Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Little Mermaid at P.S. 161

The Little Mermaid Junior at P.S. 161
Christopher Smalley

            There we were. It was one day before the opening of “The Little Mermaid Junior” at P.S. 161 and things were looking grim. Lines were being flubbed, entrances were being missed, and costumes were being tossed haphazardly around backstage. This was the first year that the Fundamentals of Teaching Theatre class had attempted anything of this breadth…and it was starting to look like it was going to be the last. 

            And then it happened. The magic happened. That indescribable magic, the kind of magic that only someone who has done theatre with young actors knows about happened. We came back the next day and a show appeared as if from nowhere. However, those of us working with the students of P.S. 161 know that it wasn’t from nowhere. The passion was there the whole time. This group, some of whom had never acted before, became an ensemble in front of our very eyes and brought the classic Disney musical to life.
And the magic didn’t end with the students onstage. Last year the cast of less than twenty performed to an audience of less than forty. This year, a cast of over thirty-five performed to a sold out house of over four hundred people. Four hundred!! A community potluck dinner that was scheduled before the show transformed from a first time question mark where raisins were the only item on the menu to an honest to goodness community event. The food and drink flowed. Families from every corner of Harlem came together over good-natured discussions of whose flan was better. The energy was infectious and carried through to the final performance.
At the end of the night, as this ensemble came together for the last time, it was the profound reflections of the students that showed just how magical the experience had been. I’ve always believed that to witness theatre through the eyes of student actors is to witness it at it’s most pure. These few, these happy few, who had braved long rehearsals, brand-new directors, changed (and re-changed) choreography, and the cheers (and jeers) of their peers, came together and spoke with such maturity of their experience that it floored us graduate students.

I can say for myself that the time I spent as a mentor, (or buddy, or grad, or “tall guy”) will remain on of the best experiences I have ever had. Looking around the circle yesterday, as we grads came together one final time to wrap the class, I knew that it was a near universal truth that these students had effected us as much as we hopefully effected them. Now I have to wait 365 days to go back and watch how they top themselves next year. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Cecily O'Neill Visits!

Cecily O'Neill Visits
Giselle D'Souza

Cecily O’Neill began her recent process drama workshop at CCNY Ed Theatre by posing this question: “Are there any difficulties you’ve encountered in your work?” As I reflected on this enormous question, I didn’t even know where to start. One fellow student shared his challenges of working with kids who simply did not want to work.   

As a freelance teaching artist since 2008, who recently began working as a full time theatre teacher at a charter school in Harlem, I have encountered similar challenges. A majority of my teaching artist work in the past has been with students who had a passion for theatre, bright eyed and bushy tailed kids who joined programs of their own accord and thrived on almost anything I threw at them. In my current position, all students are required to take theatre. I am honored to say that most of my students dive right in, but there are always those moments when they are just not interested in theatre. Sometimes I think of process drama as a technique that can magically lure students into dramatic work, without them even realizing it. The magic of Process Drama is to build so much belief with your students that they begin to drive the work on their own accord. 

The main focus of the workshop was a lesson about southern plantations from Ms. O’Neill’s book Dreamseekers.  We began by imagining we were employees at “Heritage USA”, a company that owns many historical properties around America. Ms. O’Neill posed as a visitor from the UK division of the company, asking us how we go about acquiring properties and setting them up for public viewing. After some discussion, we focused on a specific southern plantation that Heritage USA had the desire to acquire. We had heard that the owner of this plantation was going to be quite difficult to persuade and it would take a lot of work. “Are you up for it?” She asked, in true process drama fashion…and of course we agreed. Next, Ms. O’Neill broke us up into groups of three and asked one student to take on the role of an elderly plantation owner. First she had the plantation owners stand up in the center and imagine they were looking out onto their plantation, pondering the possibility of it being sold. She asked us to comment on what we saw in the physiicalities and facial expressions of the plantation owners. The other two students in each group played employees at Heritage USA; set out to convince the owner to sell their property to the company.  In my group, I was assigned the role of employee, which was quite challenging. My fellow employee and I worked so well together, that when time was up I found myself so invested in my mission that I did not want to stop!

The beauty of Ms. O’Neil’s work is that she herself is learning along with her students. Sticking to a stringent plan or schedule didn’t seem to be her style; instead she allowed the workshop to evolve as we went along. Next she tried something she had never done before, having the employees stand behind the plantation owner and say words to represent what they had experienced in their meeting with the plantation owner. Each group got a turn to share and we discussed the similarities and differences between the plantation owners. Next, she asked the plantation owners to stand in a line and asked them “What is your biggest concern?” having them answer in short phrases. This was followed by three different texts handed out to each student, asking us to choose a phrase or two that stood out to us. The source material shifted the focus to the slaves and how they lived on the plantations, which was a sharp turn into the focus of the lesson. As time ran out, Cecily mentioned a number of other exercises she might use with this lesson and closed the workshop with telling us to thing about these questions: “What are the kids bringing to it? How can you give them, not what they want, but what they need?”

