Episode 109: Dealing with Student Strife
The drama class is one of the only places where students truly examine themselves and their world through reflection and contemplation. Because of that, sudden emotional tides can sweep through your activities. Teacher Christian Kiley talks about the common teen issues that can expectedly and unexpectedly arrive in your classroom and how to deal with them. He also shares his latest play Inanimate whose main character deals with her own emotional issues.
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
Welcome to Episode 109. You can find all the links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode109.
I’m really thrilled about today’s topic and sharing today’s topic with you because it’s one that most – if not all – Drama teachers have to deal with at some point in their career.
Drama teachers have a very unique relationship with their students, right? The Drama class is like no other class. Those relationships sometimes are less structured, less traditional, and sometimes Drama teachers see students like other teachers don’t see their students and hear things that normal teachers wouldn’t normally hear. Things bubble up – whether they be events or secrets or even just emotions – so, when that swirling emotional tide that comes from a teenager comes your way, how do you handle it?
So, let’s hear how one teacher – a long-time teacher and Theatrefolk playwright – Christian Kiley deals with student strife.
Lindsay: All right. Hello, everybody! I am here talking to Christian Kiley.
Christian: Hello, Lindsay! Hi, Craig!
Lindsay: How are you doing?
Christian: I’m very good. Thank you.
Lindsay: Awesome. So, we’re talking with Christian for a couple of things. He’s one of our long-term, long-standing playwrights. Christian, you just seem to know the kind of material that I think really hits home with students in a very unique way. Like, there’s always something a little sharp. We like the plays that you write!
Christian: Well, I think we’re going for the same thing which is taking things that are fantastical and imaginative and merging them with a kind of reality, and when those two things come together, I think it really does resonate with audiences and with students.
Lindsay: I think it’s important to have those kinds of plays available for students, too, because, you know, in their world right now where we are so intent on television and movies, where everything is sort of replicated and maybe less theatrical, that when a subject matter is explored theatrically, I think that that’s a win-win.
Lindsay: Christian has a brand new play with us which does what we’re talking about very effectively. It’s called Inanimate and it takes place in a world where inanimate objects come to life for a teenage girl – a coffee pot, a door, her clothes – and we learn, as we get more and more into this play, that this is not some kind of Disney story, Disney fantasy, where animals talk and they’re very cute. But there’s something deeper going on and we thought that, before we get into the play, that that was a very interesting subject because the whole notion of “what’s going on in the inner life of a teenager?” because, Christian, you are a Drama teacher.
Christian: Yes, I am.
Lindsay: How long have you been one?
Christian: This is my tenth year at my current school, Etiwanda High School. This will be fifteen years total for me.
Lindsay: And what attracts you to being a Drama teacher?
Christian: You know, it’s interesting because a lot of people are adapting and dealing with the common core right now and there are mixed feelings about it. One thing that’s a commonality for us in theatre – in teaching Drama – is that we really get to create the lessons ourselves. And so, as artists – which I know many of the high school teachers and junior high teachers that you work with, they are artists – it does give you that feeling of creating in the moment.
I thought about it this morning when I was kind of getting ready for this and, in a Biology lab, you might dissect a frog and examine it. But, for us, it’s really about dissecting and examining the human condition and that’s what really makes it exciting. And you’re going to lead into, I know, some questions about there’s a fragile part of it, too. But that’s, I think, what makes it so valuable.
Lindsay: Well, when you exactly said that, when you said the looking and examining the human condition, what that means is that teenagers start to examine themselves, and that can get into some tricky territory, can’t it?
Christian: Yes, self-evaluation and introspection can be tricky business. We’re asking them to use substitutions and then, when they do it well, it can open some doors and windows that they’re not used to having open.
Lindsay: And not only that, if you are the teacher and you are there when perhaps a student is maybe revealing something very private or when they are experiencing emotion that they have been maybe stuffing down that they don’t want anyone to see, you’re there and you’re experiencing it. How, as a teacher, do you deal with, you know? What kind of relationships do you have with your students?
