Teaching theater to those who have forgotten what its like to play

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Flashback Theater Co. | Let’s Play! February 2016

I see a lot of reluctance in younger people to test the waters of creativity. Without step by step instruction, they are frozen by the inability to carry on. In theater, you must be willing to try new things. You cannot rely on how something has been done before. Collaboration is reliant on everyone taking risks and expanding their creativity. And theater is a highly collaborative activity.

In my mind, Let’s Play! fights the urge of our newest generation to only do what is already expected. It heightens the need to think on the spot and deliver a creative product because it is being performed in front of an audience in real time. There is no rehearsal, no plan to make sure everyone knows what to expect. Participants quickly learn the “Yes and…” rule because there is no safety net.

Hosting Let’s Play! one night a month doesn’t seem sufficient for combatting the underlying issue though. Just last week, I was talking with a mom who said she knew a child who was punished for failing the CATS arts test by taking away access to the very resources that would improv the score. Recess turned into practice testing for this child, and they were banned from the “extracurricular” classes including (you guessed it) music and art.

Having worked with a couple of high school aged students who have been conditioned to think in the testing mindset, I have no doubt it is one of the factors that contribute to the need for step-by-step instruction and the inability to think creatively. Not only that, but drama is no longer seen as a worthwhile course in high school curriculum. Some schools have tried to maintain a drama program through clubs but it can hardly have the same educational effect on students as meeting on a daily basis.

My high school drama class was a lot of improv and creative thinking. It was a class I eagerly looked forward to every day. I enjoyed the challenge of it but also the freedom and empowerment to create my own stories. I convinced my best friend to join me and despite her reluctance to speak in front of crowds, she was able to later admit she had a lot of fun in the class as well.

So how to translate my positive theater experiences into future learning opportunities for others?

Let’s Play! was a concept I dreamt up in the middle of the night. The initial event allowed people to cast, rehearse, and perform a 10-minute play in the space of just two hours. It was open to everyone and was free to attend. About two dozen people attended – with most choosing to stay in the audience. Since then, Let’s Play! has been held with various themes in mind: Improv Games, Storytelling, Mock Auditions – but the initial thought of creating a space to come and play is still the same.

As a child, I very easily slipped into games of pretend. Whether it was “playing house” or “cops & robbers” my siblings, cousins, and friends had favorites to act out over and over again. The basic concept of playing house might have stayed the same but the variations of storytelling kept us entertained for hours. As I grew older, I adapted theater games into party games. I distinctly remember a New Year’s Eve party as a teenager where we played improvisation games for hours. (I might add this party was at the house of the aforementioned best friend who reluctantly admitted loving the drama class.)

My desire to create Let’s Play! stemmed from those memories of play-acting and improv games. But what once came very naturally to me as a child now needs constant effort to keep the storytelling juices flowing. And I think its the same for many others. Where there are a few that can jump up and deliver a one-liner with perfect comedic timing – some of those who come to Let’s Play! opt out of the acting part entirely. The most successful Let’s Play! to date has been Storytelling, where stories are read from books and acted out. I believe it is successful because it gives participants a bit of a crutch to lean on – but there is still plenty of room for creativity!

Practice makes perfect – so over time actors who return to Let’s Play! on a regular basis  get better at improvising and storytelling. After about a dozen Let’s Play! events, I can see more confidence in one of the actors who initially waited for suggestions from stagemates.  I believe Let’s Play! has proven that you can teach theater to those who forgot how to play – it just takes consistent reassurance and practice.

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Getting there – how I prepared to start a theater company

When I was a little girl – maybe 6 or 7, I was thrown into a church Christmas production at the last-minute because someone dropped out. I wasn’t in the show originally because my mom thought I was too young but desperate times…the show must go on..and well you get the idea.

That was my first experience in theater. I loved it. A few years later, I heard an announcement at school about auditions for a children’s production of Beauty & the Beast at the local community theater. I remembered my earlier performance experience and the feelings of excitement and accomplishment at the end of the show. I knew it was time to take the stage again. I begged my mom to take me to auditions and she warned that I might not get a big part – or even cast, but I insisted and ended up with the role of  Spoon in the Beast’s castle. I played my part well. When the Beast yelled, I shivered with fear. When Belle entered in her gown, I “Ooohhed” and “Ahhed” with amazement. I was rewarded for my emphatic reactions with a part in the next production…and so my “career” in community theater began.

Sommerrenae as Bertha Mae

Bertha Mae “Virgil and the City Slickers”

"Wizard of Oz"

Scarecrow “Wizard of Oz”

When I left for college, I thought I would pursue acting. That lasted about two months. Many of my friends have heard the story of a professor describing walking into a café and ordering hot water to mix with ketchup, making it a free meal of tomato soup…but they heard it in the context of how it made one of my best friends leave the program to pursue engineering instead. What they don’t know is that it also changed my perspective of what I wanted to do. No longer was acting an option for me because spending days auditioning and eating watered down ketchup was not my idea of a great life. I added a minor of Entrepreneurship to my Theater degree. 

You can’t get a degree in theater without working on productions – so I took up costuming. The costume shop was a perfect environment for me. I already had some sewing and craft experience from my aunt and granny as well as spatial reasoning from my dad so learning how to put patterns together was a piece of cake. When I designed for shows, I had to learn to manage a budget and costume crew members. Plus, I was able to get experience in the inner workings of productions – how directors work with designers, stage managers, and actors.

