Gai Jones decided in the 5th grade that she wanted to be a theatre educator and she has been impacting teachers and students for over 40 years.
She may be retired but she hasn’t slowed down. Gai travels on average to 20 states each year adjudicating, teaching workshops and fundraising for student theatre scholarships.
In this podcast she talks about her drama in education journey, how she dealt with being a one man teaching band, how she empowered her students, how you can be an arts advocate, and her top tips for theatre teachers.
Welcome to TFP, The Theatrefolk Podcast. I am Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
Today, I am talking to theatre educator extraordinaire, Gai Jones. Gai decided in the fifth grade that she wanted to be a theatre educator and she has been impacting teachers and students for over forty years. She may be retired but she is not slowing down. Gai is on the board for the Educational Theatre Association. She travels on average to twenty states a year adjudicating, teaching workshops, fundraising for student scholarships. Let’s get right to this interview.
So, just a bit of a heads up, there’s a little bit of a hum and a couple of phone rings, but we can handle all that, right? And make sure you keep listening because Gai is going to reveal her top tips for theatre teachers and they’re really valuable and I think they’re ones you won’t expect. And she also has some specific tips on how you can be an advocate for your arts program.
Okay. Here’s Gai.
Lindsay: Hello everybody! Well, I am tickled pink today. I am really jazzed for the conversation that I am about to have. I have here on the podcast, I think, a theatre educator extraordinaire, Gai Jones. I’ve only been doing workshops in festivals for a relatively short time but I have always known about the impact that Gai has on both teachers and students.
Gai: Thank you! I love it! Hello everyone! I so grateful for this opportunity.
Lindsay: Yeah, it’s awesome! Now, you’ve been extremely busy recently. You’ve been doing some fundraising actually. What has that all been about
Gai: You know, with Thespians, Jason Daunter who is the stage manager on the first production, national production tour of Wicked, and Matt Conover who is vice president of Disney is in charge of casting on both coast and crew ships, et cetera. We came up with an idea that said, “How about we do a little benefit while we’re all in California at the same time?” which is like a year and a half ago, “and raise money for thespian scholarship.”
Lindsay: And this is just for some folks who might not know but Thespians is an educational theatre organization. The umbrella company is the Educational Theatre Association and Thespians are high school and middle school theatre troops, basically, yes?
Gai: Yes, they are, and it’s an honor society so the kids have to accumulate a certain amount of hours to be initiated and then there’s also academic thespians so, after they become that and if they got really good grades, then they’ve got other benefits. So, Educational Theatre Association is the umbrella organization over Thespians. We have something like 47,000 thespians, there’s over 8,000 adult members who belong to EDTA – Education Theatre Association. Jason, Matt, and I happen to serve on the board and we’re very lucky to do that. We have a three-year term, each one of us overlapping. They were all in California at the same time and I said, “Come on to Ojai,” because I live in Ojai, California, and then said, “We’ll put on a benefit,” and I said, “I happen to have some girls that I work with in musical theatre,” and Jason all of a sudden said, “Let’s put on a show.”
Lindsay: All those theatre people, you know. Give them an inch and they’re putting on a show.
Gai: So, we found a wonderful benefactor by the name of Joan Kemper who lives in Ojai and she’s a philanthropist and loves theatre. She actually got her lighting degree in Chicago as a youngster but she got the free venue, she got the free kind of piano tuning. Anyway, so we got music. Jason Daunter solicited Jason Yarko who was musical conductor of Wicked. He wrote some music, he sent the music to our kids, our kids got a local vocal director who helped them learn, and then Jason said, “Well, I can bring a couple of Wicked cast members with me.” And so, he did! So, being able to, within one afternoon, they are able to play with Jason Yarko who is the musical conductor of Wicked and learn some music. But these high school kids get to sing along with Carla Stickler who is now playing Elphaba on Broadway and Michael Mahany who is understudying Fiyero. And they got to sing and dance and put on a show.
Well, by the end of the evening because we’d decided that we would do it really cheaply, we wanted to only charge $10.00 to $15.00, but we raised over $1,000 just in one night.
Gai: Yeah, so we thought, “Well, this is all going to go to Thespians Scholarship to help those kids who want to go to college and major in Theatre.” So, we decided, Jason said, “Well, just follow Wicked.” So, we decided to follow Wicked. We brought EDTA on board and they came up with a marketing and publicity, and therefore, Kristin McFadden joined us who was director of development with Educational Theatre Association. So, now we’d done nineteen cities around the country, including Hawaii, and we had done shows and we’d raised over $45,000 plus another $250,000 in in kind donations.