Christian: Yeah, it’s difficult. I try to set some rules and guidelines for myself as much as for the students. I had an experience my first year of teaching an acting class where we were working on the object exercise and I had a student bring in and old pen that his grandfather had given him and it opened a floodgate of emotion and it really didn’t stop throughout the day, and that’s when I realized how powerful this can be.
One of the things that’s really helped me is we have a co-teaching program at my school and that enables these older, more experienced students to kind of be buffers. So, I find out a lot of things before they happen and, with adequate time to prepare, that really helps.
I’m also doing this year, for the first time, I’ve created a self-evaluation sheet with some questions for the students so that I can learn a little bit more about them and some of the positive memories and things that they have in their life because then I can get to know them in a different way.
I also think it’s important to create a safe environment for the students and give them an opportunity to have a place to go if they need to. I have a side room where I teach and, oftentimes, if one of the students needs to go there and have a moment, I leave that available for them to be able to do that, and one of the co-teachers can go next-door with them and help them if they’re dealing with an issue.
So, with experience, I think, comes a certain amount of flexibility and you try to come up with different strategies for dealing with this because you want people to express themselves in a safe way.
Lindsay: Well, yeah, it must be very shocking when a student maybe breaks down in your class for the first time. If you don’t deal with it appropriately – keeping as you as the teacher – but, also, in a way that a student is going to feel safe, your students will never open up, will they?
Christian: Oh, absolutely. You had, I think earlier today on the Theatrefolk website, from the first-person perspective of a teacher and the fact that my response or any of the teachers that you work with, their response, my response is critical because my reaction in that moment really sets the tone for what’s going to happen the rest of the year and the rest of the student’s life to a certain extent.
Lindsay: Do you have an example of maybe when you didn’t respond so well?
Christian: When I was a younger teacher, there was a certain amount of exuberance and energy that the margin for error was wider with me when I was younger. And, sometimes, you’ll say something critically and you can tell right away the student has taken it to heart and you know, and those are some sleepless nights for teachers because you want to push students to excel and to experience new things, but I don’t think any of us ever want to hurt another person, especially a young person, like that.
So, the pen example that I brought up earlier was when I thought, “Oh, man. I’m going to bring this object exercise in and it’s artifact-based. It’ll be really neat to see their reactions,” and I saw a few of them and they were kind of surface emotions and then this kid with his grandfather’s pen just broke down. He had to go to the nurse and that was two or three days for me of kind of emotional crisis going through that.
Lindsay: So, how do you deal with that? Do you take it home with you? Do you talk with other teachers? Like, when a student has been emotional like that, how do you keep yourself safe?
Christian: Yeah, it’s hard, and we’re on our own, really. We’re islands. It’s not like you can go to an English teacher, another teacher, even another performing arts teacher and talk about it because their choral experience or their dance experience is going to be very different from their acting experience.
So, I’ve tried – and I’m going to do it again this year – to start with more benign activities, more team-building, more ensemble activities, and kind of wait as the year goes on and even as the courses go on. I don’t think you want to really be delving into even some of the more serious Meisner and Eric Morse kind of stuff until you get into the advanced classes anyway. Just give them a taste of it.
Lindsay: And that’s the other thing that is very traumatizing for a student. If they break down and fellow students laugh at them, I can imagine the stress of that. So, I guess, if you’re starting your year with team-building and with ensemble-building so that they are a community, when someone breaks down, the hope is that they are the comforters maybe.
Christian: Right. Absolutely. That is an excellent point because then you’re building a community. I think, early on in the course, especially an intro course, you do have a good number of students that don’t want to be in the room and they’re kind of waiting to get transferred.
