Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Five Lessons I've Learned in My First Year

Five Lessons I’ve Learned in My First Year
By Amanda Urban

1.      Grad School is a Blast and Half
Graduate school is a scary notion. We all wonder: How on Earth am I going to balance grad school, working, and my personal life? While it seems many of us are still struggling to find that balance, I can at least say that our program makes the challenge easier because classes are a blast and a half. I legitimately look forward to going to classes every week because I know that we’ll be doing something engaging, purposeful, and fun. In most classes, our professors ask us to get on our feet and the moment we begin our warm-up activity, the stresses of the rest of the world melt away—we’re here in class together to learn how to be better teachers, and to have fun while we do it.
The moment I fell in love with our program was when Sobha told our Artistic Lab class that the purpose of the course was “to play and have fun” for an hour every week. For that hour, I engaged in an artistry that my classmates were passionate about: we learned how to juggle, how to engage in stage combat, how to parody music, how to dance, sing, and play with one another. I appreciated that the program encouraged us to set aside time in our own busy lives to practice what we preach—to make time for the arts.
Moreover, my other classes kept me smiling throughout.  In Drama in Education, we collaborated to create a moving dragon using all of our bodies and traveled to imagined places using Guided Imagery. In my Teaching Literacy Through Drama class, we happily wrote and performed plays for each other. In my Conflict Resolution Through Drama class, we enthusiastically created flash forum pieces that sometimes made us laugh, but always made us want to make a difference. My classes invigorate and empower me every week. I doubt anyone else can say that about their grad school experience.

 2.      Take Every Opportunity
I’ve learned that this program has so many wonderful opportunities and I should take every opportunity to challenge myself as a student, artist, and teacher. On a small scale, I learned that I should take every chance to volunteer in class. How will I learn to facilitate Rainbow of Desire if I’ve never participated in it? How will I learn to make my students excited about a Dance Party warm-up if I don’t dance my heart out at the beginning of my class?
On a larger scale, the program offers weekend elective classes once a semester that I chose to participate in. In the spring semester, I took a Baby Theatre course and learned about the art of engaging 0-5 year olds in drama. Although I’m primarily interested in teaching adolescents, I was glad I took the opportunity to learn about early childhood development and to see the fascinating effects theatre can have on the very young.
Additionally, I volunteered at the Harlem Children’s Theatre Festival in the spring. I helped at the dress-up booth and enjoyed imagining with the children who would pretend to be Queen of the Forest when donning a crown, and a train conductor in the next moment because of a simple costume change. I loved watching the smiling children play with puppets, create crafts, and participate in a sing-along. Most exciting was watching them exit the theatre, possibly having seen their first performance ever. It was powerful to know that we may have played a part in exposing some of those children to theatre for the very first time in their life and I was happy that I chose to take advantage of the opportunity to do so.

3.      Practice Makes Perfect
Our program has taught me that being a good teacher means being prepared and being willing to take risks. In many classes, we are required to facilitate a lesson, either individually or in groups. I’ve enjoyed these facilitations because it allows me to try different strategies in a safe space before trying them with my high school students. Through my own facilitation and my classmates’ facilitations, I can see what works and consider ways I could modify an activity to better fit my personality as a teacher.
I like that our program makes me feel safe to share my teaching experience and encourages me to make my classroom engaging. Sobha told us to think of our program as a salad bar: just as a person can choose ingredients to make a salad that’s perfect for them, we as teachers should take the tools that our classes teach us and choose to use them in a way that will feel right for us and for our classrooms. In the end, we’ll learn the tools that work best for us, but for now, we’ll continue to experiment because practice makes perfect.

4.      Ensemble, Ensemble, Ensemble
Anyone who is involved in theatre knows that by the end of a rehearsal process, the cast and crew become a family. It’s one of the best parts about being involved in theatre. Amazingly, our program flawlessly builds ensemble in each class and has left me with a wonderful sense of family. We laugh together, share our challenges, and support each other. This program has taught me that it is pivotal to build a strong ensemble in my classroom because I see the benefits of a strong ensemble every day: our classes radiate positivity, we all feel safe sharing our ideas, and in the end, we learn more from each other and from our professors because of it.