Lindsay: That’s fantastic!
Gai: Yeah, we feel so good about that. So, that’s one of the projects that I’m working on.
Lindsay: That’s really awesome. How long would you say you’ve been involved with Drama and education?
Gai: Actually, the first time I started something was when I was in fifth grade and I got to take elocution lessons which the older people will know what that is. But I got to stand on Mrs. AB Morgan’s Persian rug in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and every week I recited poetry or did monologues, and she gave me adjustments – I didn’t know what that was at the time – but I thought, “This is really cool,” and my mother was ahead of her time and she let me do this. And so, I took it all the way through high school and I decided in fifth grade that I wanted to be a theatre educator. So, I became one!
College, I went to a very specialized, very small women’s college in Oklahoma in which we had to do everything. We did the lighting when the Oklahoma City Symphony came through. We did the set crew. We did everything. And we also got to play some male roles – only in the Shakespeare,what they called “public domain” kind of things. Otherwise, we recruited the officers from a nearby military base but we only recruited officers.
Lindsay: Well, you have to have standards, right?
Gai: I know, we do. We said that it was a very specialized degree. It was a BA in Speech and Drama. So, then I came to California and I started teaching eighth grade Speech and Drama and English, and I was the first woman to get a master’s degree in Theatre from Cal States University, Fullerton. Moved on to El Dorado High School in which I was a one-person show for thirty-eight years. When I retired, they so kindly named the theatre after me. It’s called the Gai Jones Theatre, it’s a little black box theatre, that’s where I spent all my life. And I said, “Oh, I just donated, like, a lot of time of my life.” I didn’t donate any money, except I probably really did throughout the years. But now there’s a Gai Jones Theatre in Placentia, California, so I’m very happy about that.
So, after retirement, I’m now more flexible that I can teach at Santa Barbara City College – actually, it’s the Center for Continuing Lifelong Learning which I have ages, like, seventeen through, my eldest student is ninety-two years old, Mary who is my neighbor who just wanted to try to be an actor so she’s coming on over. And then, I also teach at Cal State University, East Bay, in which I set up a professional development institute for theatre teachers around the nation. So, that’s where I am, so that’s how long.
Lindsay: What is it about teaching that clicks for you? Like, why be a Drama teacher?
Gai: You know, I’m going to say I’m teaching part-time only two days a week at Ventura Charter School and I’m teaching little fifth and sixth graders and also one seventh and eighth grade class, and the fifth and sixth graders are just so engaged and wonderful. But you know what? I’m going to say middle school theatre teachers I think are terrific, I think I so honor them because sometimes eighth grade girls have a lot of drama in their lives.
Lindsay: It’s a very particular age.
Gai: It is, and so, any time, I think out of the whole semester, I think they’re probably about three times out of all those days that I’ve been there – like, only Monday and Friday – that they were so truly engaged that they forgot about peer pressure and I thought, “You know, this is why we do this.”
I had a theatre professor in college that said, “When you strike twelve, everything fits and everybody knows it.” Even with those little eighth grade girls who, like I said, potentially have a lot of angst going on and they want to be accepted by everybody, that there are moments that this theatre art that we have, it takes them outside of that and gets them to a place in which they feel creative. So, I think that’s why.
Lindsay: Now, you said that when you were teaching, you were basically a one-man band, and we have so many of our listeners who are in the same boat. A lot of them feel overwhelmed and sometimes a little bit alone. So, how did you deal with being just the one who had to do it all?
Gai: What a great question. First of all, I engaged my students and I empowered them, and it took a while. I started and the first year I had like one Speech and Drama class and maybe one Theatre class. And then, over about four years, then I had five, and it just progressed from that point. But I think the empowerment that I let students have a place to succeed but also could experiment in a safe environment and to the point that Thespians were really important to us because it’s an honor society. And what happens was that I often would engage the students as student leaders. So, I would have a staff meeting every week with the student leaders – who was in charge of costumes or in charge of props – and set them up for success because I would give them expectations and also give them a way to help them. But, literally, if some costume person didn’t come through which happens, we all picked it up, but we could Romeo and Juliet in jeans and t-shirts simply because the one person just couldn’t make it and we thought, “Well, we’re still going to do it,” but it’s the idea of responsibility and empowerment – that, and I also hired a lot of college students and a lot of former students who would come back and choreograph, and even I turned over directing a show. I did five shows a year plus ten festivals, ten festivals a semester, each semester, and then did the touring shows at the elementary school, but I was always doing them during class periods – it was part of the curriculum. They got on the bus, we went over to the elementary school, did Dr. Seuss stories, got on the bus, and got back before my class period was finished.
