Episode 184: Drama Teachers: Performing at an Out of Country Theatre Festival
Middle school drama teacher Alyson Brown thinks travel is a vital part of her program. She and her students recently represented the USA at the World Festival of Children’s Theatre in Japan.
Listen in to hear about her experience traveling to the other side of the world with 55 people AND a production!
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama teacher resource company.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 184 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode184.
Today, we’re going on a little trip. You might want to pack a bag. It’s going to be a big trip. We are going to the other side of the world.
With us, we are taking Teacher Alyson Brown because she took her production of The Jungle Book to the World Festival of Children’s Theatre in Japan. That’s right – middle school students in Japan.
Alyson travels regularly with her middle school students and I think that this is going to be an awesome conversation where we find out why and how. Well, we know the where – Japan – and we know who – Alyson and her middle school students – and what – a production. So, let’s get into that. Why does she do it and how does she do it? Great questions! I know! It’s like I wrote them!
Let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: Hello everybody!
I am here with Alyson Brown.
LINDSAY: First off, can you tell everybody where in the world you are?
ALYSON: Well, I teach in Lexington, Massachusetts. I’m currently in Chelmsford. I live about twenty minutes out of Lexington and I teach at Lexington, Mass. at Clarke Middle School.
LINDSAY: Awesome. How long have you been a teacher?
LINDSAY: She says it with a laugh!
ALYSON: I’ve been teaching at Clarke for 23 years.
LINDSAY: Oh, wow! Wow!
ALYSON: And, at middle school, I’m a full-time Drama teacher.
LINDSAY: Wow! We’re just going to segue just a little bit. You’ve been a full-time middle school Drama teacher for 23 years?
LINDSAY: First of all, I think that’s pretty awesome that not only was it available 23 years ago but that it maintains to this day. How has it changed for you? Is it still going strong? Have you gone through administrations that don’t quite see eye to eye? How has it been 23 years later?
ALYSON: Well, it’s interesting. I replaced somebody who had been there for many, many years. So, they’ve had a full-time Drama teacher in my school. We have two middle schools in Lexington and both have full-time Drama teachers.
Yes, you’re right, I have gone through administrations that we don’t see eye to eye. But my current administration are incredibly supportive. We are currently in the middle of a big renovation and they are building a Drama room just for me and I’ve been working with the architects and helping to design the space so that it works for my program. They’re very supportive.
LINDSAY: That’s so exciting! What kind of spaces have you been working in to date?
ALYSON: Well, it’s a band/orchestra/drama room. It’s been hard because, you know, drama tends to be messy when we’re building shows, for example. So, then I have to move things out of the way so that band can have their practice. You know, music stands are everywhere and chairs are everywhere so it does make it challenging – the space itself. But the new space, I will have all to myself with storage there, too.
LINDSAY: You must be, like, it’s Christmas!
ALYSON: It’s so exciting. I get to pick out the furniture and I keep thinking, “They’ve got to realize I teach Drama,” you know? With all these schools and some of these school systems that cut Drama, I feel so incredibly fortunate that my school and my school system really values it.
LINDSAY: What is the value for you? What have you seen in these students as they come to you and as you let them go into high school? What is the value for you of Drama in middle school?
ALYSON: It is amazing. Just the self-confidence that they get from my classes. I teach approximately 300 students per semester so it’s a lot of children that I see. Drama for 7th graders is required so all students must take my class. It’s not that I’m out to make them actors.
You know, I say that to parents at our back-to-school nights. “I’m trying to give them skills that they’re going to use outside of the classroom. They’re going to develop that self-confidence, be able to stand up in front of a crowd, or go to a job interview and be able to have that poise that they need when they’re presenting”
LINDSAY: Rock on! That, to me, is the thing. That is the thing. In middle school and high school, the Drama classroom is the place where real-world skills are found.
LINDSAY: I always tell the story, I knew a teacher in Florida whose husband worked for NASA and they were trying to have communication and have workshops with the Drama departments because they were coming back and saying, “Our people don’t know how to talk with anybody.” You know, it becomes a problem.