5.      The Importance of Advocacy
While many of my friends and family have supported my passion for theatre since I was in my first role as Mama #1 in Fiddler on the Roof in sixth grade, I’ve noticed that people who do not normally participate in the arts or are not regularly exposed to the arts, may not see the value in our program or worse, the value in an arts education. This year has taught me the importance of not only fostering our artistry and pedagogy, but also the importance of advocacy.
When I tell my coworkers that I’m getting my Masters Degree in Educational Theatre, I can tell that some seem skeptical. I know they’re thinking: What place does drama really have in an English classroom? Are you really learning anything that will challenge your students? Is an Arts Education really all that important in the grand scheme of education?
I’ve learned that I need to take a stand for Arts Education. I can advocate by kindly informing my coworkers of the countless benefits of integrating the arts into the classroom. I can also advocate by actually facilitating lessons that require students to engage in drama practices. In doing so, I’ve already enlightened my co-teacher to the benefits of arts integration. “They’re so engaged,” she’s said to me. “That grad program you’re in really is amazing.”

I just smile at her because I already know it is and because I can’t wait to learn more as I continue the program.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Harlem Children's Theatre Festival

Harlem Children’s Theatre Festival

This year’s Harlem Children’s Theatre Festival was a huge success, mostly in part to our dedication, talented and innovative Master’s candidates! Here is a little discussion from a few who participated in the event.

This year marked the third time I was a part of The Harlem Children's Theatre Festival (formerly Family Arts Day). It was very exciting to take the event in a new direction this year, which made the three live theatrical performances shine as the festival centerpiece. Theatre is a collaborative art form, and I have enjoyed participating in the group-driven process to make the event possible. The talents and resourcefulness of my peers in the Graduate Program in Educational Theatre at the City College of New York, under the visionary leadership of Jennifer Katona and Sobha Kavanakudiyil, make the “magic” happen.   From the initial stages of planning through the event execution and clean up, the process has showed me the power of surrounding myself with like-minded people who share my passion for theatre and the arts. An essential part of being an arts educator is learning how to be an arts advocate, and bringing one’s artistic vision to reality for the communities you serve. Being a part of the festival has allowed me to participate in the extraordinary process of creating theatre for young audiences and inspiring a new generation that will benefit in learning about themselves and developing empathy for those around them in a way that only theatre can provide.
-Lauren Adler

 Assistant producing the Harlem Children’s Theatre Festival was such an amazing learning experience.  Though I have directed and produced various and sundry children’s theatre shows over the years, I had never produced a festival like this, juggling volunteers, donations, activities, publicity and multiple shows.  I have to say that though I was brought on to make our fearless leader Sobha’s life easier, she made it pretty easy for me, walking me through the steps and supporting me, always with grace and patience.  My co-assistant Lauren was another huge asset, since she was involved with the festival last year when it was Family Arts Day, filling in the blanks and giving sage advice.  I especially loved coordinating the Creative Play Workshops for young children and their families that led up to the festival.  It was such a joy to watch the community come together in the intimate setting of a small workshop, watching some of our wonderful teachers-to-be practice their art, igniting joy and wonder in young children.  It was no surprise that that joy and wonder were multiplied times a thousand at the Harlem Children’s Theatre Festival.  So many little ones were exposed to the beauty of theatre for the first time that day.  So many families engaged with the arts and their community dynamically, in a way they never had before.  This festival gave me the opportunity to bridge Educational Theatre volunteers with the families and children of our neighborhood, making beautiful connections through the many aspects of theatre.  I cannot wait to continue to bridge those connections, and I definitely cannot wait till next year for the second annual Harlem Children’s Theatre Festival.
-Meredith Smart

