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Archive for Teaching

Looking Back and Looking Forward

As teachers, we’re accustomed to referring to two different calendars—-the traditional yearly calendar and our school calendar (which usually has every square filled using multiple colors of pens, some pencil marks, a few highlighted areas, some scratch-outs, various arrows pointing to additions that would no longer fit into the square for that particular date, and check marks by items that have been completed. It makes me tired just looking at it! The great thing about living with two calendars, however, is that while everyone else is celebrating the end of 2017, teachers are also able to look forward to the rest of the school year and the experiences it will bring (and to celebrate its end in May or June). This is also a great time to look back for a moment and reflect.

As I take a moment to look back, I find myself asking the following questions:

  1. What worked? To answer this question, take a moment to make a list of the things you’ve accomplished this year (or school year so far if you’re wearing your teacher “hat” at the moment). Don’t spend so much time looking forward that you don’t take the time to acknowledge the positive things that have already happened. Whether it’s in your personal or professional life, what new things have you learned that will now make life easier or happier? Which goals have you accomplished? How has your life been impacted in a positive way? How have you impacted others in a positive way? What is better now than it was in 2016 (or before the 2017-18 school year started)? What (or who) has brought you joy?My “to do” lists are always filled—up and down the page, in the margins, front and back of the paper—-with all the tasks I need to complete. When I look back at one of these lists as I transfer the few items left on the old, scratched-out list to a new page so I can continue to list more tasks, my first thought is, “No wonder I’m so tired!”. That is quickly followed by the satisfaction that somehow I have been able to get those things done that at one time I felt were insurmountable. Take a moment to reflect on the good. It will remind you of your purpose.
  2. What didn’t work? This one can be painful, but we need to reflect on what didn’t work if we want to learn and grow. Over two decades ago, I directed the Teahouse of the August Moon, John Patrick’s Pulitzer award winning play. I’ve always remembered Sakini’s words from his opening monologue, “Pain make man think, thought make man wise, wisdom make life endurable”. Recalling failures is not a time to merely complain or indulge in self-pity. This is a time of honest and sometime uncomfortable reflection. What things did you experience that made your life more difficult or impacted you in a negative way? Which goals did you not accomplish and how could you have done things differently? How did you impact others in a negative way and how were you impacted by others in a negative way? What is not as good as it was before this year started? What or who has stolen your joy? Think about what didn’t work. Resolve to learn from it and change it rather than repeat it.
  3. What/whom do you have to be thankful for/to? Gratitude is good for the soul. It takes the focus off yourself on places it on things and people who had a positive impact. It also makes us realize how truly blessed we are. I had a principal whose mantra was, “Many hands make the work light”. Most theatre departments have only one theatre teacher. It can be a bit lonely and stressful. But there are usually those who are willing to help along the way. Let them know that you appreciate what they’ve done for you. Sometimes, we don’t even realize how good we have it until a change occurs. Our school experienced a lot of changes this year with a new principal and a new director of fine arts. Both ladies who previously held these positions were exemplary. I am so blessed that both gentlemen who currently hold these positions are also exemplary. Change brought about uncertainty and fear, but I am so thankful that I continue to be supported as a teacher and director of theatre at my school by an amazing administrative team. Realize what and who you have and let them know that you appreciate them.

So now, it’s time to look forward, and I’m asking myself the following questions:

  1. What do I want to accomplish? How can I have a positive impact? Where/how can I continue to learn so I can continue to grow as a person, teacher, mother, wife, grandmother, etc…? What is going to truly bring me joy and what do I need to do to achieve it? Winning at contest is great, but it should not be the only goal. It shouldn’t even be the primary goal. Is that sometimes hard to remember? Absolutely! The goal is to tell the story in the best way possible. That’s all your truly have control over. Only you know where your students started the year and the trials and tribulations you’ve overcome as a group. There’s much to be celebrated if we’re willing to look past the trophies and medals.
  2. How can I learn from the mistakes I’ve made in the past? Do I need to re-evaluate my goals? What can I change? Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we can’t change others. And sometimes, the change is to remove yourself or someone else from the situation. The only person you can control is you. Don’t allow others to steal your joy. Sometimes that means it is time to look for another teaching position because you no longer see yourself as being a good fit for your current position (or the school is no longer a good fit for you). Sometimes that means that casting changes need to occur. Sometimes it means we need to change the way we do things. Make changes when they’re needed. Learn from mistakes and move forward. As long as your pain makes you think and your thought makes you wise, it will lead to wisdom that will make life more endurable. (Thank you, Sakini and John Patrick!)
  3. Who do I need to surround myself with? Who are the people that I know I’ll be thanking at the end of the year for making my life easier, better, and happier? Who is going to bring joy to my life and the lives of the people I love and care about? How can I bring joy to the people I come in contact with each day? As Mark Twain once said, “To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with”. Who will you choose to divide your joy with?