I always ask – and I’ll do this again on Wednesday when we start – I always ask that they give it a week and not just have a knee-jerk reaction of quitting straight away. I just say, “Look, give it the same opportunity that you would give a new relationship or friendship or a new job or whatever, and don’t just make a knee-jerk reaction.”
That being said, a lot of those things that you’re talking about with one student – and, sometimes, it’s just like a hiccup reaction – they’re not malicious but they’ll laugh because a student will have what we call a breakthrough. They’re having a legitimate emotional breakthrough and someone will laugh and now we’ve shut them down. And, as the teacher, now the big question is – and we’re leading to this – “What do I do?” because, from my heart, I want to defend the student who I feel is being ostracized or picked on or whatever. But, at the same time, I have to stay in that professional armor as well. So, it’s a tough spot and all the teachers out there know you’re in that place from time to time.
Lindsay: Is it hard to keep that balance of boundaries when you’re a Drama teacher?
Christian: Absolutely. You know these kids in ways that other teachers just don’t and other academic teachers have a huge impact on these students’ lives, but I know their parents and their personal life situations and, when we’re at a festival or something, sometimes you’ll have cell phone numbers and you’ll need to text or whatever – “Hey! We’re going to get on the bus. Where are you?” and things like that so you know them in ways, pragmatically and emotionally, that the other teachers just don’t.
They have to be able to trust you. You’re program depends implicitly on the fact that people can trust you, and I get goosebumps when I say that because, for my own children – I think about this one day – and our young people need adults – mentors who are not their parents that can step in and be positive, reliable role models for them.
Lindsay: That’s a lot of responsibility.
Christian: It is, yeah.
Lindsay: And I think that’s something that’s not taught. Well, we talked about being artists and there are so many artists out there who perhaps aren’t the best teachers but they go into teaching and it’s like, well, they’ve got the content down but those other aspects of being a Drama teacher are really just as important, aren’t they?
Christian: Oh, absolutely. I said the other day – and a lot of people don’t agree with me but I said – “I don’t think it matters so much the subjects that you teach in school but that you’re teaching people to be part of an ensemble, to be part of a community, to be able to lead, to be able to follow, to have a professional persona, to have a personal persona,” and that is not reliant on the subjects that are taught. That relies heavily on the group dynamic and the leadership and the quality of the teacher and things like that.
Lindsay: Well, I’ve kind of come to learn that, if anyone makes a remark about the lighter plays of mine or the fluffier plays of mine, and I’ve really come to learn that the subject matter of the play, by and large, it doesn’t matter. It’s the act of being in the play. Just as you say, it’s the act of building the community. It’s the act of a twelve-year-old girl who, in the middle of rehearsal says, “I will not go on-stage,” and then on performance day says to the teacher, “I’m ready to go on-stage.” Well, you’ve changed their life and it doesn’t matter if it’s the elf show or it’s something very tragic and dramatic. It’s that all those skill-building exercises and that that’s what made a difference.
Christian: Oh, absolutely. That’s beautifully said and I think, a lot of times, it’s the act of getting out there and running. Everybody would love to have a $300 pair of running shoes. I’m sure they exist. But it’s just the act of getting out there and doing it.
I mean, I think of two plays right off the top of my head – your play, The Bright Blue Mailbox Suicide Note, and Bradley Hayward’s Split which one of my student directors directed last year – and just the potential for breakthroughs there are exponential and it’s very exciting.
But the thing that you pointed out which I think is one of the greatest things and it’s all the sports movies I like – like, The Rookie, and Rudy, and Invincible – they all focus on this too which is, as a coach, as a mentor, we have the opportunity to get a student to change their mind on something like that. I’ll have a kid – most often male young students – who will say, “I’m out of here. I can’t do this. This isn’t for me.” And, three or four days later, you see them kind of dig in and they’re going to stick it out.
I had a young man last year who’s I think going to turn out to be a pretty dynamic actor who went through that very experience, and had I not been firm but friendly, I think he might have just left after the first day or two.