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned during my time in the Educational Theatre program at CCNY is the importance of building ensemble whether it is in our classrooms or our community.  The Harlem Children’s Theatre Festival is a prime example of this. It took an ensemble from the CCNY community to produce a festival of this magnitude that could bring together so many families from the NYC community for the purpose of celebrating the arts and families experiencing art together.   The process began for me last semester as I watched this script evolve from a brainstorming idea to a fully realized play.  Working on this project allowed me to share my artistry as a director with my fellow graduate students and I got to witness their acting talents shine as they shared this wonderful story with the children and families who attended the festival.  As our performance began I stood there and watched the audience enter the world of Harry the Dog and I saw their delight as Harry and his friends and family traveled through the story.  It was the first exposure to live theatre for many of the children and what an honor it was to be able to share this story and the beauty of live theatre with them
-Jeff Seabaugh

As an artist, I am a story teller, and the Harlem Children's Theatre Festival reminded me that the stories created in the theatre can bring joy to both children and adults. As an actor, I was captivated by how invested audiences were in the stories we created on stage. Children have an honesty that they bring to a theatre piece and after all, the audience is the final character in the story. Finally, this festival allowed families to come together to enjoy storytelling without looking at a screen or phone.  The audience and the actors were experiencing something together. As an actor, I was able to actively respond to the audience which enhanced my experience and shaped the story that was told.  Through laughter, song, and movement, something magical was created through this theatrical experience, and I could see that magic spark in many of the eyes of the young audience members. I am excited to see how this festival grows in years to come.
-Patrick McGee

I worked as tech support for the Harlem Children Theatre’s Festival, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with my Educational Theatre classmates as artists! I spent most of my time with Busy Bea and The Sixth Borough, which I felt served as excellent complements to each other. While one was a story about nature and the other was about the city, each story fostered appreciation and excitement for our surrounding environment—whether it was for the wonders of bees or the intrigue of  New York City. This festival was also a fantastic opportunity to see in action the positive impact that the Educational Theatre program has on its community. I’m looking forward to more artistic collaborations with my CCNY colleagues!
-Hannah Johnson-Walsh

 Last year I had the opportunity to co-write and direct a Theatre For Young Audiences piece for Family Arts Day entitled Yuki and the Elephant. This work, which was developed in the Educational Theatre Program's TYA course, premiered at Family Arts Day and went on to tour in public schools last fall. Working on that production not only provided an opportunity to build essential skills needed in the field, but it also gave me a chance to reconnect to my artistry as a director and choreographer. 

When Sobha announced Family Arts Day would be re-branded the Harlem Children's Theatre Festival this year and would premiere three original shows, I looked forward to seeing how the event would grow and change. I was blown away by the high level of creativity and dedication poured into every aspect of this year's event. It was a huge success, and the TYA pieces were clever, joyful, well designed, and poignant. Although I was unable to participate in the shows this year, I had a blast leading sing-a-longs with my hot pink guitar in between each performance! The costume photo booth was an extra special treat, and I loved singing with the kids as they paraded about the space in tutus, hats, wigs, fairy wings, and other colorful attire! 

I am extremely proud of everyone involved for dedicating themselves to providing entertaining and educational experiences for families in the Harlem community, and look forward to the continued growth and success of this event!

-Robin Cannon Colwell

When Mari Martinez and I wrote the first draft of Busy Bea in our Theatre for Youth and Young Audiences class in Fall 2014, the concept was a little different. The original script included shadow puppetry and "normal" staging, but in the nature of wanting to expose the talents of our actors, as well as our interest in the performing for the very young--the audience we knew we would have at the HCTF, Busy Bea looked quite different in production. Shadow puppets became actual hand puppets, and the staging became interactive--children sat in the center and the action happened in 4 small different sets that surrounded them. It was fabulous first hand experience in the importance of being flexible and working with what you have in children's theatre.  It truly turned out for the best.
 It has been an absolute honor to be able to watch our seed of an idea grow into a full blown production. I could not have been more proud of my cast and crew, and the audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I can't wait to continue with this project in the fall in the Readings on the Road series. 
-Kim Ceccotti

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Attending Face to Face

Attending Face to Face
Brigid Warnke

Over spring break, I was fortunate enough to attend Face to Face, a conference put together by the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable at CCNY.  I’d been looking forward to the opportunity to meet and learn from other theatre teachers and teaching artists since the beginning of the semester.  I teach theatre and music at a small special education school, and because I teach both, I am the entire performing arts department.  I’m also a first-year teacher.  It’s pretty intimidating and can be rather isolating, so I was thrilled to have this opportunity to connect with others in the field and see what kind of work they were doing.  But as thrilled as I was, I could never have imagined just how inspiring this conference would be. 


