Keynote: School Theatre Can Be More

October 18th, 2017 Comments Off on Keynote: School Theatre Can Be More

The Florida Association for Theatre Education invited me to be the keynote speaker at their annual conference, held in Orlando October 12-14, 2017. The text below represents an edited version of that address, which was written to be spoken, not read, so please forgive oratorical repetitions, some of which will have been minimized already. There were various ad libs during the course of the speech which, I’m afraid, have now escaped me.

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At the risk of telling you things you know all too well, since it is you who do the teaching and I who spend my time opining on theatre, sometimes from in the midst of the fray and sometimes from the sidelines, especially when it comes to school theatre and theatre education. School theatre, whether academic or extracurricular, is of course the teaching of the practice of making theatre – learning and understanding a text, interpreting it through writing, direction, design and performance.

School theatre is a bonding experience for students, a place where those with a common interest can come together with like-minded peers. Theatre is a place where students who may not fit some arbitrarily perceived model of “typical” can find others who are like them at their cores, drawn together by a need to express themselves or support the expressions of others, rather than by throwing or hitting a ball into or over a net, or a wall, or a hoop. School theatre is teamwork without fractures and brain trauma. School theatre is a place where open displays of emotion are not only accepted but encouraged. School theatre is a place where students can become someone other than who they are on the way to becoming who they will be. School theatre is a place where students can play a role in making hundreds of people laugh, or cry, or applaud as one, in response to what they’ve done.

As I said, doing what you do, you know all of this and more. Believe me, even though you may not hear it often enough, there are many people who applaud and appreciate you for your role in all of this, as I do. Indeed – and I know all too well the countless challenges you face – at times I envy you, because what you do has so much meaning in the lives of your students. You are the teachers who are in a position not just to be liked and appreciated, but loved and remembered.

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So why, if I perceive all of this achievement, do I say that school theatre can be more? I say it because of some of the work that I do, that I have chosen to do, or perhaps has chosen me, almost as if by accident.

As some of you may know, over the past half-dozen years, I have become a vocal advocate against the censorship of school theatre. By virtue of the jobs I’ve had – including running theatres and the American Theatre Wing – my voice is given some credibility. Once I was no longer constrained by those jobs, I found myself using that voice in new ways.

It began with a blog post about a show I know well, at a school near where I grew up, an arts magnet high school, with a majority population of students of color, which was in the process of canceling a production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, over its use of the n-word. Because I have written at length about this incident, I will jump to the conclusion, which is that the show did go on, and it was presented without altering the words of one of America’s greatest playwrights. My voice was one among many; please do not think I am taking or deserve sole credit.

Since then, I have had occasion to advocate and even fight for any number of shows to be done in high schools and colleges, and for them to be performed just as they were written. The list includes – and in some cases there have been several instances of these shows, not just one-offs – Sweeney Todd, Spamalot, Legally Blonde, Rent, Almost Maine, The Laramie Project, Ragtime and more.

What I have seen over these years, as I have looked at school theatre and read about it, as I have parsed The Educational Theatre Association’s annual list of the most-produced shows, is an inclination to play it safe, to avoid potential conflict, to stick with the tried and true. This comes from school administrations, from school boards, from parents, from community groups, who think that school plays should just be good fun, that they should be appealing for ages eight to eighty.

I am all for fun. I love to be entertained. I understand why the list of the most produced musicals in high schools is now made up largely of titles drawn from popular family films and the biggest Broadway hits.

But I worry that these shows dominate school theatre not because they are the best shows or even the shows students are most interested in, but because they aren’t going to offend or even annoy anyone at all – and because they’re familiar titles that help sell tickets. As a result, while students unquestionably learn many things from being a part of school theatre and any show that’s chosen – rigor, structure, teamwork, and so on – they aren’t necessarily learning from the shows themselves. Yes, most family musicals have clear morals and lessons, but they are simple and surface. Students don’t have to look to find them and they certainly don’t have to struggle with them.

I favor that struggle.

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Many of you may be aware of a recent study out of the University of Alabama which shows that students who see theatre learn from it in ways they don’t from watching a film, even a film of the same story. As the authors of the study wrote, “Theater is a window for students to a broader world. Exposure to that broader world may increase their understanding and acceptance of that broader world, which is why we see increases in Tolerance and Social Perspective Taking. Plays may be more effective than movies in helping students understand and accept that broader world because we react differently to human beings acting out a story in front of us than to representations of human beings on a screen. The in-person experience may create greater emotional connections.”

