Thursday, May 14, 2020


By Steven Gillenwater

In August 2017 I started a journey that would alter the path of my life by beginning the Educational Theatre Master’s Program at City College of New York.  I had drifted away from theatre in recent years and started thinking about my previous work as an educator.  I wanted to have more control over where my life was taking me, so I made a decision and ran with it.  I had no idea when I started at CCNY whether it was the correct decision.  In retrospect it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I loved the program.  I loved being back in school.  I loved learning how to be a more confident educator.  I loved every moment.
Terrified, I look out across the auditorium.
Twoscore in number, they are coming towards us, towards me, quickly and with a rapacious energy I had not experienced for many a year.
High School Musical Jr. rehearsals had begun.
Don’t shy awayI tell myself.
That’s right!  Hold your ground!’ Myself responds to I.
They can smell fear.’ I agreed.
“You are corre…wait.  What?  No.  You’re thinking of sharks.”
“Are these not sharks?  I feel fear.  I fear sharks, so logic dictates that these are sharks.”
“These aren’t sharks.  These are children, and you want to be a teacher.  Stop with the nonsense and get to work.”
“Fine.  I still think they’re sharks”
“Don’t pout.  When we’re done, we’ll get you some ice cream.” 

 Reminder to self:  Not a student

Okay.  Maybe not every moment was an instant classic.  But even the parts I didn’t love - the hard parts, the frustrating parts, the parts where I threw myself into the water only to realize I might not remember how to swim - I appreciate for the ways in which they prepared me for my new career.  I discovered through this program philosophies I could return to when in doubt.  What do I hope my students will learn?  How do I help them to learn it?  How do I know they have learned it?   The program showed me new ways I could lead with empathy, and that the process is as important as any product you might create.
Through it all, plans began to gestate - dreams of a teaching artist practice, getting my PhD, working in higher education.  The program was getting me ready for all of this.

Teaching CCNY theatre students

Now, as I approach graduation, I find myself struggling with how to feel.  I’m struggling with whether those plans now make sense during a pandemic, during a time when the world has so drastically changed, during a time of social distancing and ‘new normals’, ‘remote learning’ and ‘unprecedented events’.  I grapple with how one builds a career as a theatre educator in a world where people can’t come near each other. I feel fear and concern. I’m afraid for us as a society. I’m concerned for the health of my family and friends.  And perhaps selfishly,  I’m concerned for my future as a theatre educator.

Don’t be so dour.’ I tell myself.
Be the whale.  Remember to breathe.

Allowing fear, and concern to guide me is an old habit and one I am not eager to go back to.  So, I flip that script on myself.  How does theatre respond to this current normal?  How do I respond as an educator?

Me as a youngster, learning to be a storyteller

I could say the arts matter now more than ever.  I’m not sure though there is a ‘more than ever’ with the arts.    Theatre has been here as long as there have been people.  It is as intrinsic to the human experience as storytelling is, at the heart of us as humans.  Theatre has survived wars and plagues and crusades.  Theatre has always been there to respond to the now, to tell the stories of how we survive, to tell the stories of those we have lost, to tell our stories as human beings.

Educating others with theatre, in theatre, through theatre: that matters.  Not now more than ever.  It just matters.
And if we have to tell our stories through Zoom, or by phone, or via podcast, or in classes six feet apart from each, well, we’ll just go ahead and do that, won’t we?
Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis and King Lear under quarantine.  Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America in response to the AIDS epidemic.  Theatre will continue to tell stories and we as theatre educators will continue to teach our students to tell their own stories using whatever means are at our disposal.

A five, six, seven, eight…

If you’re coming into this program now, I can imagine there might be some uncertainty as to what your time might be like.  I don’t know what it will be like for you either!  As with all education, you are a unique wonderful student who has their own path to follow.

If I was to say one piece of advice though, it would be this:  Jump into the water and swim as best you can.   While at City College I was able to work with students from Pre-K, to 3rd, 4th 5th grade, to middle school, to high school to undergraduates in college.  I was not required to do any of these things, and I certainly passed on some opportunities when time was precious, but by saying yes when I could I was able to understand better where I wanted to focus my practice and also acquired small bits of experience working with pretty much every age of student.
I’m looking forward to all the growth I still have to experience.  I’m looking forward to building my own practice, I’m looking forward to applying for PhD programs, working in Universities.  I’m looking forward towards a future that excites me, even if I don’t know what it might hold.
‘This is the same show where I had those sharks come at me!’  I say to myself
‘Talk about full circle’, myself says to me.  ‘This blog started with us talking about High School Musical Jr. and now here we are, three years later, having a conversation about High School Musical Senior!’
‘No, just High School Musical, with seniors. Like, an entire senior class.’
‘Ah, I see.  Same show, only longer.  Apparently, the world needed a more detailed account of a school musical’s casting process.’
‘Don’t forget that science decathlon.  A longer version will surely give us that scene where the science team wins their competition.’
‘It won’t!’
‘So let’s get to work.  Hold up a second.  Now there are 200 sharks!’
‘Yeah, I have nothing for you there.  Even by my sarcastic standards I can’t understand how this is going to work.  A cast of 200?’
‘Here they come!’

Reminder to self:  Not sharks

‘But wait a minute.  They don’t look like sharks anymore!  Why am I not afraid?’
‘Newly acquired experience?  Excellent training?  Plain, good old-fashioned fatigue?’
‘I am invincible!  Sharks no longer scare me!  I am the all-powerful tamer of sharks!’
‘Still not sharks.  Really.  You have to stop with that.’

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you on the sharks 🦈 analogy at the beginning.