In 2010, I attended the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Lexington, KY. My friends were there to audition and interview for jobs – I was there for the experience. In the conference’s program, I saw an ad for a graduate school that had a program for “Arts Management.” The proverbial light bulb went off. I didn’t know anything about the program but I knew that was my next step. After some research, I found I lived within a stone’s throw of one of the top arts administration programs in the country, at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

Everything was falling into place: studying theater and entrepreneurship prepared me for the arts administration degree. Back in my home town of Somerset, the downtown area was growing and renewing: a new judicial center was built, the old library became an arts center, restaurants were opening, and the county passed a measure to begin allowing sales of alcohol. Soon both Somerset and I would be ready for a new theater company.


This is Part 1 of 3 in a series about why I am founding a theater company. Come back next week for Part 2!

Learn about Flashback Theater Co.

 

5 Reasons to Make Seeing Art a Habit

art should be a habit

I love theater. I try to see a play or musical at least once every month. If I could afford it, I’d go every week! The first year of grad school, I didn’t go at all. By the end of that year, I was questioning why I was getting a degree in Arts Administration…but then I worked at Arena Stage for a summer and saw a few productions while I was in D.C. Suddenly I remembered how passionate I am about theater, and committed  to seeing something – anything – every few weeks to keep that passion alive.

Not everyone is as passionate about an art form as I am about theater, and that’s okay. But here are a few reasons to encourage you to make seeing art a regular part of your life.

5. To challenge yourself.
Art often asks questions we have never asked ourselves. Finding your answer to challenging questions makes you grow as a citizen of the world. It helps you see issues you may have ignored or just never even knew existed. There was an Edinburgh Fringe show a few years ago about human trafficking. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see it but the concept was really amazing: The show started at a street corner. The audience would load up in a van and ride with an actor playing the part of a recently abducted woman who would be sold as a prostitute. The van took them to a warehouse, where the woman was abused and kept prisoner. The audience had no choice but to follow the story as they were now a part of it themselves. You can bet the audience never forgot the feeling of being in that van, not knowing where they were going or how long they would be there. Suddenly, human trafficking is real to them and not something they can easily ignore.

4. To open a dialogue with others.
Art is an easy topic to talk about with a stranger. You can compare what you see or hear with what they see or hear, and it can help you make new connections with the people around you. Yesterday I was waiting for my carry out order at a restaurant and another customer stopped and asked me why I looked so tired. This led to a conversation about how much he loves classical music and the symphonies he has attended because I told him I work for the conservatory. He immediately felt connected to me because he loves art and my job is to make art happen.

3. To commit ourselves to an in-person experience.
How often do we stop to experience a moment? It gets harder and harder with each new technology that comes along. Buying a ticket to an arts event – a play or an exhibit or a symphony concert- commits us to being in that moment. Investing in something with our hard-earned money makes us value and prioritize it.  It would be silly to buy a ticket to an exhibit and then sit on a bench answering messages the entire time. You can do that for free without spending cash on a ticket!

2. To give us a topic to post, text, or talk about later.
Taking a break from internet, texting, and emailing helps me to remember what life is about: experiences. Yes, it is great that I can stay connected to people who live far away but I honestly can’t remember what my last Facebook post was about ….and what’s the point of talking to people if you have no new experiences to talk about? (And it won’t hurt my feelings if your excitement for an exhibit encourages new people to come to the next one! 😉 )

1. To see amazing art.
I am constantly in search of the theater piece that takes my breath away. There is nothing quite like it. I go to see theater because I don’t want to miss the next production that leaves me speechless. Ensemble Theater Company’s Next to Normal, the Broadway tour of The Phantom of the Opera, a production of Bye Bye Birdie my college produced. These are part of a collection of memorable experiences that I will always strive to add to. If I weren’t in the habit of going to theater, I would have missed these. For every show that stands out there are 10 shows that don’t. But seeing the not-so-great shows is so worth it when you find a masterpiece!

Classical Art: Entertainment or Preservation?

Ballet shoes preservation of artA couple months ago I was in a meeting about creative disruption. The conversation quickly turned into a discussion about the differences between commercial art forms and educational art forms.

One thought was that some art organizations are really “museum” type organizations, desperately trying to preserve art forms that are no longer commercially viable. With so many symphonies, opera houses, and dance companies struggling, it might appear that the support for these art forms is dying. To me, it seems that the audience just wants to experience these art forms on their own terms. Last year, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Lumenosity proved that people are willing to hear an orchestra perform. The TV show So You Think You Can Dance has been on the air for 10 years, introducing people to the powerful storytelling capabilities of dance. SYTYCD has featured tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop, contemporary, and probably 20 more styles of dance.

What is the real purpose of arts organizations today? If they are not for profit, they fall under section 501(c)3 tax code purely because they are educational, as there is no category for arts and culture. But does this mean they should be relegated to preservation purposes only? Of course not!

Should we abandon art forms such as opera, ballet, and classical music because audiences are now less interested? This is where it gets harder to answer and begins to contradict itself. So much of the art that is now popular – contemporary dance, for example, has basis in the more traditional forms. Would we have contemporary dance as we know it today without the talent that came out of classical ballet? Probably not. At this point though, students are trained in contemporary without starting in ballet. Perhaps a ballet foundation is helpful but I will leave that to a dancer to answer.

Once again, my post has become a series of questions without satisfying answers – but these are the questions plaguing the next generation of arts organizations. I like to think we are slowly finding answers – putting classic art forms into the context of today seems to be part of the answer. I have a feeling that at some point classical arts will succumb to the pressure and go the way of Latin – taught only in classrooms as a basis for understanding our current language. I certainly hope this does not happen in my lifetime though!