So, I empowered them but I also, like I said, I hired a former student to come and choreograph, and she gradually took over directing the musical. And so, I embraced a lot of help from other faculty members and students.
Lindsay: I love that. I love the whole notion of just empowering students. It’s like, if you don’t have other Drama teachers around you, you sort of, I like how you said that you had a staff meeting with your student leaders. You know, why not?
Lindsay: Yeah. I know you because of the workshop work that you do. How many festivals do you think you travel to in a year to teach workshops?
Gai: I probably travel to, between adjudicating for the main stage at the International Thespian Festival at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, plus doing workshops, plus doing Making Magic, Defying Gravity, I probably go to maybe twenty states throughout the year and I feel very honored because every time I go I will meet wonderful people but I also get to learn from them because I came back, like I said, from the northeast conference where they did a very small New England stays very small conference in 400, and then I went from there. I’d learned so much there then I went to Texas which happens something like 3,000 or 4,000 – I think that’s right. And then, I stopped in Arizona which, I think, Lindsay, you were there at least, or Craig was.
Lindsay: Yeah. You know what? I think I saw you, like, across the room. It was one of those, “Yes. Sorry. Hello. Bye!”
Gai: We have another, what? 1,200 or so. But every place I go, there is something that I learn and then I volunteer to be on the California State Thespian board because I was the past chapter director and I service membership, vice president for that, and also California Educational Theatre Association, I volunteer to be membership for that, and DTASC which is Drama Teachers Association of Southern California, I volunteered to be vice president of advocacy. But I’m the linking person with a thousand theatre educators in the state of California because every time I go somewhere I learn something that can help California, that can help teachers around the nation, that can help anybody or student that I go into a workshop.
So, I have several different workshops. One is my big push is Ensemble Building.
Lindsay: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that because, when I was looking at your workshops, that seems to be the thing that you really hit home. And why is that important?
Gai: Well, I think probably because of the supportive collaborative nature, the whole 21st century skills which we were doing way before they named it 21st century skills with the collaboration and the creativity and the critical thinking and the communication – it’s all about that. And so, with that emphasis now, I really approach it that way, but not only in class do I set everything up as a collaboration, but also on Thespians, I set everything up with the students and teachers as well. We’re all in this collaborative nature and that’s particularly I so encourage teachers to get involved in their local and their state and their national education, the theatre association, because you find out you’re not by yourself, and particularly with Educational Theatre Association with their web-based community which is going to roll out in February of 2014, you can go on and post something and you’ll get an answer instantaneously. Once again, it’s my theory of ensemble. We’re all in this together. So, any way we can share, I don’t consider this competitive. I consider it as creative and also collaborative. That one I do.
I do a lot on teaching students to be directors on little projects. I’m one of those that think everybody should go get your degree in directing before you take on a full-length play, but I know some directors and teachers have opposing views on that. But I will teach the student particularly that.
And also, I have a workshop called Ace Any Theatre Audition but I take them through every kind of audition that they may run into from cattle call to improv to interview, et cetera.
So, those are my three major ones. Plus, I really like to work with teachers on best practices so I share a lot, the facilitating with that.
I have a book called Raising the Curtain. It’s four years of curriculum. It’s through perfectionlearning.com. It is $49.95 I believe now and I hear it’s their really first turnaround, once you order, that you get it. But then someone said they Googled it on eBay and someone’s selling it for $300 so…
Lindsay: Oh, my gosh!
Gai: But I would recommend $49.95 through perfectionlearning.com.
Lindsay: What can a teacher expect to get from a book like that?
Gai: You know, anyone – and I’ve used it through pre-K, through senior citizens, and it really is four years of curriculum. It’s a beginning level, it’s exploratory, but it also has some advanced idea. But all of it’s project-based.
The other one I have which I’d probably self-publish is called Break a Leg and it’s a love letter to theatre teachers and that you can get through my website, www.gaijones.com.
Lindsay: And that’s G-A-I. G-A-I, everybody.
Gai: J-O-N-E-S.com, and it’s $16.00 but it’s all the tips and truisms that they didn’t articulate when we were in college. Like, you will lose your theatre keys at least once a year.