We’re here to have a really interesting – I’m very excited about this conversation for a couple of reasons. One is that you have recently had this amazing experience but you’ve had it a couple of times. Let’s just talk about the most recent experience. What did you do and where did you go?
ALYSON: Well, my students and I were chosen to represent the United States at the World Festival of Children’s Theatre in Toyama City, Japan. This is a very prestigious festival. It takes place once every four years. There were 23 countries represented in this theatre festival this past summer. I took 55 people with me to Japan.
LINDSAY: Oh, my gosh!
ALYSON: Yeah, it was a lot.
And so, what happens is you bring your show to Japan and that in itself has a lot of challenges, as you can imagine, bringing a theatrical production across the world. But then, you also get a chance to see shows from different countries and you get a chance to meet people from all over the world who really love what you love and it’s about bridging cultures and bridging the gaps that you might think in your head are there.
But the reality is that the people from all these other countries are exactly like you are; they love what you love. Even though the participants don’t all speak the same language, theatre becomes that common language and it’s amazing. It’s an amazing experience. It’s a week that we get a chance to spend with people from all over the world in Japan.
LINDSAY: What an amazing experience for middle school students – an eye-opening experience – to meet other people. Exactly, theatre becomes the language, people who do the exact same thing that you do.
Some people are listening to this, you know, first of all, their instinct is, “Well, I could never do that,” or, “I could never do that with my students.” Let’s go through the process because you did it. So, how do we do that?
First of all, when did you know you wanted to apply to try and start the ball rolling?
ALYSON: There are submission timeslots for each of these international festivals. For this one, the deadline was last November. Typically, they’re earlier than that. I was surprised that the deadline was so close to the actual trip. As you mentioned, I had done this before. I did this back in 2000 as well. The deadline for that festival was a little bit sooner so we had well over a year to prep for it.
This time, we didn’t find out until January that we were heading to Japan in July.
LINDSAY: That’s not a lot of time.
ALYSON: Not a lot of time. So, that became a challenge when I was taking 55 people with me – just the logistics of trying to get everyone’s passport and trying to get everyone on the same flight. We toured for a week after as well because, if you’re going to Japan, you might as well tour Japan. And so, just scheduling all of those tour stops became very challenging with such a short period of time for us.
LINDSAY: What show did you take?
ALYSON: Well, that was a challenge for me because I knew that I wanted to take something that had a universal appeal so that, if people did not speak English, they would hopefully be able to follow the storyline by what we were doing visually and I wanted to do something that had animals. To me, that seemed like something that would be kind of universal. So, I went with Jungle Book.
LINDSAY: Again, your choice of play was something that (a) has to be visual, (b) thinking about animals. So, then (c) were you always staging it with transferring it in mind or did you do a staging just for home? What were your thoughts in terms of coming up with the show?
ALYSON: That’s a great question.
We had several performances. We had our first performance was at our State Drama Festival. I had to initially stage for that performance. And then, we took it to our own school so then I had to stage for that stage which was a much bigger space. Then, our third performance we did at Cary Hall which is a big venue in Lexington and that was, again, a different space.
During each one of those performances prior to going to Japan, I had different cast members. There were some cast members who were only able to do the Lexington performances and were not able to transfer to Japan. So, I had to switch the show around. We had to re-rehearse for each one of those different performance opportunities. That did become a challenge for us because we were losing people and that was bittersweet for us. We knew we were getting excited about the next performance but then we were losing cast members that we sad to leave behind.
LINDSAY: That was going to be my next question. In terms of the logistics of the kids, when you announced the show, did you announce right away? “Okay, this is our goal for the show. Our goal is to hopefully go to Japan and, when you sign up for this show, you’re signing up for that possibility.” Or it kind of sounds like you were a little bit more flexible that kids could come and go.
ALYSON: I announced it right at the beginning. We had a parent meeting right at the beginning. I explained, “The end performance will be Japan but we have these other performances before that,” and I had planned all along to cast approximately half and half. That was my initial plan. It ended up being more like 75/25. So, 75 percent were going forward to Japan and then the others were going to stay back and that was their own choice.