As 2017 comes to a close and we welcome 2018 and all the wonderful experiences that will be coming our way, I’d like to take this moment to say thank you to each of you who have purchased our curriculum, liked our Facebook page, attended a workshop, recommended our publications to other theatre educators, or in any way supported Maestro Theatre Publications, LLC.  May your 2018 be filled with happiness and success. May you and your students create many moments that will turn into precious memories. Most importantly, may be surrounded by love and by many wonderful people with whom you can divide your joy. Happy New year!

If Eastwood Hill Could Talk

“Relationships before issues,” is the phrase I use to begin every Maestro Theatre training workshop. I stole that phrase from a Catholic priest who began my summer high school church camps this way.  Most people are naturally uncomfortable with ice braking, get to know one another, team building activities.  It is scary to to expose yourself and possible set yourself up for rejection or to set yourself up for a negative evaluation regarding your social interaction skills. Unfortunately, this natural fear of social interaction is now more severe with current generations being raised with cell phones as their best friend.  And it’s not limited to the young.  Through Maestro Theatre workshops I have observed teachers who are just as lonely as young people.  I meet teachers hungry for friends, conversation, and acceptance.

Many returning teachers arrive and hug me in thanksgiving, “I started crying the minute I drove onto the Eastwood Hill property,” I recall a teacher saying, “It’s like I’m home.”  Home is where a family gathers.  I, as the Maestro director, and we, as teachers, must work harder than ever to create community.  New teachers are understandably uncomfortable when they arrive at to Eastwood Hill and see returning teachers, scream, hug, jump into familiar and energetic conversations.  “Well it’s because of the friendships that were developed here,” a teacher explains to a new comer.  Once the workshop begins and I force conversation, force face to face interaction with a stranger, force activities that encourage seeing a stranger as a person with the same issues or experiences we all possess, the magic of community begins.

All of a sudden the living room space at Eastwood Hill, get louder, all of a sudden I have to interrupt talk as new relationship are being formed.  All of a sudden the new teacher is off Facebook or not texting because they are visiting with a hopeful new friend.  Although some of these forced friends are directed, “I’ll be your friend right now because Rick makes us do this, we soon discover that our commonality creates a bond.  You are attending a Maestro workshop for the same reason everyone else is, you have the same interest in theatre, art, students, improving.  You discover that you are talking to person who understands the challenges of teaching, the inequity of finances, the exhaustion of long days plus rehearsal, the struggle to balance work and home life.  People who share your same interest and experiences become your life long bonds.

I love when 20 new teachers at a Maestro workshop stay up until 3:00 in the morning because they are with people who speak their own language and can’t stop talking. I love when the kitchen island is littered with snacks and beverages as new friends congregate and laugh, share successes AND FLAWS.  In three days, exhausted educators, who were feeling defeated are now energized and optimistic.  The face to face relationships with other caring friends are powerful drivers of engaged learning.  Without these relationships it is easy to give up and quit.

What are you providing for your students to create community? What are you designing for yourself?  Do you ever put down your cell phone to be more present in a room?  Do you have rules for yourself, and students about how you use technology in a social situation? So create an orientation for your classes and your acting companies?  Is your department a home?

Wonderful relationships have developed under the Eastwood Hill roof.  Many tears been shared and accepted within these walls. Eastwood Hill has heard many stories of success, many confessions of failure and self-doubt, many stories which made us laugh.  As theatre directors we coach relationships onstage; let’s take that connection off stage and help create a healthier community. Have a holy holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Facebook Friend, Don Nigro, Or Why You Should Be Speaking to Your Playwright

I remember the day I pressed enter to send a request to be Don Nigro’s friend on Facebook.  I was sitting across from Mandy Connor, who had just produced his play, Paganini, and she and I were discussing our love of his plays.  I shared how much I loved directing his play about Edward Munch called Madonna as we discovered he had an actual account on Facebook, not just a fan page.  We both decided to friend request him and like giggling school girls, we pressed send at the same time.  We were over the moon when it came back accepted!  I was even more shocked to see that Mr. Nigro was open to discussing my show, was complimentary of the production photos and was interested in my program.  When I shared with him my desire to produce another one of his shows and told him my available casting options, he sent me several scripts, some not published yet, and offered his help.  I was in awe of his generosity and appreciation for what I did as an educator.