Lindsay: I was going to ask you, “What’s the number one tip?” Is that it? You’re going to lose your keys?
Gai: The next one is learn to drive a big truck.
Lindsay: That’s awesome.
Gai: The imperatives. The third one is you make friends with your custodian and you make friends with the office manager at your school, okay? Those are things, and the fourth one is your car will be the first one in the parking lot and the last one out, okay?
Lindsay: Why is that? Why do Drama teachers, why are they so committed to basically giving over so much of their time? Because that’s the number one thing I hear, when I talk to teachers, it’s like, it’s like time that they give to their students.
Gai: You know, to me, I taught English, I love teaching English, but I would much rather spend from 7:00 AM in the morning until 6:00 PM working one-on-one or working with a group of students because I see it coming alive, and it’s so instantaneous. And even when it doesn’t work, I’m learning something.
Now, I made it a practice though – this is another tip – that I go home at 6:00. I have a family, I want to go see my own daughter’s swim meets. I took my kids to things. I involved my own children in things. But they grew up and became a sixth-grade teacher and the other is a principal of an elementary school in which she says, “I use theatre every day of my life, particularly improvisation with my teachers.” But I go home except on the nights that I had production week, or on a weekend when I might have a comedy sports which is improvisational theatre. But I didn’t do Saturday workdays. I wanted to have a life. So, I really, the other really big tip that I have in my book, first of all, the book will make you laugh, but the second one is take care of yourself. The kids will graduate, your family will not. Your family and friends and children are the ones that you need to be there for. But understand, those kids at school will understand that you’re going to home to your family. So, I think that’s really a big tip.
Lindsay: I think that’s a great tip. I do think that the approach to Drama and education has changed over time.
Gai: I think that we’re catching up with the times, and thanks to people like you, Lindsay and Craig, that you’re forcing us and really wonderfully forcing us to get web-based and get high-tech. Seriously!
Lindsay: It’s a gentle cajoling, I think.
Gai: Oh, the things you offer are incredible. I take them, I print them, I use them, but I’m going to say – because these kids are digital natives when it comes to electronics and we are not, okay? So, I think the more technology that we engage with our art, the more pliable we are and the more reliable we are with students.
I think the other thing, I really believe in flipped classroom and they can look this up.
Lindsay: Yeah, I love that.
Gai: I also believe in project-based learning. So, I think the more we go with the times, and yes, in America, the new standards will be rolling out. We take them as guidelines, we make what we do fit, and we go with that to make sure our students are across the board, common core, knowledgeable in everything that we have. So, someday, when it becomes rather it becomes stem then it will become steam because the arts will be involved, but we are teachers will be ready to step up.
Now, I’m going to say, in California, we don’t have a theatre and dance credential and I was just at the Commission on Teacher Credentialing this week talking about that because we are English subsumes theatre. You do not have to have a theatre credential to teach theatre. If you want to be highly qualified, you cannot be in theatre or in dance. Dance, you have to have a PE credential. So, when I said to my students, “You know that anybody with a PE credential can teach dance, that means any football coach – we love them – any wrestling coach, could teach dance.” They were horrified and I said, “I taught English. I love English and I love English teachers. But we need highly qualified teachers in theatre in the state of California.” We’re only one of fifteen states that does not have a particular license. We are fighting for it, we’re going through it, we will be there. But I believe that that’s where we need to be. We need to have our ducks in a row so that we can talk about highly qualified teachers, that can talk about common core, that we can talk about standards, and that we know what we’re talking about.
Lindsay: What about support for Drama teachers? How is that? Because you must talk to so many teachers over the years, do you find it is waning, is it growing, is it frustration? What’s the support like for Drama in education now?
Gai: Well, I think if you’re talking administrators, it depends on the district. I think that one of our jobs as theatre educator is to be an advocate for art and that means we have to educate administrators, we have to educate school board. We have to go, every time you get a trophy, whether we love or hate that competition element, that you make an appointment with the school board, you take your students, you’re on the agenda, and you thank them.
So, I’m going to say, from local support to state support – that’s a really good question, Lindsay – I think that perhaps in some states, it’s being cut back, but I just tend to be an optimist that the tide will turn and arts will become at the forefront. In California, entertainment is the number two industry right behind agriculture and every one of these theme parks, every one of these movies, every one of these live theatre are using students that should be trained. So, I think support, whether it comes from forming your own parent booster club which I know some teachers are worried about because they think they’ll take over, but basically, you set them out to succeed and say that you will be an advocate and you go to their board meetings and you make a report but you don’t run the meeting. Let them do them, let them know what you need. So, that’s parent support, student support.
