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.
My exposure to theatre had been a beloved VHS tape of Annie, the third grade play, and Sesame Street Live until I found the monologue books in my westside Cincinnati public when I was 12.
Those page-long excerpts of the hottest plays of the nineties contained a monologue from Spike Heels by Theresa Rebeck. I was captivated and immediately memorized it, never mind that it included “the f-word” and I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. I knew that character’s voice and I wanted to say her words.
I want all my students, no matter their age, to experience a similar excitement of finding that connection, that part of themself, on the page. It may come from a character’s voice, background, circumstances, objectives, or something less name-able. Yet I often find students are working on the same tired scenes by a narrow list of playwrights, with dialogue that feels stilted rather than real or heightened.
The New Play Exchange, The Lark, The Kilroys, and other efforts have significantly changed our access to new work. Women and playwrights of color are being produced a bit more often. The material is there, but it’s hard to find the time to digest it in the hustle of making and teaching theatre.
I decided to use this time of quarantine and self-isolation to read plays and figure out what makes a scene worth bringing to class. The principles below offer my approach to choosing material that I hope hooks students and sets them up for success in building their theatrical skills.
What’s the goal?
I write down the skills I’d like students to gain, or the purpose of the work before I begin. Some examples:
- If this is an agent showcase for college students, my goals might be to make the students likable, show their range, and keep the audience feeling joyful all night. No serial killer stories needed.
- If it’s a fifth grade theatre class, I might be looking for work that offers them a chance to make physical and vocal choices.
- If it’s a special education setting, I might look for something with several sound and light cues so the company can practice listening and sequencing tasks.
Are the students able to engage imaginatively with the action of the scene?
I look for three things:
- the characters in the scene have clear objectives and actions
- those actions and objectives are something students can understand from a child/adolescent development perspective. Example: Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men in Boats works for middle school even though the characters are adults. Tweens understand the objectives of getting through the canyon, of surviving, of forming alliances.
- the writing being compelling enough that students can immediately imagine some aspect of it on stage
This holds true for scenes being used for design projects or analysis as well as performance.
What’s the playwright’s intention and how can I bring in that context?
It’s our responsibility to consider issues of equity and Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education in every single space. My approach:
- I talk about the dominant dynamics of race and culture in our city and country and how they manifest in the theatre
- Bring in scenes by writers of all identities (not just racial or cultural). If it’s not appropriate for students to perform the work, it can still be used as a basis for design or analysis projects.
- Provide tailored context about the scene: a short biography of the playwright, their descriptions of the characters and their notes about casting, the time period in which it was created and set, and information about the rights to the script from the title page to raise the topic of ownership of the work and rights to perform
- When appropriate, make questions around identity in casting and producing theatre part of the curriculum
- Offer options for student scenes and, having had the conversation about identity in theatre-making, trust students’ choices
What are your go-to scenes, and how do you think about choosing material for your students? What questions do you ask yourself? Let us know here.
Leah Reddy is a Cincinnati-born, NYC-based director and dramaturg focusing on engineering creative processes in community. Leah is a Master Teaching Artist with Roundabout Theatre Company, a video producer, and a mentor with the Arthur Miller Foundation. Work includes producing the documentary theatre piece and podcast Justice for Sergio with Leadership High School students. www.leahreddy.com.