Lindsay: What a rewarding experience though. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. It’s the relationship and also that it was a professional relationship – that balance with dealing with students.
Christian: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
Lindsay: Okay. So, do you have some examples of things that maybe some beginner teachers can be on the lookout for? Maybe some common issues that come up, that happen in the Drama classroom?
Christian: I think, first of all, a system that works really well – and it’s Teacher 101 – is greeting and saying goodbye to every student at the door. This is one of my favorite parts of the day because – believe it or not – we’re great at reading people – as Theatre teachers, and Drama teachers. And so, to make eye contact with each student twice – when they come in and when they leave – is critical. And I love the energy when you’ve had a really good exercise or lesson or set of rehearsals and everyone’s leaving and there’s a buzz and you’ve sent them off into the world with this renewed sense of optimism and excitement, and now you’ve connected with them. Often, I will see something that will be a red flag and I’ll be able to pull the student aside later and say, “Hey, is something going on?” So, there’s that.
I think having a few rules about the safe environment, I really am very strict about performance time. I actually take interior breaks in the class and it’s sort of a trade-off. I require that everyone is absolutely quiet during performances. Obviously, things like laughter that is stimulated from the material or the performance or someone gasps – that’s very different than what we were talking about earlier. But, I think, letting everyone know very early on that, you know, “Here are the things that we’re not going to tolerate,” instantly, people feel safe.
Now, as far as things to be on the look-out for, a lot of these students are going things that are pretty traumatic. It’s very common for me to encounter students that their parents are splitting up, they’re going through a divorce. There are a lot of things and I think we have to be careful as adults to say, “Oh, that’s a trivial matter. You know, that’s a gossip-laden thing,” and I try to be on the look-out for those things and watch body language and watch.
A lot of times, the students will tell you by congregating. So, when a number of students are around another student, it’s so tender and protective in a way, they’re actually physically trying to protect the student from something that’s happened. Sure enough, when you peel away those layers and look, the young man or young woman is crying or they’re upset or something like that. So, I think it’s just about being observant.
I think the key is to know your students. I am a big advocate for – and I’m going to find out if I can do it this weekend when they take their pictures at the beginning of the year – I’d like to know their names before they even show up on the first day.
Lindsay: Ah! So that you’re calling them by name when you walk in the door.
Christian: It’s a bit of Harry Potter wizardry to be able to know who they are and right away. It’s like bang! They know that they’ve got someone flying the plane that knows the ins and outs of the air space and what’s going on.
But, being observant, I think is critical. I think, letting them know that they can come to you individually. I have kind of an open policy. It’s a cliché but I think the door kind of remains open. You want to always let people know that you’re with students but you also want to let the student know that the information they share with you is something that you take seriously and that, obviously – unless it’s an issue of their own safety or safety of another student – that you will keep their confidence.
Lindsay: Sometimes administration comes down about how “don’t touch a student,” “don’t be alone with a student” – that must be maybe even harder for a male teacher dealing with your female students. Have you had any issues with that? How do you deal with that overhanging dynamic?
Christian: Boy, that’s a tough one, isn’t it? It seems like there could be numerous play ideas that could spring out of that.
Lindsay: Do you not even think about it? Do you just put your students first and just know that you’re going to act in a professional manner?
Christian: I’m lucky because, after ten years at my current school, I really make the decisions in the program and people are supporters and advocates and there’s not a lot of time – there’s never a time – that I’m pulled in and someone says, “Hey, what’s going on here?”
I think a lot of it is I don’t think we consider the strength of the collective student opinion about a teacher and I can’t speak to the accuracy of it but I know that, if you get the students onboard with vigor about what you’re doing and they’re enthusiastic about it, most of your problems – potential problems, skeletons that potentially are not there but could be in a closet – will be gone because the kids are onboard and they’re going home every day and at dinner or in the car ride home or whatever, one of the first things they’re talking about is about your class in a positive way.