I left it up to the families to make the decision that was right for them – whether or not they wanted to continue to Japan. Some, for a variety of reasons, some had summer plans already, some didn’t feel comfortable sending their children to Japan and I respect that, there were some who had camp plans or whatever so they chose not to move forward to Japan. Those students worked on the production up through our Cary performance.
LINDSAY: Did you ask parents to make that decision right off the get-go so that you weren’t surprised?
ALYSON: I did. It was a little bit of pushback for that. I just needed to know. I just needed to know what I was working with and some parents were afraid that I was going to cast based solely on whether or not they could go to Japan and that was not my intent at all. But, mostly for the students, a support network of students who were moving forward so that they felt supported by those peers who were also moving forward to Japan. And then, I wanted the students who were not moving forward to feel supported that they were not the only ones not moving forward. They had a group themselves.
LINDSAY: Yeah, so that they didn’t feel like they were the lesser-thans or they were missing out.
LINDSAY: And so, it wasn’t your intention at all – like, we were just talking about leads and stuff. Did you have leads that were some students who stayed behind? Was it a flexible enough show that you could just take people in and put people in?
ALYSON: That was tricky. I was fairly concerned about that the beginning. I blind casted.
LINDSAY: Really? How so?
ALYSON: The parents wrote on their forms whether or not they intended to go forward to Japan and I did not look at those until after I casted. It truly was blind casting. It happened to work out that those who were Mowgli and some of those leading roles were ones who were moving forward.
LINDSAY: That’s one way to do it so that, if parents complain, it can kind of be like, “Hey, I didn’t know.”
ALYSON: I didn’t know, and that was hard, I have to tell you – so hard.
LINDSAY: Of course, and I would say that, if I had to highlight, if this is something that you want to do – to the people listening – in your own school, it sounds like parent communication would be right up there. That’s rule number one.
Rule number two is that casting flexibility needs to be something that’s there so that people who want to be involved can be involved – even if they can’t because there’s lots of reasons why they might not be able to travel across the world.
ALYSON: Of course.
LINDSAY: How did the money work out? I know this is the other question I’m sure everyone is thinking about. How much was it per student?
ALYSON: The way it worked out, with the festival in this particular Japan festival, they paid for the room and board for 15 students or company members. And so, we needed to get ourselves there and we also traveled afterwards so that was an additional expense.
Now, I had more than 15 in the show. I had 24 in the show and that was part of that blind casting because I didn’t know how many were moving forward so I ended up casting more than I would have cast if I had casted knowing going in.
So, the money aspect, we did some fundraisers. The Cary performance, it’s an 800-seat theatre, they donated the theatre to us and all of their services so that all the money went directly to the students’ expense. That was a big help. We did several fundraising performances and our school. So, the money that we used from the performance of Jungle Book went directly to the trip. We did a 24-hour play marathon; that money went directly to the trip. We did basket raffles.
You know, the total trip per student ended up being about $3,500 but then we were able to cut off so it ended up being about $2,100 per student for two weeks in Japan.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I know, I was just about to say – for two weeks in Japan, that’s pretty amazing.
ALYSON: And that included everything. That included all their food, all of their transportation. We had buses that took us where we needed to go. We did go the bullet train one day. That was all hotels, all entrance fees, everything.
LINDSAY: I think that, if anybody goes, “Oh, that’s a lot of money! My students can’t afford that money.” It also sounds like the next thing that I think that I would point out is that this is a commitment and that everybody had to be committed, I’m guessing.
ALYSON: Absolutely, and the parents were part of it and they helped with that Cary performance and getting the word out and getting posters out and going to preschools and day camps and things like that just to get that information out so that we filled the theatre on a Saturday afternoon in July. You know, that’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
What are some travel tips that you have for traveling with large groups of early middle schoolers? How many adults did you take?
ALYSON: I had about 32 students total. The rest were adults or siblings. And so, the adults really were not a part of the moment to moment process as much as you probably would think. A lot of them ended up going off and doing their own activities during the day while I was with the students at festival.
I had a group of high schoolers and I do this with all of my shows. My high schoolers come back and they are kind of my assistants and they get community service credits for it. They’re very committed. They apply for it. The high schoolers that were part of the Jungle Book production happened to oversee tech or to help with the acting or we had music. We created music for our show. We wrote music and so we had people who were part of that process as well.