Now think about the fact that this study is simply about seeing theatre. It doesn’t begin to address the experience of making theatre.

It’s worth noting that, as I’ve spread this study around on social media, many people have responded by saying, “Well of course.” “We knew that.” “It’s obvious.” But that’s a response that’s only obvious to those who are already supporting theatre, who already believe in theatre, who already frequent theatres, who already teach theatre. However, that it was demonstrated in a controlled experiment is the kind of evidence-based proof we need about the value of theatre, about its ability to evoke empathy. Keep that study, and others like it that you may know of, very close and accessible. You never know when you might need them.

But just think: if that’s what’s happening in spectators, imagine what theatre is doing, imagine what theatre can do, for students who make theatre. Of course, you don’t have to imagine it, because you see it, you foster it.

As I proceed here, I would ask you to understand that even if the examples I give touch upon the kind of work you do, that I’m not here to criticize anyone’s choices. As I hope I’ve established, I place tremendous value in what you do. Some of you may already work from the mindset I advocate; others may not by choice or by the strictures of policy. All I am asking is that you think about whether you can expand the range of what you undertake. Can you make school theatre more?

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The body of dramatic literature, and I include musicals in that, is pretty vast. Yet as the Educational Theatre Association’s own research, extensively studied by National Public Radio a couple of years ago has shown, when it comes to plays, the most produced plays in high schools – with the exception of Almost, Maine and more recently Peter and the Starcatcher – are mired in the work of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Why is that so? Is it because plays ceased being worthwhile some 60 years ago? No, that’s not the case. Yes, the language of plays may have become more expansive as taboos were broken, but that doesn’t mean every play contains language or subjects that might not be appropriate in a school setting.

Probably a more significant trend is that casts have become smaller, in order to become more producible commercially, and that doesn’t work well for those school programs with a lot of students vying for roles. Another is the fact that fewer plays are produced each year on Broadway, and so the titles are less familiar, the repertoire less known to the average person. That Almost, Maine broke out the way it has is extraordinary and singular, considering it never played Broadway and didn’t have any significant commercial success, not to mention that it was intended for four actors.

Interestingly, a play that is often produced – and often challenged – is The Laramie Project, and its appeal for many schools is something that it has in common with Almost, Maine. Just because it was written for a smallish cast playing multiple roles doesn’t mean it has to be. Almost, Maine’s four actors can become 20 or so, and Laramie Project can accommodate dozens. They are often produced because of the need for a large cast play, rather than content.

But of course Laramie Project talks of issues that have little in common with You Can’t Take It With You and Harvey, two regulars from the Educational Theatre Association list. LGBTQ rights, murder, justice, guilt, redemption – that’s what the real people portrayed in Laramie must cope with, and what the students who portray those people must understand. That may be “too much” in the eyes of some authorities, yet do students learn more from enacting the lives of people addressing a tragic hate crime or from the fairy tale story of a lonely ogre seeking acceptance? Both have lessons, but which runs deeper, which offers more?

Which prepares students for the larger world, for the world they live in, the world they will face? The vast majority of your students will not become artists, but they are all citizens of this country, of this world. Can the work you do with them be more than just about developing skills and empathy, but about preparing them to look at life both critically and compassionately? Indeed, can school theatre speak directly to their lives as they are now?

The shows I referenced are but two examples, and I’m not here to advocate for one and slam the other. They are just two shows that you’re all likely to know.

In research conducted by EdTA, the discussion of social issues discussed in theatre classrooms and productions between 1991 and 2012 has dropped precipitously. Here are some numbers: multiculturalism, down 10%. Drug and alcohol abuse, down 20%. Divorce and single parent families, down 20%. Teen suicide, down 20%. The topic of bullying, not even listed in 1991, is way up, yet the subject of teen suicide is down? How does that even make sense?

Not only can school theatre be more, school theatre has been more. There is more school theatre than ever, but it is retreating to safety, it is avoiding struggle.

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In considering this issue, I believe there is an even more central question that often isn’t easily answered: who is school theatre for? In my work, I have developed my own hierarchy, and I apply it rigorously when considering situations that arise in school theatre, and how my own work may apply to it. But even if we do not see eye to eye on many things I’m discussing, I hope you may find this applicable no matter what your perspective may be.