Okay. Let’s talk about Inanimate. Where did the idea for this play come from?
Christian: Well, I’ve always been fascinated with personification and I’ve read quite a bit of the work of Ray Bradbury and he does this quite a bit, too. I just like the idea of people and their environment, and I’ve also been fascinated with agoraphobia and I feel like a lot of people kind of poopoo the idea that it’s a real social anxiety, it’s a real issue.
Lindsay: I think it’s even more of an issue now when you actually can stay in your room and feel like you are associating with the real world – with your phone and your computer and everything – when, in actual fact, you’re just masking a problem which I think is kind of what this character is doing in the play.
Christian: Right, and what I really like about this play is that it’s kind of whimsical and fun, these Mongols come in and there are dinosaurs later, but then it really takes a turn and there’s a dark kind of tone to it near the end – or at least the potential for that.
And, when we previewed it at school, there was a lot of laughter early on. And then, at the end, there were some gasps and so forth that, when we had our talk back at the end, a lot of people said they were really surprised about the ending.
Lindsay: That’s not a bad thing.
Christian: No, it’s great. I felt good about that.
Lindsay: How did your cast deal with this young girl? Not young girl – this teenager – the way that it does seem whimsical and then there actually is a pretty serious social and emotional problem underneath. How did they deal with that character? Did they relate to her?
Christian: Yeah, they were terrific, and this was a level one, year one, Drama one group.
Lindsay: Really? Wow! That’s awesome!
Christian: Yeah, and they really did well. I was very fortunate. They were very mature about it and they came to rehearsal every day, ready to work, and I think you know – and you’ve talked about this before, watching and being a part of workshopping your own plays, too – there’s a moment where you kind of have a sigh of relief and you say, “Oh, my gosh, this is working.” With a play like this that’s a little off-kilter, a little eccentric, there’s always some anxiety as the playwright that it might capsize or it might not work.
Lindsay: Or that, when you start out whimsical and you take that turn, sometimes, people won’t take the turn with you.
Christian: Oh, absolutely.
Lindsay: It’s a very delicate balance to get an audience and to get particularly young actors onboard with a character and then go where they go. So, I think that’s your specialty.
Christian: Well, I appreciate that. But, you know, going back to what you talked about earlier, we are just like the students in that, when you finish a draft or you have your first rehearsal or read-through, we don’t really want to be, obviously, laughed at either.
Christian: In the same way when someone gets up and they perform a Juliet monologue or the weird sisters’ scene from Macbeth or whatever, they don’t want to be laughed at either. And so, that vulnerability, I think, brings us all together because we all share that.
Lindsay: I think so, too. And I think that’s where we learn how insightful high school students really are when they do appreciate those vulnerable moments in plays.
Christian: The idea that students, we should lower the bar for them, it’s just ridiculous to me. It’s the same thing and you just get used to it when you meet someone for the first time and they find out what you do. Typically, you get the “Oh, how fun!”
Lindsay: “How cute!”
Christian: It’s not Barney or Romper Room, you know? Or something like that. And I think the kids resent it, too. So, as soon as they see someone like you or me or the people that associate and affiliate with Theatrefolk and they see the level of passion and that the gloves are off, this is the same way that we would deal in an artistic world with anyone – adults, whatever.
Lindsay: And now, it’s quite comforting and empowering actually to know exactly what we write and why we write it and the impact that we have so that, when people are dismissive or condescending, it matters not a bit because they don’t really know the wonder of a student production and how it can change their life. And, quite frankly, we have a part in that and I think that’s the best job in the world.
Christian: Absolutely, and I’m not going to lie though, it does bother me sometimes, the reaction.
Lindsay: Sure. Of course, it does.
Christian: But it does do two things, though. I think it gives me motivation for future writing and it helps me relate to the students because I really think adversity is a common language that we all have and, when you suffer through something – whatever it is – it is horrible in the moment. But, as you start recovering from that and getting through, you can start to think, “You know what? This is going to give me the ability to relate to people in a better way.”
