Episode 128: Educational Theatre is the Bridge
Craig Branch is a Educational Programs Manager with the Educational Theatre Association. He started out with theatre in high school, pursued a professional career and found his passion with theatre education. Craig talks about his journey and his goal to use educational theatre as a bridge.
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 128.
You can find any links for this episode at the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode128.
So, today, a little arts education confab. Today, I’m talking to Craig Branch. He works for the Educational Theatre Association and my association with the Educational Theatre Association – ha ha ha! – it goes back a long, oh, a long time. Here I am, here we go, I’m about to put on my old sweater – my old sweater.
I went to the first festival in ’96. Uh, it has to be before that. It might be even in ’95. So, Craig and I were living in North Bay Ontario – about three or four hours north of Toronto, for anyone who likes geography – and, at that time, North Bay happened to be one of the only, if not the only Canadian chapters of EdTA in terms of thespian activity – one-acts and workshops and that kind of thing.
I have this very clear memory of a one-act festival. We were teaching workshops and someone came up to us and said, you know, would we like to teach workshops in Lincoln, Nebraska, which may sound like a scam except, if you’ve been listening, you know that Lincoln is, of course, where EdTA holds a very large international thespian festival. Craig and I have been involved, we went for three years in the 90s just as workshop presenters, and then Theatrefolk has been going since 2004 and it is now 2015 – again, math – a long time, right? It’s a long time.
When I was thinking about doing this intro, I really don’t have any idea who that person was. I have no idea who came up to us and said, “Hey! Would you like to go teach in Lincoln, Nebraska?” It was a guy. He must have come to a workshop or someone came to a workshop and I don’t know what it was. I don’t remember having any other conversation other than, “Would you guys like to teach in Lincoln, Nebraska?” At some point, a proposal form must have come our way. All of that, it’s such a long time ago,
I don’t remember but what I do know is that, without that very first invitation, Theatrefolk wouldn’t be where we are today. It was that twack, I guess, which led us down the educational theatre path – going to festivals, seeing workshops, and really becoming aware, how much aware of what drama teachers do, what drama teachers need, and going to the International Thespian Festival in 1996. That’s what put us on the educational theatre path which I’m really grateful for. It certainly wasn’t the one that I thought of when I was young and in school but it’s certainly one of the most rewarding and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, let’s hear about someone else’s path towards theatre education and Craig Branch.
LINDSAY: Hello, Craig!
CRAIG: Hello, everyone!
LINDSAY: Awesome, very nice to have you here on the podcast. First of all, tell everyone in the world where you are.
CRAIG: I am at my desk at the Educational Theatre Association which is here in Cincinnati, Ohio.
LINDSAY: Fantastic! That’s kind of what we’re going to be talking about. We’re going to be talking about educational theatre and where you fit in with that. First of all, how did you start? What was your start? Did you do theatre in high school or middle school?
CRAIG: Yeah. Actually, I had my first performance experience as Rudolph in the first-grade Christmas play with that uncomfortable blinking nose and nodding on cue to Santa’s questions and stuff like that. I was really bitten by it and my mom was a performer throughout most of her life. I kind of got bit by the bug a little bit more through doing different youth plays in and around the community I lived in Indiana and then totally got bit by it in high school. I was a thespian alum. I auditioned for a show just because my friend was doing it and he was awesome so I had to.
LINDSAY: So, Educational Theatre Association is sort of the parent company for thespians. So, you were a thespian in high school yourself?
CRAIG: Indeed, I was.
LINDSAY: Ah, that’s pretty awesome! So, it has stuck with you for a while.
CRAIG: It has, and I think it’s because of my experience as a high school student and sometimes a lack of experience that I had as a middle school student that made me want to pursue theatre education and just kind of get as much out of it as I could and give it to students who were looking for more avenues in theatre education throughout their experience.
LINDSAY: All right. Awesome. So, in high school, then what was your trajectory after high school?
CRAIG: I wanted to go and see exactly what I could do in performance so I got a BFA in Theatre – performance itself – and really just wanted to go out and see what this world offered me. I knew that I was going into a field that didn’t have a great success rate but I knew that there was something about it that bit me. There was the opportunities that I was able to focus my thoughts. I was able to experience theatre and share with the audience and I was able to be more than I could possibly be otherwise. I can internalize things as most artists can so theatre gave me an avenue and I explored it through college and, ultimately, it’s become my career and I love it to death!