So, those high schoolers then became my assistants on the trip. Each one of the students was assigned to a high schooler and they were their first check-in and then those high schoolers checked in with me and they helped me throughout the entire process – making sure everyone was accounted for at night, doing bed checks, making sure everyone was in their room – that sort of thing. Those high schoolers were a really big part of the process.
I had one other teacher with me.
LINDSAY: I love that! What a great experience! Again, if you’re in high school, just getting to go to Japan but also responsibility and just accountability, what a great experience! Real-world skills!
LINDSAY: Just being responsible and I really like the idea that the check-in thing wasn’t like 55 people checking in with you. It’s everyone has a mediator, check-in, and then they come with you. And I think the other thing is, if you’re thinking about doing this, do not do this – you can’t be alone in terms of running a show, you know.
ALYSON: We had two buses. And so, I was on one bus and the other teacher traveling with me was on the other bus. I had high schoolers with me and high schoolers on the other bus. We organized it so that we had those check-ins and the kids were great. They were really good.
I was very clear that you get one warning from me. If I have an issue with you, you go home. I was not going to play games with them in Japan and I don’t have issues with my students so it was not a problem
LINDSAY: I wanted to ask too, because it’s not just the money that the students have to put up, there’s the money to get your set or your costumes or whatever to Japan. How did you handle that? Was it just a costume-heavy show? Were there set pieces that actually traveled?
ALYSON: It’s tricky. Obviously, they were all animals. We’re big on costuming in our school. And so, one of the things that we were concerned about was getting all of those costumes over there safely. I was so concerned about shipping things and having things get lost because our performance, we arrived on Friday and our performance was Sunday. And so, I knew that we needed to have our materials – all our set and costume pieces – there right when we got there. So, we took them with us.
Fortunately, the airline that we traveled allowed two bags per person. So, we were able to pack like costumes in suitcases and I had just people check them as their second bag. In terms of set pieces, we brought curtains with us. Again, we were able to pack those. And then, we used a scaffolding that the monkeys climbed all over and such. And so, they were able to get scaffolding for us there. We brought all of the materials to do the set decorating and then I had asked them to create like a platform rock for the great cliff. And so, they were able to do that. Again, we were able to set decorate that when we got there.
LINDSAY: That’s the way to do it. Anything you can put in your suitcase or in your hand and then just work with stuff there. That must have been a great relief to not have to transport a rock.
ALYSON: Yes, my big concern, I have to say, when I got to Japan, we were all there, everyone arrived safely and all our luggage arrived. That was the biggest weight off of my shoulders. I was so concerned about not getting our stuff there.
LINDSAY: You know, it’s the kind of thing where it’s like, “Okay, no costumes. All right, guys, just start acting.”
Your students, they sort of walk into this experience not knowing – you know what’s going to happen because you’ve been through this before but you’ve got these middle schoolers who have never been to Japan, have never performed in this kind of venue, what was their initial response?
ALYSON: The opening ceremonies was amazing. You know, they had this incredible… Hundreds of people on the stage and I think that, for my students, it was the first moment when they realized, “Wow! This is a life-changing experience!” You know, just the welcome that we got from them.
This festival takes place once every four years so it’s almost like the Olympics of children’s theatre. So, it’s really cool and you see the flags from each country and you see they had a whole auditorium set up where every country had their own booth and you were able to decorate it and showcase your country’s culture. You know, we walked through this. We had to do our own booth but we walked through and got a chance to see all these countries represented. I think, to them, that was amazing.
They had these kinds of get-togethers and then getting a chance to meet people and we all stayed at a hotel. Again, in the lobby, you got a chance to meet the people from Russia or meet the people from Zimbabwe or Uganda and get a chance to really kind of connect with them, especially now where you’ve got Facebook and Instagram and all these social platforms, they were able to continue that relationship with those people that they met in these different countries.
LINDSAY: What was the theatrical experience that stood out to you?
