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The Art of Teaching Theatre: Summer Theatre Warrior


Student participants of the 2015 Introduction to Stage Combat Workshop at the Music Center Annex.

“Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.” The opening line of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through May 22) signals the play’s exploration of the cyclical nature of existence, with beginnings and endings intertwined. It also could be something of an anthem for students and teachers in the final weeks of the academic year, as matriculation, promotion, and graduation signal endings—and the summer presents a bridge to a new beginning in the fall.

What special opportunities does this season of endings and beginnings offer theatre students in particular? How can they keep their creative juices flowing during the summer, especially if they are not going to participate in a theatre program or camp?

We put these questions to two inspirational figures in California’s arts education community: Jesse Bliss, a Los Angeles-area artist, educator, and activist, and Michael Fields, director of the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA).

Jesse and Michael offered insight and advice to young people who are interested in cultivating their theatrical skills throughout the summer, no matter what their access to resources might be. Please share this post directly with your students, pick and choose the tips you like best, or incorporate them in summer assignments.

Jesse Bliss on “The Summer Theatre Warrior”

Nepantle is an ancient Aztec word used to describe the transitional space between here and there…the space life offers all human beings over and over again, whether it be on a small or grand scale. We experience everyday transitions and major ones, from standing up after sitting down to moving to cities and becoming adults. nepantle is the space that defines what is neither here nor there—not where you were, and not yet where you are going.

That is the summer for young people: a time when you’re done and complete with where you’ve been and ready to take on the mysterious adventures ahead. In the interim, in the Nnepantle, is a great opportunity for them to enhance their theatre skills. Theatre artists tell stories about the human experience, which means learning about different perspectives and ways of viewing the world, and how different people deal with conflict. This is enormously valuable for students. With this in mind, here are some ways to deepen your practice as a theatre artist aside from attending workshops:

1. Observation. Watch a variety of people in various environments. Grab a cool drink, have a seat, and take in an active environment such as Downtown Los Angeles’s Grand Park. Notice the variety of ways people carry themselves, dress, and interact depending on age, experience, and personality. This will help you to understand the breadth of human behavior.

2. Write. Keep a daily journal. Do a timed free write letting everything spill out. The only rule is not to stop until either 1-3 pages are filled or 10 minutes have passed. This will keep you close to your own thoughts, feelings, and dreams.  Write scenes and/or poetry.

3. Read good books and watch good films. Both will enhance your understanding of story structure, conflict, and character development, expanding your understanding of storytelling and the human experience.

4. Practice monologues. Find work that speaks to your heart or use work you’ve written yourself. Memorize new work. Allow yourself the freedom of working on your own.

5. Work with friends. Find other creative minds and enjoy an informal writing circle. Watch each other’s monologues and write and rehearse scenes. Brainstorm ideas together.

6. Attend the many phenomenal and free events offered in Los Angeles during the summer including theatre, museums, and concerts. Creative environments of all kinds can be inspiring in different ways.

7. Spend time in bookstores perusing through different types of publications, from plays and films to art and comic books.

The summer is a beautiful time to explore, expand, and engage in self-led cultivation of your theatre skills, bringing a breath of fresh air to your learning process. One advantage of being a theatre artist is that life itself is a great teacher of the craft.

Michael Fields on Putting Your Best Intentions to the Test

My favorite Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, wrote, “Training puts your own best intentions to the test.”

At the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA), our intent is to provide an immersive, rigorous training in the arts for high school-age students. It is a training that provokes the theatre artist to experience new ways of working, new ways of seeing, and new ways of thinking about their work. It is a training that doesn’t tell you “what to do” but rather presents all kinds of different “how to do’s.” And it is a training that focuses more on the journey than the destination. It is not about the end result or product. There is no big final show. It is about the act of discovery and the constant small steps that a theatre artist must take daily in order to continue to evolve their craft and, hopefully, their life in this work.

As long as you are passionate about the work, you don’t need to participate in a full production or enroll in summer programs like CSSSA to train in this way.

1. Watch. See as much theatre as you can at whatever level is available to you, both live and online. YouTube now gives everyone access to full productions by some amazing companies from around the world, and to interviews where great actors talk about their work and craft. Get a sense of what you like.

2. Talk. Go talk to the people who make work you like. You’ll be surprised by how many will want to talk to you.

3. Volunteer at a theatre if you can. It can be invaluable to be part of the process. If classes on any aspect of theatre in your community are accessible and affordable for you—take them.

4. Read plays. Reading plays, from classics to brand-new work, is something of a lost art. If you have friends who share similar interests, read plays together.

5. Audition. If you can audition for work in your community, the best way to keep evolving acting/directing/design/playwriting chops is to do the work itself. In the process, you will find a community of other people who share your passion.

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