Morgan Hicks is the director of Education for TheatreSquared out of Fayetteville Arkansas. She and I met face to face for the first time at this year’s Arkansas State Thespian Festival but she knows us – she’s used our Shakespeare adaptions in her company’s Summer Shakespeare academy. We had a chance to sit down at the festival where I heard about a specific TheatreSquared program where they do a six week school tour with no cost to the schools. Six weeks of free shows. In an era when so many companies are choosing to fold when they can’t get schools to pay for shows, I love the way this company chooses to bring theatre to the community.
First off, let’s hear about you. What’s your theatre background?
I first got involved in theatre in high school. I went to school in a small town in Arkansas, which did offer drama classes. There was also an active community theatre. I loved the idea of community and the celebration of creativity. When I was 16, I auditioned for a 6-week residential summer drama program, and was shocked to be accepted into the program. I became interested in learning everything there was to know about theatre. I was interested in acting, scenic design, costume design, writing, directing…everything. I completed a BFA in acting at Arkansas State University, and then went on to study political theatre in Northern Ireland for a few years. When I returned to the states, I completed an MA in performance studies at Missouri State University. I moved with some friends from Springfield, Missouri to Chicago, where I had the opportunity to work with some amazing artists and at some really fine professional theatres. After a few years, I decided that I really wanted to develop my skills as a director. I returned to Arkansas to complete an MFA in directing at the UofA. Three years later, as I was preparing to graduate, I met with some of my professors who were discussing their interest in launching a professional regional theatre in the area. I became one of the co-founders of the company…and the rest is the history of TheatreSquared.
Tell me about your job at TheatreSquared. What does a Director of Education do?
At TheatreSquared, I wear several hats. I direct shows for our mainstage series, work as a literary and company manager and organize our casting. In addition to these roles, I also lead our Education mission. We have, from our inception as a theatre, put a major emphasis on the way that our theatre can serve our community. We feel that as a regional theatre, we have a responsibility and an opportunity to explore the ways that theatre can improve the quality of the life for our region. As a new company, we had the blessing of not having any “traditional” models in place. We were building everything from scratch. We spend time working with classroom educators to identify challenges for the students in our region. Once those challenges are identified, I have the opportunity to work with the amazingly talented creative artists in our area to explore innovative ways of addressing those challenges. We develop programs proactively…in a very theatrical way. We state an objective, identify the obstacle and create a strategy to overcome that obstacle. It works in a play…and it works as our teaching philosophy.
What lead you to work with TheatreSquared?
I’m a co-founder of TheatreSquared. I worked for the first several years as our managing director, and then when our company was able to expand, I was able to transition into the role of Director of Education and Program Development. One of the guiding principles of our education function is that it is firmly rooted in our creative product. As a nationally recognized professional regional theatre, we have a very high standard for our artistic product, and we maintain an equal standard for our outreach. All of our teaching artists are highly trained professional artists who are working within their field of training. It’s important to us that we are bringing working theatre professionals into the classroom, and exposing students to a high level of artistic integrity. It is very important to me, personally, that the marriage between our artistic product and our education programming remain strong.
What do you believe is the role of theatre in education?
So many studies have shown a direct correlation between theatre education and academic success. Students who are trained in an artistic discipline show high attendance, reduced disciplinary issues, higher self-esteem and improved test scores. A good deal of our programming focuses on skill-based theatre training. We offer professional development workshops for drama teachers so that they have support and continuing education in their area of specialty. We offer skill-based workshops and residencies for young drama students, including a summer drama academy for very focused thespians who are interested in spending two weeks in the summer staging a Shakespearean play. We love working with students and teachers who are serious about theatre as a lifelong pursuit. But we have also found that many students who would never imagine being interested in theatre can be profoundly impacted by exposure to arts integration. In our experience, we’ve particularly found that theatre is an excellent bridge in the achievement gap for struggling readers and unmotivated students. I’ve found the idea that theatre can be used to make a difference in a student’s academic success profoundly inspiring. We are currently working on several projects where the basic principles of theatre can be applied to academic challenges, including playwriting to improve literacy amongst English as Second Language students and theatre games to improve test-taking.
What is the landscape like in Arkansas for theatre in education?
The educational landscape in Arkansas is really complicated and interesting. We’ve spent the last few years trying to understand the challenges that teachers and administrators are facing in their schools. We’ve found that while some generalizations can be made, each situation is entirely unique and requires a specific strategic approach. There is a lot of disparity between school districts. Some districts of the state are dealing with wide-spread poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, and test scores are predictably incredibly low. Those schools are often struggling with funding basic programs, and also deal with high teacher and administrative turnover rates. These schools typically focus on the basic needs of the students, but very often do not have the luxury of offering creative solutions for problems. These are areas where you will not generally find thriving arts programs in the schools, or in the communities. We typically do find these schools to be great partners, however, as they are usually very willing to welcome us in and share their challenges with us. These tend to be the schools that we most enjoy creating residencies for, and they are typically our most receptive audiences for our touring show.
