Showing, Telling, and Interacting: Presenting Theatre-In-Education… Theatrically

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS  Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS
Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Marrying content (the subject of inquiry) and form (the artistic discipline) remains a central value in my endeavors as a theatre/film artist, educator, and cultural worker. This value solidified for me as a graduate student in the M.A. in Applied Theatre Program at CUNY SPS, and special credit goes to my applied theatre mentors: Chris Vine and Helen White, who offered a deep and practical study of what marrying form and content may look and feel like in practice. Moreover, as I continue to move forward in my work, I often return to the following quote by theatre scholar Anthony Jackson: “theatre that aims to educate or influence can truly do so only if it values entertainment, the artistry and craftsmanship that are associated with resonant, powerful theatre, and the aesthetic qualities that – by definition – will appeal our senses”. This quote, found in Jackson’s book Theatre, Education and the Making of Meanings Art or Instrument?, reminds me to never lose sight of the theatre form when sharing and implementing the work. It reminds me that the effectiveness of any artistic experience, regardless of the end goal, is directly related to the integrity with which one approaches the artistic form. In other words, it reminds me to wholly embrace the “theatre” aspect of the term theatre-in-education.

Mfoniso Udofia

Mfoniso Udofia

This past March, my co-facilitator Mfoniso Udofia and I had the honor of representing CUNY-CAT at the AATE New York Theatre in Our Schools (TIOS) Conference 2015 hosted by New York University. We presented a session outlining the Bronx History through Theatre: Resistance and Renaissance (BHTRR) curriculum which we created under the direction and guidance of CUNY-CAT‘s Artistic & Education Director, Gwendolen Hardwick. I spearheaded the TIOS application a few months prior because I felt immensely proud of the work we did on the BHTRR curriculum; I wanted more people to experience the work. BHTRR continues to be particularly significant for me because it was built on a collective passion to creatively, and theatrically, bring local history and culture into high school classrooms. BHTRR was intended to not only support the learning goals of the 10th grade English classes we serve in the Bronx, but also to integrate content that is more reflective of the culture and history of the students we serve.

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS  Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS, Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Our session at TIOS, “Cultural Relevance in the Classroom: Integrating Local History (Social Movements and Hip Hop) through Theatre in the Bronx,” offered attendees a practical investigation of key selections of our curriculum. In attendance were students, educators, and others members of the broader theatre-in-education community. Aligned with the concept of marrying form and content, Mfoniso and I facilitated and performed samples of our curriculum, which engaged our attendees in various capacities. We asked our attendees to not only assume the roles of observers and peers, but also, at times, as student participants. We felt it was important for our attendees to have a “lived-through” experience because it would be the most effective method of clearly explaining BHTRR.

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS  Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

Claro & Mfoniso at TIOS
Photographer: Sobha Kavanakudiyil

We closed our session with a short, insightful Q&A with our attendees. An educator from NYU seemed quite appreciative of the commitment that Mfoniso and I brought to the work as both facilitators and as performers. Another attendee, a public school teacher, shared how she was able to identify a good number of learning standards in our work and seemed quite interested in seeing history and theatre used in that fashion. Perhaps even more compelling was something that happened a few weeks later, at the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s Face to Face Conference. A graduate student stopped me in the hall, introduced himself and said he’d attended my workshop at the TIOS conference. He said: “thank you for that work. I’ve never really seen anything like that. You all were really performing.” I was very thankful for such positive feedback. Hearing his words reminded me how marrying form and content became, and continues to be, a central value to my practice; his words also reminded of the power of theatre and its ability to leave a mark on the memory of audiences and participants. As I continue to reflect and refine my practice, these reminders help support my view that the aesthetics of theatre is directly related to its effectiveness as a learning tool. I therefore continue to strive to create the kind of theatre experience that doesn’t compromise the aesthetics of the theatre discipline. I strive to make the type of theatre that is wrestled with and crafted, and I strive to do so no matter what circumstances I am working with.

Claro de los Reyes

Claro de los Reyes
Actor/Teacher
High School Program

Editor’s note: CAT heard from one of the TIOS staffers that Claro & Mfoniso’s session reminded her of how powerful and effective it is to have a team of two teaching artists in the classroom, rather than one, which has been a long-standing CAT practice. Congratulations to the team for making an impact on conference attendees and organizers alike!

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Ready for Anything

When it comes to theatre, devising new work has always been the thing that has excited me most. Yet past attempts to create plays in professional theatre settings often ended with lackluster results. What was I doing wrong?!  It wasn’t until I became a Master’s student in the CUNY/SPS M.A. in Applied Theatre program, that I began to learn how to work from the ideas of participants – using their assets, skills, and interests to make original theatre. And now I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, because I get to do what I love, full-time, with the young people of the CAT Youth Theatre and Junior Youth Theatre.