LINDSAY: Yeah. So, somewhere in there, you changed from the performance track to an education track. What was that like?
CRAIG: It was mainly out of necessity, honestly. Whenever I graduated college in 2006, I had to finish my degree by doing an internship at the theatre. There’s a theatre in Cincinnati that gave me an opportunity to work in their summer program. I got involved with it, messed around a little bit with a little bit more of the education performance parts of that and really got bit by it. Started working at EdTA shortly after that and just kind of really been romantically entwined like that.
LINDSAY: Well, I like that image. I like that image of being romantically entwined with the education part. What do you think it is about the education aspect that bit you?
CRAIG: It was the opportunity to be involved in a safe place in theatre while you’re learning about who you are as a person. Theatre education is not the very competitive side of things that it can be – going outside of community theatres and stuff like that – and I say that in all sincerity and also amicability because I’ve got no problem with theatre outside of an educational setting. It’s just you’re able to try things whenever you’re in either a high school or a college setting.
You’re able to explore not only who you are as a person but character and we realize sometimes, “I don’t want to be doing this. I want to be doing tech or I would rather be in front of the students and giving them the tools, empowering them through other education means, and that’s what brought me into it. I really enjoyed what I was able to do whenever I just was able to explore and experiment with theatre and not necessarily make it a profession. So, I totally wanted to be that guy who patted people on the back and said, “There you go! You can do this, too!”
LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s pretty funny that you enunciated it really, really well in terms of, when you get to be on this side of the theatre wall which sometimes doesn’t get the credit – I know it doesn’t get the credit that it deserves – that it really is about that process and it’s about exploration and it is very much less the whole nature of show business. I find that, when I have talked to, I have a lot of friends who sort of did the same thing where they sort of adventured into trying to make performing their job and it became a job. There’s lots of aspects of the job that are not fulfilling and yet, I know for me, as a playwright, being involved in educational theatre is always fulfilling.
CRAIG: Definitely! One of the things that I did find fulfilling about being a part of an educational setting in theatre was that theatre has a large tent. We brought in all sorts of creative artistic people whether or not they were great in performance or design or directing but they had a penchant for it. They realized that this is a safe place to be a part of something larger and so they would paint the sets, they would help with costumes, they would be a stage manager, they would be an assistant director and they would run lights and they could be a part of that because theatre is the collaborative art form that does have creative aspects to it. But, in the educational side, there was also the theory and you can have lots of great conversations about educational and theatre theory. But, you know, I bridge the two and I’m very satisfied in my life.
LINDSAY: Yeah! All right! I like that. I like that very much. I like the image of being a bridge, you know? Well, the opportunities, I think, are r2eally interesting in educational theatre in that way. So, you ended up in this educational theatre journey, you have ended up at the Educational Theatre Association. For those of us – or people who are listening because certainly anyone in Canada wouldn’t have a knowledge of what this association is – what in the closed notes nutshell is the Educational Theatre Association?
CRAIG: As you mentioned earlier, they’re the parent organization. They operate the International Thespian Society which is an honorary organization for students in middle school and high school to be a part of something larger. EdTA, as it is now – Educational Theatre Association – is a national non-profit organization. It’s got well over 90,000 student professional members.
Say yourself, Lindsay, you were a theatre teacher and you wanted to be a part of a professional association, the Educational Theatre Association would be your resource for that through advocacy efforts, through networking opportunities, through education opportunities with elements like our EdTA annual teacher conference and there’s places for people to network, learn, get resources and recognition. Whether you’re a teacher or a high school student or a middle school student, this is an opportunity for you to, like I said earlier, be a part of something larger.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and you must come in contact with a lot of teachers who are sort of in their own boat where they don’t have a lot of support – maybe they’re the only drama teacher at their school or maybe even in their district – and I think it’s a great tip to kind of go reach out an association so you can find other people like you, yeah?
CRAIG: Absolutely! We’ve got people who are members of the Educational Theatre Association from all over America, Europe, Canada, and other places abroad. It is an opportunity to exchange ideas, resources, ask questions. Say, “Okay. I’m doing this show and I need a ladder or I need this lighting effect and I don’t have tons of money to fill onto it,” reaching out to other members, you can say, “How did you solve this?” and peer to peer. That is a great resource for the Educational Theatre Association members is you can network and connect to people that way.
