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The Art of Teaching Theatre: Who Needs Stuff to Make Drama?


An audience member and Creator/Performer Geoff Sobelle in “The Object Lesson” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Throughout the school year, we are asking Los Angeles educators for their most inspiring and essential ideas for teaching and integrating theatre in the classroom. If you’re a local educator with a passionate and innovative approach to working with students or a self-growth strategy to share with colleagues, pitch your blog idea to

The Object Lesson opens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on September 9, and its focus on stuff inspired us to take a closer look at the stuff/resources we think we need—but might not have—to do drama. As this new school year starts, we recognize that some schools have lots of resources and some have none, but that stuff should never be a barrier to incorporating drama into education. Local teaching artist Shannon Michael Wamser gives his account of why drama is so unique—even in the arts—for the lack of material resources it requires, and offers ideas on how to utilize the simple stuff to get impressive results.

I was a geeky, sensitive kid growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, and I felt out of place most of the time, until my high school drama program offered me a like-minded community. It was there that I first learned what makes theatre unique as an art form: you don’t need money to make a play.

We were mounting Beauty and the Beast, and my teacher pulled me aside, pointed at a pile of stuff and said, “We need a set. This is what we have. There’s no budget.” And after a long day experimenting with orchestra risers and long swaths of material, we had a fantastic castle with grand drapes and staircases (of sorts), all without spending a dime.

In a time when more and more arts funding is disappearing, it can seem harder and harder to create an effective drama program that sufficiently engages students. But the truth is that we don’t need big budgets and expensive technological elements to create a powerful piece of theatre. All we need are the tools we already have: imagination, commitment, and will.

That is not to say that big budget musicals don’t have their necessary place, but there is more than one way to make a play. In a time when we are constantly plugged in, digitally connected to people thousands of miles away yet isolated from the people sitting next to us, it is more vital than ever that we create experiences that allow us to tune into each other directly. Theatre is the last place where we can have an unmediated communal experience, and such experiences are more necessary than ever.

So find a book of beloved short stories, or choose a theme and create your own. Have students raid their parents’ closets for old clothing. Collect newspapers, fabric, and any discarded objects that have imaginative potential. And then begin. Simply say, “This is our story, and this is what we have to tell it.” Simply ask, “How does this stuff turn into a magical forest… or the streets of Manhattan… or the castle of the Beast?” Our capacity to imagine is our greatest evolutionary excess, and we are hardwired to love great storytelling. This approach may be challenging, but it will yield transformative results. And best of all, students will leave the experience with a strong sense of ownership for what they created and the understanding that there doesn’t always need to be an app for that.

Lope de Vega, a prolific 16th-century Spanish playwright, famously said that all he needed to create a play were “four trestles, four boards, two actors, and a passion.” He was right. And still is. The power of the theatre lies not in realistic spectacle, but in the engagement of the imagination of the audience. The transformation of a piece of fabric into a shadow screen or the cloak of a king is often more transcendent than any million-dollar flying car or falling chandelier ever could be. The resources we need to give students engaging, transformative, exciting, creative experiences in the theatre are all around us. It just takes a little imagination. Luckily, we have that in spades.

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