As I reflect on what my students “need” in a theatre class in charter school in Harlem, I realize that they simply need a place to be heard, a place where they are important and their voice matters. In my classroom, I strive every day to build positive self-esteem and creative expression and I look forward to using Process Drama techniques to support my mission. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Yuki and the Elephant

Yuki and the Elephant
Kim Ceccotti
As a new graduate student and a beginner in the field of TYA, I was a little reluctant to be a part of Yuki and the Elephant, but I couldn't be happier with the choice I made. Before Yuki, I had never seen—let alone been a part of—a piece of theatre for young audiences. I was not quite sure what to expect. As an actor, I’ve mostly been in adult dramas, and as a teacher, I have taught upper middle and high school students. This was a far cry from my comfort zone, but I took a leap of faith with a group of my fellow graduate classmates who quickly became my friends. I felt so privileged to be invited into this Yuki family. The show was written in 2013 and was performed at Family Arts Day in Spring 2014, so this would be the second cast and round of performances; wanting to keep all the cast and crew current graduate students, there were a few spots that needed filling. I think I can speak for all of the new additions to Yuki when I say: we felt so welcomed, and that feeling of ensemble always makes for an even more amazing experience. 

 Yuki and the Elephant is a beautiful story told through actors and some really impressive shadow puppetry. Like I said before, I have never been a part of TYA; it’s a different type of theatre than I am used to, but certainly not any less difficult. Dealing with the various aspects having to do with a traveling show, what was required of us in terms of audience interaction, and the concept and application of shadow puppetry were all completely foreign to me a month ago. After a few very intense rehearsals, we performed for about 100 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at PS 180 and again for almost 300 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at PS 161. The feedback from the children during and after the show was overwhelming in the best way possible. All our hard work was evident, and the children—the reason we as theatre educators do what we do—were so responsive, and it was so thrilling to see. 

For me, what added to the success of Yuki and the Elephant was the fact that we were able to provide the students with pre-show lessons the morning before they were going to see the performance. What I loved most about facilitating in the classrooms in preparation for the show was that relationships were already formed between the cast and the students. The students were so excited to participate in the activities regarding Yuki; they were learning new words, getting up in front of the class to perform, and creating ensemble with their classmates. They worked on drawings knowing that they would be able to bring them to the performance and possibly be a part of the show! Plus, they could eventually see the teaching artists who taught and played with them up on the stage. This was so exciting for them, and it made me excited as well.  
 The whole Yuki and the Elephant experience—from rehearsals to pre-show lessons to the actual show—left me really wanting to do more TYA, and that is something I truly never fathomed before last month. What started out being a fun way to get observation hours for my TYA class, quickly became what I know will be one of my favorite and most rewarding memories of graduate school.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

No Child - A Visit from Nilaja Sun

No Child - A Visit from Nilaja Sun
Bahar Cetinsoy

“Your soul grows, and your students grow. Your students’ heart thanks you” says Nilaja Sun.
The Graduate Program in Educational Theatre at The City College of New York invited the actress and a great teaching artist, Nilaja Sun as a guest speaker .   

Nilaja shared  her teaching experience  in New York’s toughest schools. She told her story by playing in the role of characters at the school she taught through a performance of “No Child”.

Through “No Child”  Nilaja showed us the profile of the students, the staff, and the culture of the school by an outstanding performance. I was mesmerized by her talent in acting. I was very interested in how we were introduced with  each character by her sudden transformation from one  to another . 

Her excellent ability to use her gestures, body posture, tone of voice and facial expression made the story very real and made us understand what it  feels like being a teaching artist with students in the school. She presented controversial  issues regarding  New York City education, and the education system that actually leaves students behind by inhibiting their learning.  

One thing in particular stood out to me was when she said she wanted to teach in order to touch lives. I was in tears when she said that we are not teaching these kids how to be leaders, in fact we make them ready for jails. In other words, she meant this is what the system does to those kids. What she wanted to do was exactly the opposite of what the system does. She said that she wanted to teach in the most disadvantaged schools in New York City, the city that raised her. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Listening to Amanda Gronich

Listening to Amanda Gronich
Meredith Akins

Out of nowhere, I find myself in my last year of graduate school.  Where did the time go? Oh my, I’m supposed to write a thesis...wait, huh?...An ethnodrama...Wait! In groups?  Of people with completely different schedules and needs than I might have?  I was already nervous, but now...I am afraid.  Give me strength!  And so the journey of my last year at CCNY begins.  I keep reminding myself of what Sobha said several times in Drama In Education my first semester as a graduate student.  “You will be prepared!”.  I’m holding you to that Ms. Kavanakudiyil!  And so with that, I have kept my ears, eyes, heart, and mind open to learn and be inspired by others.  When guest speaker, Amanda Gronich, came to our Content Research Seminar class, I was listening.  