But, yeah, if you’re a department of one, as you mentioned, and sometimes you have more of a performance or a directing background, “Okay! I want to have a playwriting course to my program next year,” or “I do want to involve myself more with the design elements of theatre. How do I do that?” We’ve got an event for teachers that is designed to give them these tools and ideas to set the foundations and to grow their theatre programs.
LINDSAY: So, my first memory, EdTA has a teacher conference and then they also have this extravaganza for students and teachers that takes place in Lincoln, Nebraska, which is in itself an experience. My first memory of going to the International Thespian Festival is seeing a production of the Pirates of Penzance and I’m in the lead center and this life-sized boat comes on-stage that is filled with singing high school students and a cannon is firing and I’m sitting there watching this going, “I am a little girl from Canada. We don’t do this!” and I was floored and I say to myself, time and time again, “Oh, if I had come to here when I was in high school, what would have happened?” and to be able to go to a workshop on any aspect of theatre that I could see and to see so many wild shows.
What was your first experience with ITF?
CRAIG: Similar to yours. While I was an inducted thespian when I was in high school, we didn’t have the opportunity to go to the International Thespian Festival or it wasn’t a means that we were given and so maybe that’s one of the reasons why I do this. My first experience was as an EdTA staff member. I remember my first show, walking into the lead center there in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the University of Nebraska, and it was a huge production number. To your point, going to an event like this gives irreplaceable perspective to young artists. Whether it’s the main stage performances, one-act performances, the slew of workshop opportunities or the other ways that they can develop their theatre skills, the International Thespian Festival is that quintessential thing that they should be doing and looking to do in their high school experiences. Whether they know that they want to go off to college or beyond and be a theatre professional or they just want to audition for some colleges and see what they can on plowing that liberal arts track or their career, by all means, the International Thespian Festival is that place to audition for money, audition for colleges, and develop your theatre skills.
LINDSAY: Ogh. I think it’s pretty phenomenal. I think it’s that once in a lifetime thing and it’s always so funny because I see the huge shows and I’m like, “You do realize that, if you go into the profession, you will never perform on a stage this size again.” Your dressing room will be in the basement.
CRAIG: Ah! But, yes, at that point, it’s still the love of the craft, is it not?
LINDSAY: Right, right, right, right! Yes, yes, yes! Of course, the love! We’re all in this for the love for the craft, right? Every one of us.
LINDSAY: On that note, on the love of the craft – we’re all in it for the love of the craft – why do you think it’s so important that high school students have these kinds of experiences?
CRAIG: I think because, at the end of the day, it can make them more well-rounded. One of the things that people who do stress about the theatre arts is that it is one of the most comprehensive of all art forms and there’s a whole lot of different arts integrations that be done with theatre and you can learn different mathematical skills and science elements because you can learn it through the lens of theatre. I think that there’s opportunities to, as I mentioned earlier, to bridge a whole lot of different divides by having a theatre program, by being immersed in theatre. So, whenever I was younger – shortly after I was Rudolph and nodding and that nose which was uncomfortable – and I was started figuring out what I wanted to do, I was all over the place, Lindsay. You guys may have already noticed or will notice that, whenever I get excited about something, I’m passionate about something, I do talk really quickly. Sometimes, the synapses in my brain fire quicker than my mouth can move and that was even more so back when I was in middle school and high school. Theatre, for me, it helped to hone my communication skills. It allowed me to be a little bit more collaborative with all those around me. It also gave me a lot of empathy.
CRAIG: Whenever I was doing a production of Death of a Salesman in high school, I had no way of putting a face to it unless I said, “You know what? Willy, that’s my granddad,” and, at that moment, it blinked and I knew a whole lot more about what my granddad went through and what he wants for my family, and whether or not you’re talking about your own family unit there or you’re talking about a script that has nothing to do with Americans or people in our generation, you can look at it and say, “Wow! That’s telling a story.” It’s not just entertaining. It’s giving me a snapshot into somebody else’s life. That’s beautiful, profound, and that’s what I love about theatre. It can tell stories like that.
LINDSAY: And I think that, really, all a teenager wants is to relate to something and to know that someone knows what they’re going through. Just time and time again, I will see a play or I will see a teenager write something and it gives them a little bit of hope which, I think, is all we want for them that they’re understood and I think, almost more than anything, is that’s why theatre is so important and I think too the educational aspect is so important because then they don’t just get a performance. Maybe they get maybe a reflection or there’s some talking, there’s some sharing, and they don’t get lost.
