Theatre in the classroom, or What I’d love to teach

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For the last three years I have been acting as Technical Director for New Play Project.  This has given me opportunity to read a lot of plays, hundreds probably.  Some of them I have really enjoyed, and others I haven’t enjoyed so much.  There have only been a very few that I downright disliked.  But the interesting thing is that often when these plays were performed and I watched them, I found myself interested and enjoying the play.  What is the difference, what causes this? 

I have thought about this quite a bit, especially as I have had theatre classes at school where I have been required to read certain plays and as I have thought about how to teach theatre to high school students as I prepare to become a teacher.   I have found that I have a difficult time just reading plays sometimes.  I am not a very imaginative person, I don’t picture things very well in my mind and so just reading the words on a page it becomes hard for me to really see what is happening in the play.  Plays were written to be performed and they are written in a specific way to facilitate that, but that makes it hard to just read a play.  I think this is partly why students have such a hard time reading Shakespeare. Aside from the language, Shakespeare’s plays were not meant to be read.  In Shakespeare’s day people did not go to ‘see’ a play, they went to ‘hear’ a play.  The focus was on the words coming out of the actor’s mouth, as they are spoken. 

I also firmly believe in the communal nature of theatre.  Theatre is definitely an act of multiple people coming together.  With a novel it can just be a union of the author and the reader: two people.  But with theatre, you have the playwright, the director, the actors, the tech people, the audience.  So many people come together to put on a play, they work together and their multiple ideas developed the play.  We have different people’s interpretation of the text, discussing it with each other, compromising and coming together to produce a theatrical piece. But when reading a play you are left to yourself and your own interpretation. 

So, how do we teach theatre to students?  How do we help students to enjoy reading drama and to understand what they read? I think we have to let students experience theatre rather than simply reading it.  We need to let students get involved with the drama. A lot of English classes do let students act out plays when they do their Shakespeare units, and there is definitely a lot of benefit to this.  Students understand the language and the plot better when they see it in action.  It can help to watch movies of the plays, or go see the plays live, but often kids will fall asleep when they are not so actively engaged. 

I love the idea of students working together, discussing together what plays mean, and then collaborating on a production of the play.  Students will not only learn the language and the meaning of the play, but they learn valuable teamwork skills, as well as other theatrical skills.  I would love nothing more than to teach an Intro to Theatre class in a high school modeled after the Theatre 101 class I had at BYU and what I have learned from being involved with New Play Project.   Each student writes a 7-10 minute play, I won’t grade on quality, but on effort.  Did they try to write a good play, or did they just throw some words together.  There will also be in-class lectures and discussions about playwriting.  I will help students to write what they want to express.   And then the class is divided into groups of about 10 students each.  In their group students who want to will present their plays and the group decides upon a play that they want to produce.  Then they assign among themselves all of the different roles needed to produce a play: Director, Actors, Lighting Designer, Costume Designer, Set Designer, Sound Designer, Stage Manager, Dramaturg.  In class throughout the semester there will be discussions about what each of these roles does for a play, and how they do what they do, what’s involved, etc.  And then for the Midterm each group will present their play, each student talks about what their role is and what they have done. They present what their ideal production of that play would be if they had an unlimited budget.  If they could do whatever they wanted, how would they produce this play?  And then they go on to explain why they made the decisions they did.  Why did they choose a red costume, or blue lighting, and they defend their decisions.  

And the Final is that they actually produce the play with a very limited budget.  And that’s where I can be very helpful.  That’s what I have done for the last three years with New Play Project as the Technical Director.  I have taken a director’s vision of a play and helped him/her find the set and props needed realize that vision, while not spending anything.  I have become very good with scrounging and with reusing other set and props in new ways. We used the same old blue couch and three chairs in seven short plays that we performed back-to-back, but by moving them around on stage we created seven completely different sets for the seven different plays.  But I also love the fact that such a simplified production relies more on the audience.  You require the audience to help you build your set, mentally, and they are much more involved and invested in the play.  

This idea really excites me.  To help students realize just what goes into producing a play, and to see the fun it can be to get involved.  To help students learn to talk to each other about what theatre means and why it means what it means.  To show them the many varied decisions that go into creating a play, that often are barely noticed.  And it gets students involved, hands-on, doing theatre.  Because Theatre is an action word, not a passive thing.  And even if we don’t do this with new plays that the students have written, this could be done with Shakespeare plays or other contemporary theatre.  Give the students a script and let them take charge of a theatrical production.  

This is what gets me excited as I sometimes get nervous about teaching high school.  Ideas like this and the prospect that I can help students learn to love theatre in the same way that I do. 

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