With my new friend’s encouragement, I began to approach play selection differently.  Not only did I look at the suitability of the work but also the possibility of connecting with the playwright so my students would have an additional layer of instruction.  By working with the playwright, when possible, my students had the opportunity to not only explore the work as a piece of literature with the author but, they were also exposed to another career opportunity in the field of Theatre.  I pushed my fear of rejection aside and began communicating with playwrights through their agents and publishing companies and almost every playwright has been open to e-mailing me or even communicating directly with my students when we produce their work.

It is funny but, as directors and educators, we sometimes forget that the playwrights who generate the material we work on are open to collaboration and are a tremendous resource for us and our students.  For many playwrights, the idea that their work is being produced in educational theatre is not only exciting for them but lucrative.  I have found in working with playwrights like Jeffrey Hatcher on Smash, George Brant on Elephant’s Graveyard , Heidi Stillman on Hard Times For These Times , Sharman Macdonald on After Juliet, and Matthew Burnett on Theophilus North, a real appreciation for what we do in developing young talent.  Playwrights are eager to see their work produced and many are willing to work with you and your company to clarify objectives and broaden the production experience.

Some playwrights have tailored their shows to be student centered and may even have study guides or supplementary materials available as I found when I worked with Matthew Burnett on Theophilus North. When I applied for the rights, Samuel French Inc. asked me if I was interested in Skyping with him.  I was thrilled with the possibilities of such an opportunity and connected with Mr. Burnett before and after the Skype with my students.  I told him my concept and discussed symbolism and meaning in the show.  We discussed his adaptation and I submitted my ideas for adapting his show for UIL.  Mr. Burnett worked with the students during the Skype session, answering their questions regarding the dramatic structure of his plot, his adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s novel and how he became a playwright.  The experience went beyond my expectations with Mr. Burnett sending his support to the students and empowering them to make the show their own and enjoy the journey.  His frequent shout outs to our company on Facebook were a real treat throughout the run.  Mr. Burnett connected with the student’s love of theatre and was a tremendous inspiration. Following our UIL debut of his production, he produced his own one-act version of the show.

I have had many colleagues share their positive experiences about working and corresponding with playwrights and I challenge you to reach out to your playwright.  Like me, you may be surprised at the amazing generosity of your playwright.  At the beginning of the year, I posted a simple status update “Ambiguous Dialogues anyone……”  It was an assignment we were covering that day in Theatre I class.  By the time I got to work, my good Facebook friend, Don Nigro, had e-mailed me two original scripts with ambiguous dialogues.  Wow! Nothing like having a direct line to a playwright!  And for the record, Mandy Connor, who so boldly encouraged me to hit send on the friend request to Mr. Nigro is now a published playwright herself!  I highly encourage you to check out her scripts, published by Playscripts, Ago and Lafayette No. 1.

Without hesitation, I encourage you to make contact with those individuals who wrote, adapted, and cultivated the script your students will be using to create their next masterpiece.  The guidance, encouragement, clarification and direction you will receive are well worth your time and effort to make a connection.  As you plan this year’s shows, look into corresponding with your playwrights.  Your students will benefit from the experience and you could find a resource that continues giving even when the curtain closes.

It’s Audition Time Again

I have a love/hate relationship with auditions.  As a director, I’m excited to see the growth of my students’ auditioning skills from their previous auditions.  I’m optimistic that new jewels are about to be discovered, and that those diamonds-in-the-rough from the previous year are now sparkling and ready to “wow” me. Watching students enter the audition process with excitement, hope, and determination is something that I absolutely love.  I hate, however, the eventual task of making those difficult (and many times hair-splitting) decisions, breaking hearts, and disappointing kids. Unfortunately, it’s part of the process if your students are truly invested in your program.

With the beginning of another school year, many directors are currently going through the audition process.  Below are a few tips that have worked for me.

