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Conversations from the Classroom: How Do Theatre Teachers 'Start at the Very Beginning'?

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Center Theatre Group teaching artist Juan Parada talks to a student at one of our Theatre Basics Workshops.

Center Theatre Group is excited to connect educators who are bringing high-quality theatre education to students across Los Angeles. At the same time, we want to help those outside the classroom to learn more directly about the challenges of and solutions to teaching theatre in our schools and communities. In our new Conversations from the Classroom series, CTG will facilitate and publish discussions between two Los Angeles teachers about how to make theatre an integral part of every student’s educational experience.

What do you do when you’re facing a roomful of young people whose names you can’t keep straight, whose talents you haven’t assessed, and whose enthusiasm might be…lacking? In Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, Maria Rainer tackles this challenge in song: “Let’s start at the very beginning,” she sings to her new charges, “a very good place to start.” Inspired by the show currently at the Ahmanson Theatre—and by the fact that we’re just seven weeks into the school year—Center Theatre Group asked two local theatre teachers how they themselves “start at the very beginning.”

Annie Simons leads the theatre program at Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA), a pilot school in Koreatown where 100% of the student body receives free lunch. While the school’s focus is theatre arts, most of the incoming students don’t know anything about theatre and don’t audition to get in. Students receive an intense four years of integrated theatre, starting with a freshman acting introduction course where “ensemble is the foundation,” said Annie.

Cassandra McGrath teaches English and theatre at Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School, a public school in Boyle Heights with an enrollment of 1,650. Roosevelt has no arts pathway and can feel like a massive, constantly changing institution, but Cassandra is working to build a theatre program while teaching English full-time. Now in her third year teaching an elective theatre class, she’s feeling more confident about both the structure and her approach. “Theatre class is my favorite class of the day,” declared Cassandra.

Annie and Cassandra spent over an hour talking about their beginning-of-the-year strategies, and we’ve condensed the conversation into four key tips:

1. Begin with ensemble.

“Everyone is basically afraid of each other at the beginning of the year,” laughed Annie, which is why she starts off with as many games as possible and utilizes group and pair work (with always-changing groups) before ever asking students to get up and do something alone. While games get everyone laughing and being silly, “I have to be mindful about the students who are anxious about getting up,” she said, so she utilizes exercises where students share about themselves through writing, too. Returning students start the year with ensemble as well; “it just can’t be skipped,” she said.

Cassandra starts every class the same way. “We always start in a circle,” she said. This consistency is particularly important because her classroom location is constantly shifting, and many of her students come from chaotic home lives. Every day starts with her directing students to, “‘Be still. Be quiet. Be where you are, and take deep breaths.’” Because they’ve never tried to do that before, “the students are really appreciative,” she said. Being present with one another and starting each class with the same ritual builds extraordinary ensemble—and creates a safe space for students.

2. Create structure. And reinforce an artistic discipline.

But a safe space cannot work unless it has structure. “Last year I overcompensated by being so open and trying to make everything fun, and discipline issues got hard,” said Cassandra. “This year I’m trying to be better balanced.” At the same time, she’s keeping in mind that “a disciplined place can be a fun place, too.”

Annie sets that tone by using the language of professional theatre in her classroom. “I tell them, ‘This is your 10-minute call,’ and they reply, ‘Thank you 10,’” she said. “It carries a natural discipline with it.” She also believes it will serve her students well in the long run. “Aren’t we teaching professional life skills as well as the art of theatre?” Annie said. “We’re housing the art in the larger world of good communication skills, time management”—everything you need to be successful in work—and life. “It’s not so much the ‘sit down and be quiet’ discipline but the ‘be a person’ kind,” she said. She’ll tell students, “‘This is your scene partner; you have to take care of them.’”

3. Share yourself.

Both Cassandra and Annie agreed: Share who you are. Reflect what you believe about the discipline of theatre. Show the urgency. The students will find their own connection to it. After all, the art can’t happen without them.

“If I commit to it, they commit to it,” said Cassandra. “And by telling them how glad I am to be there, I model an excited energy.

“Modeling is important,” added Annie. “I try to create a space that is respectful and feels happy to be in. I am—sometimes to a fault—open and honest.” After all, how can you ask for honesty from students without giving it to them in return? “But I have to be patient and accepting of the students who are having trouble opening up, too,” she said. “I can’t just reward the students who make my life easier.”

4. Ask questions.

Why did you make that choice? How does it make you feel? These are two of the questions Annie is constantly posing to herself and to her students—questions she believes helps them in improv, in scene study, and in life. “This is a teacher word, but being ‘metacognitive’ about how we’re doing what we’re doing”—and why we’re doing what we’re doing—“is helpful,” said Annie.

The big question, for Cassandra, is the one she asks herself: “Ultimately, what do you want to leave them with?” It’s OK not to have all the answers, either. “I think it takes a while to figure that out,” she said. “I’m still figuring it out.”

Alas, beginnings in a Los Angeles classroom are not as simple as “Do-Re-Mi.” But at the very least, these strategies offer a place for teachers to start.

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