One of the sessions I attended on the first day was called In Full Color: Cultivating a New Generation of Leaders in the Field of Arts Education, a panel discussion involving James Miles and Michael Wiggins of Urban Arts Partnership, Courtney J. Boddie of The New Victory Theatre, and moderated by CCNY’s own Sobha Kavanakudiyil.  This panel set out to address the question, “Why doesn’t the make-up of our non-profit leadership more accurately reflect the demographics of the populations arts educators serve and how can we achieve more diversity?”  While this panel was set up mainly to discuss non-profit organizations, I attended because the same lack of diversity exists among school teachers and administrators; a lack of diversity that persists even as public schools are now serving a student body that is majority students of color.   As a white teacher of primarily African-American and Hispanic students in the Bronx, I am part of this trend.  I wanted to hear from others why they think this lack of diversity exists, what steps we can take as a community of arts educators to combat this and finally, as a person who is passionate about achieving equity in our non-profit and school leadership, but whose presence in those spaces symbolizes a lack of equity, what is my role in this conversation?  What can I do?

Well not to worry, because in the 90-minute panel discussion we totally answered all of my questions and solved all of these problems.  (Kidding, but wouldn’t that be nice?)  As one might expect, the energy in the room was tense, as conversations about racial equity frequently are.  The further we delved into the question, the more obstacles we uncovered; again, not an uncommon theme in these kinds of conversations.  But Sobha and the panelists did an excellent job of making us focus not just on the problem, but on action steps that we as teachers, teaching artists and administrators can take to combat the problem.  I was reminded that while this issue is incredibly complex, some of the action steps I can take as teacher are so simple, like teaching theatre and music history in a way that emphasizes the rich artistic contributions of people of color, or making a conscious effort to bring in guest artists of color to work with my students, because, as James Miles reminded us, it is important for all students to see people who look like them in positions of leadership and authority.

Another panel I attended that gave me some concrete ideas that I’m excited to implement in my classroom was Mixing the Digital and Drama: Making Performance-Based Online Maps.  This workshop came from a partnership between the New York City Department of Education and C&T, a UK-based applied theatre company that focuses on mixing drama with digital technologies.  They showed us an application they developed called Stratar that allows students to create their own interactive online maps.  As I was watching their presentation, I was frantically scribbling reminders to myself to talk to the computer teacher about working together on a project like this.  This workshop made the possibilities of a cross-curricular project between computers and theatre seem endless- why had I never thought of it before?  Apparently I’m not the only one who missed this boat- when asked what other organizations are doing work like this, the guys from C&T exchanged a smile and simply said, “No one.”  Well C&T, The New LIFE School will take that challenge!  The computer teacher and I are planning a trip along The South Bronx Culture Trail, a map of significant places in hip-hop history created by a non-profit in the neighborhood.  We’re going to have the students prepare performances to be recorded at some of the sites and try to create our own interactive version of The South Bronx Culture Trail.

Overall, Face to Face was a wonderful, thought-provoking, exhilarating and exhausting two days.  I wish I could write about all of the sessions I attended, but that would be less of a blog post and more of a book, so I’ll just say thank you to all of the presenters for sharing your work.  I look forward to doing this all again next year!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Moment Work Workshop

Moment Work Workshop
Elizabeth Harvey

During the first weekend of the new school year I attended a Moment Work workshop with my fellow graduate students led by Leigh Fondakowski from the Tectonic Theater Project.