What types of shows do you perform in this program?
TheatreSquared’s Arkansas Schools Tour is designed to bring live theatre and hands-on workshops to high schools throughout our state. Through the tour, students in grades 9-12 experience a 45-minute performance partnered with immersive in-school workshops led by T2’s professional artists. For many students, it represents a first experience with professional theatre and theatre-based learning techniques. The tour started in 2009 with 8 schools, and has increased in the last 3 years to serve over 50 schools. The shows are small, self-contained productions: we travel with a trunk of props, a rack of costumes and a projection screen. We specifically design the shows to travel to schools where the only performance space might be a cafeteria or a gym or the library. The goal of the program is accessibility, so we create shows that are fast-paced and irreverent to appeal to the high school audiences. The original shows, which deliberately steer clear of sentimentality or saccharin-sweetness, feature young performers who are high energy, sarcastic and funny. The students are quickly drawn into the performances and are enraptured by the 50 minutes of comedy, unaware that we are planting the seeds for strong cross-curricular teaching opportunities.
What is the most exiting aspect? The most frustrating?
There are several aspects about the tour that I find really exciting. We are creating our scripts from scratch, so there is something really exciting about the immediacy of the audience. We are creating with these students in mind, so the first time we get the material in front of them, we know right away how it is landing and if a moment is having the impact that we want it to. That’s always an exciting opportunity in a creative process. We also have the opportunity to work with students and teachers to conceive of goals for our future projects. This is really rewarding because we don’t have to speculate about what they would like or benefit from. They tell us what they need and we are able to respond. That’s very exciting. I would say the most frustrating aspect of the project is simply the fact that every once in a while we just hit a brick wall. There are always going to be a few teachers or a few administrators that are prejudiced against the idea of creating time for a cross-curricular theatrical event. They believe that theatre is a waste of valuable teaching time. It can be very frustrating, because we know that the students would benefit from our programming, but sometimes there is a history with a decision-maker that we do not understand, and a case just cannot be made. It’s hard to let it go, but we know that there are hundreds of schools in the state, and we can’t visit them all, so we need to focus on the schools that are able to appreciate what we are offering them and where they will be able to communicate that enthusiasm to the students. We will always have the best success going where we are needed AND wanted.
Why is it important that you provide the shows for free?
We think it’s crucial that we are able to offer our programming to the schools free of charge. There are some schools in the state that might be able to afford to bring in the performances for their students, but the schools that need the programming the most are typically not in a position to afford it. The school districts would often have to choose between our program and other vital expenses. We are trying to level the playing-field for these schools and create accessibility for the most challenged districts, so providing the programming free of charge is the only way to do that.
What commitment do the schools have to make to bring the show in?
Our amazing education sponsors (including the Arkansas Arts Council, The Walton Family Foundation, The Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, The Happy Hollow Foundation and so many others) are committed to making sure that funding is not the reason that any of the students in our state do not have access to our programming. Of course, this commitment needs to be matched philosophically by the schools. We ask that they show their commitment by supporting the program by encouraging teachers to build our programming into their syllabus. We expect a high numbers of attendance from teachers and students for the school performances. We also provide a study-guide for exponential integration with pre-show and post-show activities for use in classrooms.
For your shows there is always a workshop component. What do you do with the students?
We design a cross-curricular workshop for each show that is designed to dig a little bit deeper with a focused group of students. Since the shows are designed around a specific content area (history, English, math or science), we target those classrooms for our workshop visits. We look at applying theatre skills to the content area to encourage a close reading of text. This year, we looked at analyzing a civil war poem through teaching tableau techniques. Next year, we’re planning a playwriting exercise where we break down the elements of a mathematical word problem. These workshops are always fun, but also model for the classroom teacher ways in which arts integration can enhance subject-area learning.
What has been the greatest impact of your shows?
I think the greatest impact of the shows is on students who have never been exposed to theatre before. It’s very energizing to see the show performed in front of an audience of students who it was created for. There is a very palpable energy between the performers and the audience during each performance. You can practically feel the acceptance by the audience as they collectively acknowledge that “this was made for me”. To me, that may be the biggest impact of theatre education: I want every student to feel like they are a valuable member of our community. I want them to feel, as an audience member, that we are interested in create something worthy of their attention. I want them as individuals to feel that they are capable of creating something interesting and valuable. To us, each student is visible and worthy of our attention and our time.