First and foremost, I believe that school theatre is for the students who choose to do school theatre. That is the core constituency to be served, that is who must benefit most. This may seem obvious, but I have seen situations where this fact is forgotten, especially when programs face any type of crisis.

Secondly, I think school theatre is for the other students in the school. These are the peers of the students who participate, and they may be drawn in to the theatre, the auditorium, the converted cafeteria. They may well be affected by what they see, and indeed while they may not choose to participate in theatre subsequently, they may seek out other theatre in the months, the years, the decades to come.

Third, school theatre is for parents, so they can experience and appreciate what their children choose to participate in, and see their talents, whether its manning a spotlight or singing center stage.

Fourth, school theatre is for siblings and extended family, for much the same reasons as parents, but for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, they should not be lumped together.

Fifth and finally, school theatre is for the community at large, that is to say parents of non-participatory students and those in the community who have no direct connection to any current student or students at the school.

I imagine these five groups as a series of concentric circles, with the central circle being the students who participate in and study theatre at the center, then widening out to the other groups.

Why do I separate parents from the rest of families, and those without students in the program or at the school at the fringes?

First, because the choice of what is done in school theatre should not be constrained by the need to appeal to siblings younger than the students themselves. Yes, it’s a treat when younger siblings can see their brothers and sisters on stage, but that should not drive play choice. High school material should not be infantilized for the entertainment of middle school and elementary school students; middle school plays shouldn’t be comparably limited. To do so does a disservice to the core constituency, the students at the center.

That’s also why those without any direct stake in the drama program, or even the school, are at the farthest ring from the center – because those who have no stake shouldn’t drive the educational priorities of theatre. School theatre shouldn’t be looked at as a public relations tool with which to entertain the community at large, since doing so diminishes the focus on the students themselves.

I have been challenged on this by people who say that all theatres have to keep audiences in mind when planning their programming, so kids should learn about that now. To them I say, yes, you’re right about the professional world, but this isn’t professional theatre, this is school theatre. And I refer back to my concentric circles and point to who is at the center, who is most important, and it’s the students studying and making theatre.

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I appreciate that there are many school theatre programs that are required to be self-sustaining financially. That gets my blood boiling, because sports programs are rarely saddled with the same requirement. But I must accept a certain reality. To that I say that excellent work with students will, over time, develop respect for what is undertaken, regardless of whether schools are producing familiar, safe titles or not.

I imagine that many of you have read Drama High by Michael Sokolove, or know of the program that Lou Volpe built in Levittown PA and which Tracey Gatte carries on today. Did you know that beginning this spring, that book will be a NBC TV series, called Rise? That’s right – what music teachers got with Glee, you will now get, only better, because your story will be told by the producer and writer who created the series Friday Night Lights.

If ever there was a moment for school theatre to step up to the next level, to be more, this is it. If Rise turns into a popular hit, if it runs, you will have the greatest tool imaginable to build the case for and the strength of your work, your programs, your students. Because you won’t be doing it alone. You’ll have a TV network behind you, 22 episodes a year.

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Whenever I get involved in an issue regarding school theatre, about a challenge to school theatre, I am usually told early on, “You have to understand, this is a very conservative community.” Never once have I been told, “Oh, this is an incredibly liberal community.” It just doesn’t happen. Those words were said to me sotto voce about the prevailing sense of Florida and Florida education when I was invited to speak with you today. As you can see, I was undeterred.

I hope you’ll notice that nothing I’ve said today is explicitly political, in terms of liberal or conservative, red state or blue state, because when it comes to allowing students to learn, to creating opportunities for students to learn, I believe there must only be knowledge. When it comes to theatre, there must always be discovery.

Yes, there are those who will take my having spoken about The Laramie Project as political, because it portrays the aftermath of the killing of a gay youth 19 years old this week. But that murder is a crime is not a political position, it’s a commonly held moral position. That the play explores a wide range of community response to that crime is not political, it is human and humane. But let me leave Laramie be, and mention some shows you may want to think about, if you haven’t already done them, even in contrast with some shows you likely have done.