  1. The CALENDAR. Have a calendar with dates of rehearsals, performances, contests, and any other dates that your company members will be required to attend.  It’s important to be very specific concerning the expectations you have of your students’ time. This will, hopefully, eliminate conflicts in the future. It will also give you leverage later should a student ask to miss a required event due to a conflict that was not previously approved.

 

  1. The CONTRACT. A contract listing your rehearsal, performance, and contest expectations, along with information concerning the dates you require students to attend these events (attach calendar mentioned in #1) should be distributed at auditions.  Have students read the contract and allow them to communicate any questions they may have. Contracts should be signed by both the student and a parent. There should be a statement indicating that the parent and the student both understand and agree to your expectations and the student will be available on all dates indicated as a required event.

 

  1. The AUDITION FORM. I include a section for students to list their other activities (job, school activities, church activities, private lessons, etc…) on the audition form. Have students list all possible activities they will be involved with during the rehearsal process and through the run of the show (including advancement dates for contest and any rehearsals to accompany advancement). They should include dates/times for these activities.  It’s important that you get an idea how busy the student is and with which activities they are involved.  It’s best to know that a student has conflicts prior to casting them.  Sometimes, you can work through the issues and the student can still participate, but if the student is going to have to make choices, it’s best for them and for you to know that now.

 

  1. The PROCESS. It’s important to consider many things when perusing scripts: your talent pool, your audience, your community, your budget, and the literary merit of the material you’re considering just to name a few. Finding “the one” is often a time-consuming process.  If more than one script could be “the one”, consider auditioning multiple scripts to get an idea of which is the best.  During the audition process, include a brief interview with each of the students who receive a call-back (and, if time allows, during regular auditions). If you haven’t already discussed possible conflicts from the audition form with each student, the interview process is a great time to have that discussion. Interviews can be done during lunch and before or after school on non-audition days if desired. Also, consider using various audition techniques in your assessment of auditions.  A cold reading of the chosen script can be useful, but not all students cold-read well.  Warm-ups and improv activities can be valuable in discovering who is quick-witted, creative, or willing to get out of their comfort zone.  Having students memorize a brief monologue or scene for call-backs is yet another way to access a student’s abilities. Pantomime activities are a great way to observe a student’s use of physicality when acting.  When multiple assessments are used, a director can consider how each student uses the body, voice, imagination, and script.  This will give you a much better picture of the actor you are casting.  Crew members should also have an audition and interview process.

 

  1. The “TALK”. I give “the talk” prior to the start of auditions and at the conclusion of each audition session.  The “talk” at the beginning of the audition session will include information concerning what I’m looking for in auditions.  I also give each student a list of characters with character descriptions, a synopsis of the play, and the calendar/contract/audition form. I want the students to have all the information they need to be successful and to understand the expectations of them. At the end of each audition session, and especially on the final day of regular auditions and call-back auditions, I conclude with another “talk”.  I explain to the students that I have to make very difficult decisions, and not everyone will get what they want.  I ask that they look at me and really hear the following words, “I’m talking to you”.   So many of them truly believe they’ve aced their audition, and there’s no way you can’t choose them. They need to understand that rejection is a part of the process.  If you get the part you want, that probably means someone else (or several people) have not gotten what they wanted.  It happens.  It’s disappointing, and it is alright to be disappointed.  It’s NOT alright to be angry, bitter, or disruptive to the production process if you’re disappointed.  During the production process, we teach theatre, but we also teach “life”.  Teaching them how to handle disappointment and triumph is part of what we do.  I tell my students, “You’re always auditioning” in hopes that this will encourage them to reflect before reacting negatively. Help them learn that you love them enough to hold them accountable for their behavior.

Don’t forget that you, too, will be auditioning during the student audition process.  Students come into auditions evaluating you, your program, & your choice of script. They’re considering, “Do I want to spend my time being a part of this process?”, “Does this director seem like someone I want to work with?”, and “Do I really want to be in this particular play?”.  Be organized. Be engaging.  Be excited.  Students want to make sure that the commitment of their time, talent, and efforts is well placed. The audition process will help them make that decision.  Best wishes with your auditions this year, and remember—-you, and they, are always auditioning!

Millennials in Theatre

I do not have a television in my house.  Some guests comment in disbelief, “How can you live without a television?” Television is not bad; too much television was bad for me. It was hypnotic and encouraged me to waste a lot of time, so I got rid of the machine.  I also got tired of the news and commercials telling me what to believe and what to purchase.  Similarly, I hate visiting friends and their entire living room is arranged around a television, which remains on. Hello; let’s look at each other and talk. Can you imagine growing up today? The relationship our students have with technology is beyond description.  My three-year-old niece operates her mom’s cell phone!  How has technology effected our students and what is our role in teaching theatre which is about people, not gadgets?