Moment work is about letting the space you are in tell you a story. Instead of creating a moment on paper and then working up by adding actors, lights, sets, direction, etc. one lets the space they are in create the moment. There are no words on the page but the possibilities are endless.

The process begins simply. Someone stands up and says, “I begin,” completes an action, and finishes by saying, “I end.” Everyone in attendance was able to create such a moment. Actions from exercise to straightening out one's clothes to just laying on the floor were created. We continued to create similar moments throughout the workshop but the space became the character and our moments were created around that. As it turns out, doors, railings, and curtains are pretty interesting characters, and there were some truly honest and humorous moments created once we let the architecture tell the story. 

We  finished out the workshop in small groups creating moments with light. When light and architectural elements were combined the possibilities for moments to create seemed limitless. Though moments with light were brief, the stories that were created, or at least that I perceived, were complex and intriguing. 

We had begun the day by talking about moments in theater that were special to each of us. In reflecting, what stands out to me is how different each person's moment was. Theater really is a series of moments and you never know which one will stay with somebody for a lifetime. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Exploring Baby Theatre

Exploring Baby Theatre
Written By: Amanda Urban
Pictures By: Robin Colwell

Lauren Jost, the founder and artistic director of Spellbound Theatre, started our weekend class by asking us all to sit in a circle and play with her. We each took egg shakers and began rhythmically shaking them as Lauren cooed, “Hello, hello, hello. Hello to everyone today. What fun, what fun, what fun to play with you today.”
                  I was hooked.

When I first heard that the weekend course being offered this semester was Theatre for the Very Young, a.k.a. Baby Theatre, I was intrigued. I had never heard of Baby Theatre before and I had no idea how theatre could be made for children ages 0 to 5. What could a baby possibly appreciate about theatre?
                  Well, as it turns out, they can appreciate a LOT. Theatre for the Very Young (TVY) considers children’s developmental stage and creates artistic experiences that will be particularly interesting and enjoyable for them. For example, babies ages 6 months to 18 months (who may or may not be speaking yet) enjoy exaggerated facial expressions, puppets, music, and movement, whereas children who are 4-5 years old have the ability to follow a narrative and be more interactive with actors. It was fascinating to study the developmental stages of children and see the ways that the arts can influence, develop, and entertain them all at once.
After learning about the developmental stages of children, Lauren set up “Stations of Joy” around the room, instructing us to “have fun” and then to find a way to “have even more fun.” Our class wholeheartedly embraced her directions and danced with dolls, spun around with ribbons, fashioned monsters out of sheets, and created stories using only sound. Our Stations of Joy were full of playing, smiles, and laughter.
                  In addition to letting us play and experiment, Lauren also shared some of her TVY activities and stories with us. On Saturday, Lauren ended class by throwing a blanket with drawn-on stars over our heads and leading us as we sang “Twinkle, Twinkle”; I found it enchanting, and I imagine a child would find the experience even more magical than I did. On Sunday, Lauren shared her piece “On the Subway,” where we were able to listen to a captivating story about a plush animal who is accidentally left behind on the subway and goes on an adventure in NYC’s underground. Participating in this original story allowed us the opportunity not only to enjoy ourselves, but also to observe original shadow boxes, see how an artist can play with scale, and observe an educator creating interactive opportunities for the children. It was amazing.

                The highlight of the weekend, however, was brainstorming, developing, and performing an original TVY piece in groups. Each group was charged with the task of creating a developmentally appropriate and engaging piece for a specific age group and we all successfully created pieces that both babies and their adults alike could enjoy. Some groups lovingly created puppets, some groups utilized lighting and shadows, others still used actors to convey their story. It was remarkable to see the magic that can be created when creative minds collaborate to produce theatre.
                  It’s safe to say that everyone in our class thoroughly enjoyed spending their weekend learning about and creating a new, innovative kind of theatre. It was a pleasure to play with my classmates—to discover the joys children find around them and to create theatre that will not only entertain them as babies, but hopefully shape them into adults who will appreciate aesthetic experiences.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Encore! Encore!