I am here in the south and I suspect that many of you have done, or considered, To Kill A Mockingbird. I for one hope schools will begin to look beyond that story, beloved as it is, because it is the story of a white man who must save a black man, and how his white household is affected by that decision. It is a white savior narrative. There are few roles of any size for black actors, let alone Latinx actors, or Asian actors, and race is important to the telling of the story. If you choose to do the show, then I urge you to think about how you cast it, not turning a blind eye to race, but with consciousness about how interracial casting can affect that story.

Alternately, if you are in a school with a significant black population, think about doing one of August Wilson’s plays, because they will open up not only your stages, but conversations you couldn’t have imagined. Think about the plays of Quiara Alegría Hudes, if you have Latinx students. Think about the plays of Lynn Nottage, of David Henry Hwang; of musicals by Jeanine Tesori that aren’t just Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek. Whatever you do, don’t make the assumption that your production must look like the original production, don’t assume that unless a cast of characters says that a character is black, Asian, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Native American that it must be played by a white student. You can make school theatre more, you can make shows more, at times, by going beyond what has been before.

I know that between multiple classes and shrinking resources it can be difficult, but I know that drama teachers, like their students, when push comes to shove, always do more, step up and achieve more. So I say once again that I am not here to make the assumption that some of you aren’t already doing this, but to be your cheerleader, in the same way that I know you inspire your students to more. If you need help, if you meet challenges, know that I’m available to help you, and I know many, many more people working professionally who will do so as well.

That’s why when Ragtime was going to be edited by school administrators without approval in Cherry Hill New Jersey earlier this year, which would have lost them the rights to the show entirely, Brian Stokes Mitchell not only spoke up for the show, he went and met with students, teachers and the local NAACP in Cherry Hill to make sure the show went on. In fact, the debate over Ragtime in Cherry Hill achieved something all too rare – that production of Ragtime became required viewing for every student in the school, all 2400 of them. That meant that theatre was more, because it prompted conversations that didn’t stop at the auditorium doors, but permeated English classes and history classes in the weeks and days surrounding that production. Sadly, it took a crisis for that to happen. Wouldn’t it be something if school theatre was something every student always had to see? After all, as I alluded to earlier, we must create not only the artists of tomorrow, but the audiences as well.

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Because I am an endless rewriter, and was working on this as late as this morning, I am going to take what seems like a sudden turn in topic before I close.

As I have read and heard this week, as many of us have, about the despicable and vile behavior of Harvey Weinstein, it has been tempting to blame it only on the wonton ways of Hollywood. But his behavior is not unique to Hollywood, it is sickeningly suffused through every part of American life where men hold power over women, where people hold power over one another. Some of you may have had your own comparable experiences, and that is profoundly troubling and infuriating.

Theatre is not immune to this: just over a year ago a small theatre company in Chicago, Profiles Theatre, shut down suddenly when its own culture of sexual harassment and abuse – in the guise of art – was brought to light after decades. Audiences learned that what seemed to be intense emotional performances were instead at times abuse being played out for them – it had gone beyond acting, beyond safety, into horrifying reality and been offered to them as if it were artifice.

Last week, The New York Times finally got people speaking on the record about Harvey Weinstein, just as when the Chicago Reader got people speaking on the record about Profiles Theatre. More stories will emerge, sad to say – but maybe, just maybe, this will serve to stem the generational tide of abuses of power to obtain sexual gratification, to obtain control.

Why do I bring this up in the context of school theatre? First, because we must together make clear that such behavior is unacceptable, it isn’t art and that it must be called out and stopped. But also speak of it because theatre can teach students that they have voices and can use them, that they should not be afraid to stand in the spotlight and say what must be said, or to shine a harsh light on transgressions, on injustices that must be stopped. If they have the chance to tell stories that engage with what is difficult in the world, indeed with what may be wrong in the world, alongside telling stories that bring joy and entertainment into the world, then their work in theatre makes them better actors, writers, directors, designers and technicians. But it also makes them better people, and better citizens, with knowledge, gifts and understanding that will be of value to them whatever they may be in life.

Theatre can be more because theatre is not an end unto itself. It is a microcosm of life, and there are so many lives to be understood and stories to be told. It should never be too soon to start telling them in the incredible diversity and variety, whether spoken, sung, danced or all three together. Thank you for giving of yourselves to help your students tell stories not just in your classrooms and on your school’s stages, but for the rest of their lives.


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