Joey & Kevin at AATE 2014

Joey & Kevin at AATE 2014

Last fall, Kevin Ray (my collaborator in running the Junior Youth Theatre program) and I decided that we wanted to share some of the work we do with middle-school aged students in a conference setting.  Kevin and I had been working together for some time and had been striving to think about how to make theatre activities and devising prompts accessible to this age group. Through our work we had constantly been exploring the question: how can we, as practitioners, support middle school youth in sharing their ideas, navigating group dynamics, and using theatre to say something about the world? We thought that actively examining this question in a room of professionals would generate a rich dialogue in which Kevin and I could share some of our ideas, and hear from others about what approaches they use.

Face-to-Face-2

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Kevin and I designed a workshop during which attendees could wear two hats—one as a participant, engaging in some of the practical exercises that we do with the Junior Youth Theatre; the other as a reflective practitioner, considering how our approach may—or may not—speak to some of the challenges of working with this age group.  An emphasis was placed on collectively exploring different ways that facilitators can guide youth through the creative process so that all of us could learn and grow.

Face-to-Face-1

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Our session proposal was accepted by two different conferences. First stop was the 2014 NYC Arts-in-Education Roundtable Face-to-Face Conference held on the beautiful City College campus last April. The 32 NYC-based participants in our session jumped into our activities – and had a lot to say about them.  One participant expressed how she found the flow of our questioning useful in the way it gradually encouraged youth to think about the world in which we live. There was a general excitement in the room about how we, as educators, can begin to create potential opportunities for youth to delve more deeply into content.

Face-to-Face-3

Face to Face, NYC 2014

Exploring content in a meaningful way with middle-school youth is an area that I continue to circle back to in my practice—how can I really take their ideas seriously and “get underneath” them to begin to understand what they want to say? And once I do—how can this content be developed both intellectually and theatrically? Participants in the Face-to-Face session had a lot to offer on this topic. Several spoke about how we might expand images we had created in our practical session together through different approaches. Others stressed the value of metaphor as a way to get inside issues. One participant described how she uses writing prompts as a way to expand work.

In July, Kevin and I traveled to Denver, Colorado to present at the 2014 American Alliance of Theatre and Education (AATE) Conference, a much larger conference than Face-to-Face, featuring educators, professionals, and practitioners from all across the country. Our session for nearly 30 AATE participants was similar, but further developed using the discoveries made at Face-to-Face – and the post-session conversation was strikingly different. Rather than the sharp focus on developing content that occurred at the previous conference, this discussion moved quickly towards the political implications that may emerge as a result of exploring content.

AATE-session

AATE Denver 2014

Several participants in the room questioned whether the way we gave youth freedom to address real-world topics could actually create a political divide amongst them. One young woman brought up the issue of gay marriage, and how when her youth brought it up, a huge debate ensued. As a result she averted the issue and made the choice to not pursue it in the rehearsal room. She explained that she couldn’t have angry parents calling and chiding her for teaching “hot topics” to the youth. Her response was not what I had been expecting. My surprise continued when others in the room went on to express similar concerns. One young man offered that he would have opened up such a dialogue with youth, but would only include issues they face in school; another said that youth this age are only expressing what they hear at home from their parents—so we have to be really careful in dealing with what comes up.

The young people from the Junior Youth Theatre wanted to make a scene about gay marriage in a recent show. And while nearly all of our youth expressed being pro-gay marriage, when creating the scene they felt it important to include a perspective that wasn’t in favor of the issue. At CAT we encourage youth to explore different perspectives; we aim to create theatre that is not message-driven or preachy, but rather seeks to open up a dialogue about issues and the world we live in. When talking about this at AATE, a participant in the room mentioned how lucky I am to live in NYC where “everyone is so liberal”. The conversation that was taking place continued to catch me off-guard—how could one session yield such different responses?

In reflecting upon the session, I realized that while I may be able to lead similar sessions with different groups, what emerges in the room will inevitably be dissimilar. While I went in to the AATE session understanding this in theory, the reality of it emerging in practice reminds me that I always need to be “on my game” and continue to sharpen my listening skills. For not only will there be different responses from various groups, but within these responses there will almost always be difference of opinion. If I had thought more consciously about this in advance of AATE, I could have put my surprise aside, been more present and asked questions to interrogate what the participants were bringing up.

I understand it’s not a question of whether anyone is right or wrong when it comes to multiple perspectives. Rather, it’s about how I can facilitate a dialogue between participants where all of them can offer their opinion, listen to others, and think critically. In such a process, all—including myself as a facilitator—have the potential to learn and grow.

JYT

Winter 2014 Junior Youth Theatre dress Rehearsal

My experience during the conferences—and my work with the young people of the Junior Youth Theatre, who have radically different opinions—affirms that I can’t make assumptions about how this work will land or what will emerge. I have to be ready for anything. And while this thought can be kind of scary, it’s also what makes this work so exciting to me—that it is living and breathing, and thus always changing.

Joey-Schultz

Joey Schultz
Associate Program Director
CAT Youth Theatre

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