Encore! Encore!
Sobha Kavanakudiyil

A few days ago The Graduate Program in Educational Theatre posted its final blog for the semester written by our very own Meredith Smart! We ended on a fantastic note with a spectacular evening of sharing our artistry, celebrating the end of the semester, and toasting in the holiday season. 
But this deserves an encore performance!

 Jennifer Katona, Program Director of the Graduate Program in Educational Theatre at The City College of New York teaches a course called the Fundamentals of Teaching Theatre. This year graduate students directed middle school students at PS 161 in “The Little Mermaid.”

Our relationship with PS 161 has been developing for years and this Fall the production of “The Little Mermaid” was spectacular!

The performance had fantastic energy from both graduate students and PS 161 middle school students.  In addition, graduate students from this course also had a communications group and they focused on promoting the event (working along side graduate student Lauren Adler) and creating a community potluck.  Success! 

We were thrilled to have MTI’s Peter Filichia attend one of the three performances and he wrote:

When parents come to the school where their child is enrolled, they’re usually prepared to hear bad news….Jennifer Katona, the director of the graduate program in educational theater at The City College of New York, didn’t want that to be the scenario at nearby P.S. 161. “I preferred to have parents come to the school not because their kids were in trouble,” she says, “but because they were now in a show.”

So three years ago, Katona and P.S. 161 principal Pamela Price forged a relationship. City College’s graduate-student directors would stage musicals with sixth, seventh and eighth graders. The results were 35-minute TYA/Kids’ versions of PINOCCHIO (2011), THE JUNGLE BOOK (2012 ) and ALADDIN (2013). They went so well that Katona felt emboldened to make her 2014 entry the hour-long THE LITTLE MERMAID, JR. “And,” she says, “we’re doing scene and costume changes, which we’ve never attempted before.”   Read more of the MTI blog

Truly a spectacular encore to celebrate! So proud to be part of the CCNY Ed Theatre Ensemble! Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

End of the Semester Cabaret

End of the Semester Cabaret
Meredith Smart

In Artistic Lab, Drama in Education students tackle the same conundrum teaching artists and theatre teachers constantly struggle with throughout their careers: process versus product.  We came into class expecting to practice our artistry, have fun, breathe and oh yeah, theres also a show.  And so, we embarked on the process that got us to Thursday night. 

This fall, we were the highlight, mostly first year graduate students just getting our feet wet in this new and exciting environment.  We broke into artistry groups and I gravitated towards the directing group with Jeff Seabaugh and Lisanne Shaffer.  I have done it all over the years in one form or another, but these days Im really seeing directing as my artistry.  At some point in the creation of the framework for the semester, it was decided that the directing group would go last, and actually have a hand at directing the show with our fearless leader Sobha Kavanakudiyil. 
And so I participated in the beautiful and joyful process of a handful of weeks where my cohorts took turns leading workshops, purely for the experience of it, but always at the back of my mind I was thinking, how is this going to translate to the Cabaret?  After the workshops, we would discuss what had inspired us and how we thought we could use the material in the show, and there was always something, many things actually, that had those possibilities.  And then the following week the next group would go and a whole new world of possibilities would open up, and Id wonder how we could reconcile clowning with musical theatre and fight choreography skits featuring Drama in Ed concepts like process drama and arts standards. 

As we approached Directing Week how this amazing process was going to become a product was still a mystery to me.  And yet, something started to take shape.  The first step in sparking the theme of our cabaret was the decision to begin with a bazaar of clowning with a Pippin-esque vibe.  The first huge step in the creating a cohesive and engaging show was asking Jim Kroener and Lauren Adler to be our ring leaders.  After that, everything fell into place. 

Of course, there were struggles.  Only having one hour a week dedicated to this project put some serious constraints on what we could accomplish.  But we grad students fought back against those constraints, making outside rehearsals happen, writing and directing scenes on the side, and sometimes on the fly, and with our sheer will, with Sobha at the helm, we made something lovely.  It was entertaining, it was fun, and I think it highlighted the creativity we cultivated throughout the process.