ALYSON: Oh, wow, you know, watching my students up on that stage in front of this international audience, you know, it’s always so nerve-racking as a director to watch. But there’s this other level of just how proud I was of them. I’m always proud of my students but, because of the venue and just the magnitude of this particular show, it was pretty amazing to watch them up there, just taking ownership of that piece and really doing that storytelling to the best of their abilities. It was great.
LINDSAY: Oh, yeah.
From the other shows, what was the thing you’ve never seen before?
ALYSON: It was interesting. We saw some amazing puppetry in some of the shows that was different than anything I’ve ever seen here which I really loved. There were musical pieces. Some of the dance pieces were stunning. It was just really interesting to see what each country sends as their piece to represent their country or their culture. I thought that was really just fun to watch the different types of pieces from each country.
LINDSAY: I just think travel is the most worthwhile thing that we can do. If we’re going to not live in our bubble and learn about other cultures and other people and to be able to combine that with a theatre experience, ah, how wonderful!
As we wrap up, Alyson, what would be some advice that you would give to anybody, any teacher listening who is sort of maybe starting, getting a little bit of a bug in the back of their ear about being able to take on this adventure?
ALYSON: There are so many opportunities for international theatre festivals. It doesn’t have to be Japan to start off with. There are festivals all over the world. My very first festival that I took students to was Canada. And so, you know, you could take a festival that maybe is a trip that is a little bit more doable for you in terms of your comfort level, in terms of your budget, student parents’ comfort level – something like that might be a good option first.
I’m looking at festivals right now in Germany for next year or in some different places in Europe that would be not as expensive and not nearly as far away certainly as Japan. So, there are other options. Even festivals within the United States! There are lots of opportunities for festivals. You could do your state festival. We have a great state festival here in Massachusetts for middle school and for high school. You know, states all over the country do as well.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. I think that’s a good point. You know, I think that the reason that going to Japan was not a traumatic experience travel-wise is that you have the trust in your students, the communication with the parents, you do state festivals. It wasn’t your first rodeo to travel to Japan and I think that is an excellent point. You can make a five-year plan and just sort of think about if you want to make festivals and traveling a part of your students’ experience, build up to it. Start small. There’s nothing wrong with that.
ALYSON: Do a trip to New York.
ALYSON: I do that every year with my students. That’s a great experience and it gives them a chance to see professional theatre. You could have people come into your school – professional actors come into your school – either local actors or there are companies in New York that will send Broadway actors into your schools as well and that would be a great opportunity so you build up your program to then take something like a big trip to Japan.
LINDSAY: I love that. I love that this is part of your experience as a teacher and that it doesn’t – on mic anyway – it doesn’t seem to frazzle you at it. That it’s something that you love doing and want your students to experience.
ALYSON: I totally want them to experience it and I can’t wait till the next one!
LINDSAY: Ah! That’s awesome!
Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Alyson!
ALYSON: You bet! Thank you so much!
LINDSAY: You’re welcome!
Thank you, Alyson!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!
Today, I’m talking about our feature play this month – one of mine – “betweenity.”
Betweenity, what’s the word that’s in there? Between. We’ve all been there. The space in-between the awkward pause. The silence where you can’t think of something to say. The space in-between words where nothing is said and yet so much is spoken. The state of being between.
The pause is actually a pretty awesome thing to explore with your students – whether it be just a beat or it’s a breath or whether it be a three-second pause, a ten-second pause, or how about a thirty-second pause? What is going on in the character’s mind in this pause? Why is the pause happening?
It is an excellent, excellent acting challenge. Those never-ending silences in conversations, there’s just as much acting that can go on in silence as with text.
It’s a vignette play and it’s made up of small scenes on this theme – the girl who tries to tell her best friend that she wants to date him; the guy who wants to confess something but can’t open his mouth; the sister who’s dealing with the silent treatment; the daughter who doesn’t want to talk because talking makes her remember things; the boy who creates the wrong kind of pause. This is just “betweenity” – an excellent class project play, parts for everyone, all levels.
It’s a great technique exploration – how do you act in the pause?
Go to Theatrefolk.com to get your copy of “betweenity” today. I would like it so much if you did. Or you can click in the show notes. There’s a link in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode184.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes.
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.