 I was in Europe performing when the nation was gripped by the events of Laramie, WY.  I returned to the States in November 1998 and Matthew Shepard had already died.  It was still big news and there was talk of hate crimes.   Just 4 months prior, a black man, James Byrd, Jr., had been tied to a truck and dragged to death by three white men in Jasper, TX.  Hate crimes were part of the conversation already and everyone had an opinion.  Even though I didn’t know much about the events, I was horrified that, once again, someone was killed for simply existing.   

I was eager to watch The Laramie Project on HBO in 2002 because I had missed much of the news footage in Europe.  I wanted to see what “actually happened”.  Sadly, I watched the first 10 minutes...and turned it off because it didn’t seem like a movie.  “Where was the action?  They didn’t even show an actor playing Matthew Shepard”.  It is embarrassing to me now, but I was young.  I didn’t understand that this was the most real movies get.  I had never heard of the play, The Laramie Project, thus I didn’t understand that the movie was based on the real transcriptions gathered by members of Tectonic Theatre, including Amanda Gronich.  There was actually plenty of action in the movie.  It was the type of action that lead to transformative change.  

 Ms. Gronich continued to empower us to think, “What is it that theatre can do that no other media can do” throughout the night.  It made me think of the responsibility and accountability on us as researchers.  How do I tell a story that can either inspire change or create more questions?  Ms. Gronich heard and supported our wants and concerns with our final project.  She listened objectively in much the same way she did when she conducted interviews for The Laramie Project.  By the end of the night, I understood that it would be through sharing.The sharing of stories, opinions, and most importantly, emotions with my research group.  It won’t always be easy and it is still a bit daunting, but if we are clear on what is important in theatre education and how we can share our narratives, our work of art will create a space for change or inquiry in a way that no other media can do. We have to be willing to tell our stories to one another first in order to find a way in.  This is more than just about a grade.  It is a way to share our artistry.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Thrills, Chills, and Hills – Starting Something New

Patrick G. McGee 

There is always the thrill of starting something new. Sometimes, it is starting a new hobby, trying a new recipe for a dinner party or even taking a new route home from work.  Starting something new always seems to bring a breath of fresh air to my daily routines and starting my first semester in this program is no exception.   As a teaching artist, I love the first day of classes or rehearsal.  There is always a great sense of excitement from both the young artists and myself.  
The past few weeks have been nothing but exciting and definitely thrilling.  I am slowly discovering the balance of finding my voice as an artist as well as developing my own teaching style.  The rainstorm of new terms like scaffolding, TYA, process vs. product, and devising theater have sparked my interests as a student in so many ways. 
I am thrilled to be in class with so many teachers and teaching artists with such varied backgrounds.  I am both humbled and inspired by my classmates’ discussions and feel myself growing both as an artist and student in these past few weeks. Both the discussions about the combination of  innovative technology and cutting edge theater for young audiences  and being exposed to productions like The Old Man and The Old Moon at The New Victory have a struck a new chord in my artistry.  Also, I was fortunate enough to take Devising Theatre over the summer and that class really allowed me to find the importance of my own artistry as a teaching artist but more importantly understand that we are all creating something together.  I was really struck by our discussions about community that were sparked by the devised theater pieces.  Ultimately, I think as both teachers and artists it is this idea of building a community or ensemble that is extremely important both inside and out of the classroom.  I am excited to find my place in this graduate program ensemble over the next few years. 

With any new experience, there are also so many anxieties.  For me if I am not a little bit nervous starting something, the passion must be missing.  Well needless to say those chills were there the first day of class.  With so many new people and new experiences, how would I fit in?  Also it has been some years since I have been in the world of academia, and I was a little worried that I would not be able to keep up.  Needless to say, the work load is a little intense, and the drama in education paper still makes my stomach churn but all these things combined remind me of my passion to be a better teaching artist. 
 Passion is what drives and fuels my every day existence.  It is why I get up every day with such vigor, and with that passion comes many, many hills to conquer.  I think our lives are series of hills that we are constantly trying to climb.  We have moments of glory when we reach the top and look down at what we accomplished. Maybe it is that lesson you thought could not be pulled off or that production of The Little Mermaid that you have to direct with 18 other directors.  Regardless of the hill you are currently climbing, the reward is in the journey.   I am excited to start climbing this new hill and start my journey towards my Master’s Degree.  Bring on all those thrills, chills, and hills!