Looking Back, Looking Forward…

I recall quite distinctly when I got hooked on this thing called “Educational Theatre.”

In 1993, after a decade or so of being a stage manager, scenic artist, director and producer in Boston, I had come to New York to get a Master’s degree that would prepare me to teach high school drama — acting, set design, directing the annual musical, etc. You understand: a “traditional” theater job.

And then I took this class taught by Nancy Swortzell: “Drama in Education,” during which she led a session that left me wondering, “What on earth just happened?” and “How do I do that?

I remember it unfolding as follows:

Nancy set up the students in the class to enter into role — that is, not act, but take on the characteristics and sensibilities of highly skilled and respected artists of a large city. The time period was Egyptian-esuqe, and Nancy took on the role of the top Adviser to the city’s ruler.

As the king’s Adviser, she told us, she had been charged with bringing the finest artists of the realm to the palace. We were all now entered into a competition: create a piece of art – a blazoned shield or royal coat of arms, if you will – that celebrated the magnificence and benevolence of the king. The winners would get fabulous prizes and they and their families would live free and easy for the rest of their lives.

She then proceeded to outline in great detail the various deeds and achievements to be celebrated.

Through her words and actions, it became clear that the ruler led with an iron fist. Some of the “artists” did grumble amongst themselves about being the king’s “puppets” and having their “artistic spirit” being so constrained. But any hint of bowing out of the competition or possible resistance, including “subversive messaging” through the art work, was quickly quelled by the Adviser’s subtle, and not so subtle, threats to family and friends living outside the palace walls.

I recall working in small groups, poster board and magic markers in hand, earnestly creating these pieces of “art,” carefully crafting the message each symbol would send. As we worked, the Adviser would check in with each group, asking them to explain the reasoning and significance of their choices. As she moved amongst the artists, the Adviser offered suggestions and expressed approval or disapproval.  Finally, all the groups were asked to stand up and prepare to share the results of their work.

As we all awaited the “unveilings” and the Adviser’s decision on which pieces would be taken to the king, Nancy broke role and spoke as a narrator: “Time passed,” she said – and as she continued the narration, she walked to each piece of artwork and ripped it into small pieces.

It was a visceral shock hearing the paper tear. Seeing what I – what we had created be so heartlessly destroyed.

Nancy continued the narration, moving time forward to the present day. We were to stay in the same small groups, but now had a new role: that of esteemed archeologists who had uncovered intriguing artifacts at an ancient dig. Each group was given a collection of pieces – not our “original” artwork. Our job was to re-form the object, interpret the meaning of each symbol and make inferences as the nature of the culture that had produced it. We then presented our conclusions to our fellow archeologists.

As I sat there, listening in-role, nodding and muttering as my classmates in role, re-interpreted, or miss-interpreted, the works we, as “artists” had created, I was both amused and intrigued. Questions about history, personal legacies and the passage of time started running through my head.

As the final presentation concluded, Nancy offered the following reading to the group:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear —

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

(Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley)

There was a charged silence in the class as she finished. The words seemed to hang in the air.

We didn’t have to talk about the poem to “understand” it. Through the process of drama in education we had “lived” it, and our experience made that poem resonate for me in a way unlike any of the word-by-word dissections I had experienced in my undergraduate studies. I began to imagine what it might be like to be a teacher who could bring that kind of experience – that blending of the emotional and intellectual worlds of education and theatre – into the classroom on a daily basis.

In the two decades since my experience in Nancy’s class, I have moved from student to practitioner to program director. I’ve worked with thousands of teachers and students across the five boroughs, the country and the world exploring how the power of theatre can support social, emotional and intellectual growth.  Most recently I found myself in our nation’s capital attending the annual conference of the National Association of Education for Young Children, where our friends from  Wolf Trap (VA), were presenting the Key Note on their groundbreaking work, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Through the Arts.

While in D.C, I joined fellow educators and administrators from Brooklyn, Chatauqua, Climax, and Walton, New York to meet with members of Senator Gillibrand and Schumer’s offices in order to advocate for Strong Start for America’s Children Act. We were fortunate enough to grab a moment with Senator Schumer (coffee in hand) and talk early childhood education and bicycling in the City.

HW-with-Senator-Schumer Helen, on the far right, with Senator Schumer, center.

Afterward, walking through the Senate halls and past the extraordinary monuments throughout Washington, I had a quick flashback to “Ozymandias.”

20 years ago I was hooked by the power of educational theatre.

Clearly, I still am.

Helen WheelockHWweb
Program Director
Early Learning Program
UAEU Partnership
CUNY Creative Arts Team