Lindsay: Awesome. That’s wonderful. And that is Christian Kiley’s play, Inanimate.
Thank you so much for talking to me today, Christian. It’s been lovely as always.
Christian: Thank you. Thank you, Lindsay.
Thank you, Christian.
The links for this episode can be found at theatrefolk.com/episode109.
So, before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
And so, Christian talked about his play Inanimate. So, let’s hear from the play itself with “It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!”
Okay. So, I’m just going to read two little bits because it just shows the switch because this play takes place a lot in the mind of the main character, Ani. And, you know, at the beginning, it opens with “Oh, how cute it is that these things talk to her!” Like, her closet is a character and her coffee pot is a character and her dryer is a character and her washer is a character. You know, she sort of lives in this life in her room and everybody’s really funny and, you know, she’s sort of the ring master in the three-ring circus and it kind of goes like this.
CLOSET: Ani, you may need this. It’s going to be cold and windy today.
ANI: Weather report?
LAPTOP: Windy and cloudy with high in the low fifties.
CLOSET: You never wear this anymore, Ani, and it looks so cute on you.
ANI: Jack-the-Ripper-kitten cute?
CLOSET: Kitten-awkwardly-on-ice-skates cute.
DRYER: Ding! Your clothes are ready.
ANI: Oh, good. Thank you, Dryer.
DRYER: Oh, you’re very welcome, Ani.
WASHER: Hold up! You know that there are two of us here. Without me, your clothes would be dry but dirty and stinky. I wash the clothes, Ani, and dryer gets all the praise.
ANI: Sorry, Washer. I’ll keep that in mind.
WASHER: I mean, without me, you would have to find some stream or river to wash your clothes in.
DRYER: Oh, take it easy, Washer.
WASHER: You take it easy, Dryer. You’re just a glorified clothesline which is basically a piece of string.
DRYER: What did you call me?
ANI: Stop arguing. You’re a team. Both of you make my life better. Thank you both.
Okay. So, Ani is very much in control of this world. But the thing is that it’s not the real world. It’s not how she’s interacting with the people around her. So, when her friend comes to the door and we are suddenly put into what life is really like for Ani, and things are not that great, and things are not that good, and we’re talking today a lot about that emotional strife that kind of bubbles up for students and what happens when they keep it all inside. So, Sarah comes to the door.
SARAH: Hey! Ready to go to school?
ANI: I don’t feel so good. I think I’ll stay home today.
SARAH: You’ve missed a lot of school lately.
ANI: I know, okay?
SARAH: Easy. I’m just looking out for you.
ANI: By sending civilized well-dressed Mongols that were no help with studying for the test.
SARAH: Ani, what are you talking about? Are you all right?
ANI: Yes, sorry. I’m just not sleeping well.
SARAH: What can I do to help?
ANI: Just go to school. I’ll work it out.
SARAH: Okay. But I’m worried about you.
ANI: Don’t. It’s just a phase. I’ll grow out of it.
SARAH: I hope so, Ani.
ANI: Why? Because this is inconvenient for you? I’m not the best friend from the magazines with the perfect hair and perfect skin and perfect personality? Because I – I don’t know – talk to my coffee pot?
SARAH: Because you seem unhappy. Miserable.
ANI: Well, maybe I like it that way. The blinds drawn and the lights turned down low.
ANI: Just leave. I free you from your obligations to me.
SARAH: These things you call obligations, I call friendship.
ANI: You’re just like this stupid inspirational poster my parents hang on my wall to try and remind me of what I’m capable of when I try.
SARAH: Let me help you.
ANI: No! I don’t like you at all.
That’s Inanimate and you can find a link to the play with free sample pages that you can read at the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode109.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk, and you can find us on the Stitcher app, and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is – wait for it – search on the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.