I think we also need to engage other teachers support to bring arts into the classroom, volunteer to take theatre kids into that classroom – English, History, Science – to do a demo lesson in Science or whatever. Volunteer at the PTA to do something. Volunteer at the city library to do some kind of historical retrospective of maybe the historical icons of the city. I mean, get yourself out there and I keep saying, “It’s not after-school. It’s curriculum-based.” You can tie all these projects into some kind of curriculum and they fit the standards.
I think, financially, support for the arts is very iffy and it depends where you live. Perhaps private corporations are going to have to see the benefit of hiring those students who have theatre training or at least the skills of creative thinking and critical thinking, and I think they may come around to support public education and private education. Charter system, parochial, doesn’t matter. I think we all need to be advocates for who we are and for what our program does.
Lindsay: I love that notion of, if you win an award or something, go and make an appointment. I think it’s all about, because people have this notion of what Drama is and it’s just silly games. It’s like, ‘No, no, look at this. This is who we are and what we do.”
I think you’re so right; it’s about making it known and linking it to Science, linking it to History, and I think those are some really great tips there, Gai.
Gai: Thank you. I did have a Theatre teacher friend who took one year off. She hired teachers to come in and direct our professionals. She started on the negotiating committee for salary and she logged, with the log every hour that theatre teachers, music teachers, dance teachers, art teachers put in after school, and she was able to get the styphon for co-curricular and extra-curricular duty pay increased for those arts. Now, I’m not sure that’s going to work for everyone, but it was such a powerful advocacy tool that I look at that and say, “You know, if we’ve got a local advocacy network for your program that’s made up of the mayor or the dentist or somebody who had theatre in school or student, their child studied theatre and they’re your local advocacy network for you, this is beyond the booster club, but they can go into the private sector and into the public and into the Rotary and the Lions Clubs and wherever to say this is a wonderful program and they have the statistics on how taking theatre production does help the SAT scores.” All of those facts are on the Educational Theatre Association website so if you need any statistics, you go there to be able to arm your local advocacy network and call it a land group that you’ve set up and they’re the ones that will help you.
Lindsay: Awesome. Yes, we’re going to put any website that we mentioned today in this podcast in the show notes so that people will be able to easily access it.
So, that is Gai Jones and her book Raising the Curtain, and then the Thespian sponsorship fundraising, that’s called Defying Gravity, is it not?
Gai: It’s called Making Magic, Defying Gravity because it blends two well-known sources such as Disney and Wicked, okay? Making Magic, Defying Gravity.
Lindsay: Awesome. That’s it! Thank you so much for taking time out of your intensely busy schedule. Are you busier now than when you were teaching, do you think sometimes?
Gai: You know what? Now, I can say yes to projects and I can say, “Umm. Maybe not right now at this time.” That’s the benefit. There is life after theatre education meaning you can invent yourself and reinvent yourself at least five or six times. Go on to cruise but theatre education will always be there, and to pay it forward and pay it back, I directed three different community theatres, I do workshops around the area. So, I’ve been able to say, “Am I busier? I’m probably more diversely busy, but I think every theatre teacher is busy.” But yeah, I think probably so.
Lindsay: Maybe more specifically fulfilled, maybe.
Gai: Yes, because I have the freedom to say, “Oh, that sounds great,” okay? And I go for it.
Lindsay: Awesome. Thank you so much, Gai!
Gai: Thank you!
Lindsay: Have a good night.
Gai: Keep doing your work! Yay! I love it! All right, buh-bye!
Thank you, Gai. I really appreciate that she took the time to talk with little old me in my little old podcast. It’s really great.
So, before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS. Don’t turn that off!
For the past two weeks, it has been Resource City in our in-depth blog post, specifically in relation to the importance of arts education. We had ten arts education surveys with quantifiable research; eight amazing TED talk videos with summaries, quotes, and lessons learned, outlined for each video. Amazing, I know! So, if you are looking for information to share with other teachers, with your students, with your parents, your administration, you’ve got to go to theatrefolk.com, check out our blog, and use the posts in good health.
And, 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. You can find us on the Stitcher app and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. Go over there! Search on the word Theatrefolk, give us some feedback, put out a review, that would be so lovely!
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.