Teaching Theatre: Crash Course Style
Theatre is one of the only disciplines where educators are expected to do it all. A teacher trained in acting is still expected to teach costume design. And a costume designer is still expected to teach the tenets of lighting. So how does a theatre teacher (or a teacher who’s had the theatre program dumped on them—and might be trained in an entirely different discipline) meaningfully guide students through the basics of acting, directing, dancing, designing, building—and all the other skills it takes to put on a production?
As one of the teaching artists at Center Theatre Group’s recent Theatre Crash Course for Educators, I was part of a team that helped teachers tackle this unique challenge. Using Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which plays at the Mark Taper Forum in spring 2016, we guided participating educators through a condensed, intensive version of the entire process of mounting a professional theatre production.
After a dramaturgical exploration of the play and playwright, we split off into three groups exploring costume design, set and lighting design, and acting and directing. Led by teaching artists, educators discussed how their particular group might approach the show. Directors and actors focused on the major themes of the production and how to illustrate them through staging. Costume designers researched clothing of the era and imagined how characters might dress. Lighting and set designers approached the play through their senses, imagining how the world of the play felt, sounded, looked, tasted, and smelled, and how to evoke that on the stage.
The workshop culminated in a presentation of scenes, set models, and costumed maquettes that would make Suzan-Lori Parks proud. The presentations also inspired a deeper conversation about how theatre educators are expected to know and do it all. For instance, how does a costume designer dress a cast of 40 with a tiny budget? How does a theatre teacher with a background in acting teach students about lighting? What are some good resources for age-appropriate plays? At the end of the day, the teachers walked away having done it all—and feeling like they might just be able to teach it all, too.
Want to give your own students a crash course in theatre? Here are some tips from my fellow teaching artists and me to support you:
Emily Alpren—Acting & Directing
Emily Alpren is a Los Angeles-based actor, writer, and teaching artist you can see performing in L.A., independent films, and commercials, and producing for Upright Citizens Brigade.
Invest in research: Before you read a play, discuss the context of the work. Where and when does the play take place? What is its underlying social and political landscape? When was the play written? Who wrote the play? The more the students can understand the play dramaturgically, the more they can connect to what resonates to them!
Use theatrical imagination: Introduce the idea of thinking theatrically. The best part of reading a play is that you can be the director, the designers, and the actors. As you read the play aloud, have students write down any idea or image that comes to mind. Encourage them to underline passages that are meaningful. Later, talk about what stood out to the students. These images, lines, thoughts, and themes will help them direct, design, or act it later on.
Choose Short Scenes: When putting scenes up, two or three pages is plenty! If you only have a couple hours to stage scenes, choose part of a scene instead. While this may be discouraging to ambitious students, a shorter scene promises more rehearsal time. The cleaner and more specific a scene looks when it goes up, the prouder your students can be of it.
Ann Closs-Farley—Costume Design
Ann Closs-Farley is a costume designer whose recent credits include Hopscotch: The Mobile Opera, Pride and Prejudice, Up Here, Billy Elliot, The Musical, and Broadway’s AnnaPurna. She is also a longtime member of L.A.-based theatre companies the Actors’ Gang and evidEnce Room.
Design as a job: Know what you are working with: fees, budgets, and character breakdowns. “Design Last” was the name of my workshop for a reason. A costume designer—which is a job title—must consider, before anything else: How much time do I have to give? How much is the budget, and do I have the resources and skill to make this job happen? Is this play artistically satisfying or financially rewarding? If none of these apply, then maybe it is not the right show for your involvement. I emphasize to my students the importance of asking these questions before committing to a project—and of course this applies far beyond costume design.
Communication and collaboration: When breaking down a script for costume design, ask your students to write down all the questions they may have for other departments. Let’s say you have a character with a missing leg. The director, choreographer, props and special effects department, and the actor will all need to weigh in on the look and function of this particular design. The most important part of costume design is partnering with every department, especially the actors, until the very end of the show.
Research: Doing the research for your design is crucial. Once you have the facts, it opens your design to interpretations that will fit with the direction and action of the play. The Internet is fast, but going to the library or book store is a great way to discover more actual documentation to explore the characters you are creating—and this could even be a fun field trip.
Get crafty and get prepared: Help your students find ways in the early process of design to do something to inspire them. Use scraps and found objects to dress maquettes like characters from the play to have on their desks for inspiration. Brainstorm words together that describe the characters on Post-Its and place them on the wall to see. Students can also cut out images from magazines that remind them of the setting or tone of the play to get ideas for patterns and color. Another helpful thing to do is to record an interview with the actor and take a picture of him or her at measurement day to keep the person in mind during the process.
Design Dialogue: It is important for each student to find his or her voice in the design and to be able to communicate and execute it effectively with collaborators. Designing may come easily for some, but communicating why the design is right for the play is an art in itself. Not every design will work, and students will have to go back and modify or try again until it fits with the direction or with the actor.
Heather Graff—Scenic and Lighting Design
Heather Graff is a light and scenic designer, actor, and educator who is currently the resident assistant lighting designer at the Mark Taper Forum. She has taught and designed at organizations including the Northwestern University Center for Talent Development, Imagination Theater, Steppenwolf, and Second City.
Create the world of the play: Scenic and lighting design transport the audience into the world of the play. So, after reading the script, brainstorm with your fellow or student designers which elements are necessary in the play’s world and what else they imagine there. Remember, scenery or props don’t have to be realistic; they just have to suggest what you want the audience to see. Instead of a full wall, there could just be half a door or a row of bricks. One or two strong images using scenic or lighting design can take the actors and audience to exactly where they need to go. Regardless of its outrageousness, if an idea supports the script, it is right.
Scale models: Beginning to design scenery and lights for a show can be too daunting, so making a scale model can be empowering as well as informative before you do the “real thing.” Collect items you think would work for the model, or brainstorm with your students and then ask them to go out and collect items they think will work for the model. You can light the model with any source—LED flashlights, regular flashlights, clip lights with colored bulbs, etc.—to see what light will do to the model and which angles are the best. Changing the environment and mood with these simple and strong options can make a big impact.
Resources and materials: Ask your local college and professional theatres or TV/movie studios for leftover supplies; they will usually donate gels and sometimes gobos or old lighting instruments to small organizations or education settings. Usedlighting.com is another good resource for cheap lighting equipment.