of desks in the room or in the mind of one of the students. becoming a teaching artist in NYC has really been about trust. If I trust my own knowledge, my co-teaching artists’ knowledge and the boundless knowledge of my students, my plan will move swiftly and seamlessly and all of our personalities will shine. Teaching artistry is about letting the brightest thing in the room shine – most of the time that is the improvisation games I planned but sometimes it’s the horrible day one of my students had.

So, what do I do when I can’t rely on the movement of the room? Well, I had to reach so deeeeeep into my toolbox that I became a student again. A student of this moment, a student of theatre arts and a student of my students –wherever they were, I would go…digitally, of course.

“I became interested in the ways that the work Teaching Artists are doing now could be sustainable, not simply Band-Aids on the work we wish we were doing.”

I’ve learned a few things so far. The first is that when presenting online, in that now very familiar “webinar” setting on Zoom: I had to write a script. A great lesson plan often includes a script – make sure to highlight this concept or definitely model with example—but that’s nothing compared to the full-on classical text I prepared for my first webinar. I was convinced something technical would go wrong so, in collaboration with my co-facilitator, we mapped out every word, every screen share, and every word we needed to spell out after we said it. It was through this that I remembered how, first of all, every teaching artist training I’d ever taken had encouraged me to ban scripts from my toolbox and, second of all, that relying on a script was actually my closest ally in my work as an actor. I’m not about to walk back into the first day of school 202….0(?) with a script in hand but maybe there are parts of my teaching that would be served by this kind of prep. With this discovery I became interested in the ways that the work Teaching Artists are doing now could be sustainable, not simply Band-Aids on the work we wish we were doing.

When one of the organizations I work for told us we were converting our weekly programming online, my co-teaching artist and I began texting up a storm—trying our best to get in contact with our students in a way they recognized and, most importantly, in a way that would be easy for them. The boundary I had once tried to maintain as an adult in their life vanished. Suddenly, as I was in contact with my students on a more regular basis, thanking them for signing into our Google Hangout with a simple text here or there, I began to question why that boundary was there in the first place. Through this questioning I emerged in deeper commitment to my students and less committed to any authority I may implicitly and explicitly have over them. I welcome their friendship and am honored anytime they seek my company. Of course, plenty of the people that I previously saw on a regular basis have let me know that they cannot prioritize our theatre class and must focus on other things, whether that’s celebrating a quarantine birthday or taking care of a sick relative. Setting these kinds of boundaries, rather than trying not to text their teacher, are the skills that I’m grateful to practice with my students and I know they will continue doing this into so many parts of their life.

“Organizations have built the structure for these relationships to begin but it is the work of us all that will sustain them.”

Learning how to navigate this new world of teaching has taught me a lot and I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to be made a student of my students. I’ve learned, finally and most importantly, that the people I “work with” are some of my dearest peers. Many of the people I’ve met through my work in community engaged-theatre or teaching artistry are the people that reached out first to see how I’m doing. They are showing me the care and attention I hope they feel from me. These organizations have built the structure for these relationships to begin but it is the work of us all that will sustain them. I am confident that the work we do in educational spaces will only be strengthened by this test, eventually. We will add video editing, online workshop facilitation, and Zoom expertise to our resumes and work together with our friends to find the services we all need. I hope theatre has a place in that collective decision.

 

*****

Hayley Sherwood is an NYC-based theatre artist who believes theatre belongs to everyone and activates this mission as an educator, administrator, producer, and actor. This has led her to teach K-12 students with organizations such Story Pirates and Opening Act, teach and manage programming with CO/LAB, an organization that creates a social and creative outlet for individuals with developmental disabilities, and produce COMMUNITY WORKS, a community-engaged theatre program at Williamstown Theatre Festival that casts local residents of all ages, socio-economic, veteran and disability statuses in a giant, world-premiere musical that is performed for thousands on the mainstage of the festival. She holds her BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University and her MA in Educational Theatre for Colleges and Communities from NYU. She is a member of Middle Voice at Rattlestick Theatre Company and tutors the coolest family in Staten Island.

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