I grew up in rural Texas; our closet neighbors were the Sellars family, 3 miles away.  I grew up playing outdoors. Jan Sellars and I often rode our bikes for miles, but my favorite childhood game incorporated my chores and my imagination.  It was my job to feed our livestock. I had to cut down some of the maize or milo from the nearby field and wheel barrow it to feed the calves and pigs.  Instead of efficiently cutting down the green stalks from the nearest corner of the field, I sliced winding paths into the living greenness creating a meandering maze of trails and secret rooms and hidden passages.  I knew the paths.  I can still hear the wind gently vibrating the leaves sounding like a giant hand gliding across a rusted harp.  And each day I fed the animals, the maze got deeper and more complicated and the High Plains’ wind was my soundtrack.  When my city cousins came to visit, we would spend hours devising games and scenarios in the mysterious paths.

But today, many of our students only play indoors and they are attached to their devices, computers, and video games. Some of the games have great effects and soundtracks, but it’s all been designed and created for them.  I grew up with friends, real friends; I still visit with Jan Sellars Bates.  Our students have virtual friends. Today’s Millennial boosts his or her self-esteem by counting hundreds of Facebook friends.  But the truth is that they have never seen most of them and they only know them superficially and add friends from the invitation of an intrusive app suggesting, “You might also know…”. A teen today sends an average of 3,000 texts a month. I use to get one snail mail letter every two months from my pen pal in Minnesota.

There is much negative criticism of Millennials.  Many say they are tough to manage, narcissistic, unfocused, lazy, entitled.  I’m not quite that harsh but, I admit, I sometimes describe my students as so, until I need help with my computer or, sound system, or downloading something, or hooking up to Wi-Fi. Then I’m reminded that they are actually efficient, genius and skilled! Millennials grew up in a Facebook and Instagram world. They grew up with filters that only show the good and happy world.  Consequently, many are suffering from depression and low self-esteems. The trauma for young people to be unfriended is real.   It’s no fault of this generation; this is the time they were dealt.  They grew up with instant gratification and yet older people describe them as impatient and wanting everything now, now, now, with no understanding of having to work for it!  If they want information, it’s at their fingertips.  I had to plan for a week and drive 30 miles to see a movie. They don’t even have to worry about movie times; they just click and download.  Food? Click, order, pay, delivered, and not just pizza.  Same with shopping; Amazon order and it’s in your possession tomorrow.  And dating?  They did not have to go through the awkward humiliation of breaking the ice and stumbling out words that sounded more like soggy Jell-O than courting. They just swipe and bam, a hook-up.  They swipe and crash, a break-up.  They are failing at building meaningful relationships. They rarely practiced the skills.

But theatre teaches communication and relationships.  We teach the essential social coping skills. We teach that the process matters more than the immediate outcome.  Today’s kids do not have a realistic understanding of the journey.  They care more about the short term gains than the life-long lessons.  Through the rehearsal period, we model patience and teach that projects come to fruition with time, flexibility and persistence.  Theatre rewards with the fulfillment of working hard and seeing a project brought to fruition. Theatre teaches that we care about people rather than corporate gains, or profits, or brands, or how many likes your posting gets.

It’s always been tough teaching actors character development and relationships; it’s even harder now because of how alienated they have been raised.  It is even more difficult now to teach looking at one another in the eyes.  It’s more difficult to teach touching.  Remind yourself of when your students grew-up.  Discuss the humanity necessary for theatre and all art.

There should be no cell phones while your company is creating art and while you are teaching communication and relationships.  The presence of the phone invites distraction, and allows kids to surrender to the addiction of the cell phone, just like me and television. I believe it’s rude to have a cell phone out on a table when you are supposed to visit with family or friends. I believe it’s rude to have a cell phone out during a business meeting where you are supposed to be engaged and communicating.

Theatre directors teach art, but we also teach life-long skills.  Thank God I did not have an I Phone in my childhood maize field; I would have laid down on the cool dirt and played a video maze game, like Portal 2, rather than cultivating my own imagination. Instead I built my own life size magical world of green corridors and giant hands playing the High Plains harp.