CRAIG: Absolutely, and there’s a lot of different theatre companies around America I know of. What is great about these theatres and their education departments is that they do have talkbacks or wraparound experiences for a high school or elementary school or middle school students where you go to see a play, you maybe learn about something from the theatre before you go in – like, “Here’s a little bit of history to this.” They go see the show then, a couple of days later, they might have a visit from the cast member or the director and they have reflection. I think, being able to reflect on your experiences, communicate how you feel, what you feel like, and why you’re feeling that way is very important as human beings. So, if we can give you this experience through theatre and help you communicate that and put it in relation to your life and other people’s lives, by all means!
LINDSAY: All right! Amen to that! All right. Now, one thing you also and one of the things that you do is you run the middle school national festival. That’s under your command.
LINDSAY: Sure. Let’s say that.
CRAIG: Why not? Well, the Junior Thespian Festival is definitely one of those opportunities for the Educational Theatre Association to reach a group of people before they even realize the impact that theatre is having on their lives.
CRAIG: You know, when I was younger, I enjoyed just being out there and cutting a joke in front of people or being spontaneous. I was an extrovert – as you might be able to understand – and what theatre gave me was an appreciation that I can be doing this and I can learn from it. And so, whenever I had these experiences and it had that impact on my life, I realized there’s other people who need this. And so, that’s one of the reasons why I empower it for other people. This Junior Thespian Festival is specifically designed for middle school students – grades six through eight. It gives them a weekend of opportunities to learn about the craft, share the experience of theatre with other people, and figure out where their niches is in theatre if they have a niche in theatre. That’s one of the things about the Junior Thespian Festival 2015 that we’re excited about. Our theme is “find your passion” so whether it’s plays, musicals, backstage, on-stage, there’s a spot for everybody in theatre.
LINDSAY: I used to be very focused on just high school. “That’s all we need is high school. High school is where it’s at.” Having in the past – I don’t know – I’m going to say three or four years, moving my focus to writing plays specifically for middle school and being in middle schools and working with middle school students, it’s amazing how much of a difference, how much impact it has when they start drama. It must be amazing to be able to see the growth when they start so young, huh?
CRAIG: Absolutely. You know, middle school students are definitely a unique group.
CRAIG: They process ideas and information, they react to things in a way that, you know, high schoolers might not so there’s got to be stories and scripts out there that are specifically for them – not only that they can relate to but that can help them through whatever it is they might be dealing with in that school year, that month, that week, or that day, honestly, Lindsay. There are some scripts that you’ve written that really hit that mark and they can identify, “Oh, I’m The Clump in Hoodie.” It gives a little bit more of a tangible idea of where they are in their life and it also helps them through that and I think that’s just also another advantage of theatre education. Theatre can be an opportunity for a social voice to think.
LINDSAY: And I think too that it’s really important that it’s not, you know, middle school students aren’t treated as, “Here’s something that we’ve modified from high school,” with workshops, with the way that we teach theatre or we put on plays in the middle school level, it’s got to be for them.
CRAIG: Most definitely.
LINDSAY: When you’re putting together a festival that’s for middle schools, what are you thinking about to make sure that it is specific to them?
CRAIG: Well, first of all, we try to make a fun, safe, constructive environment. We look at the types of workshops and the quality of presenters. We’re looking for places that can help the students grow and give them opportunities to see things in a different way. So, yeah, we’re going to be showcasing talents on the main stage with different musicals, different plays, but we also try to find unique ways to reach their growth I guess is a good way of putting it because they do need a certain amount of play and so we want to make sure that what we’re doing is we’re giving them opportunities to exhaust their creative energies. They have plenty of it and giving them an opportunity at the Junior Thespian Festival or in theatre education in general is an opportunity to allow them this natural creative play that they want to have. And then, we can also bring it back and focus their energies and their thoughts and say, “Okay. What did you learn? What did you like about it? How would you approach that differently if you did it a second time?” So, we definitely make it constructive. There’s very few wrong ways to approach something in middle school education.
LINDSAY: Hmm. I think that’s an important thing for them to realize, huh? Particularly in theatre – that right and wrong are not the choices. It’s just this choice and then another choice.
CRAIG: Yeah. “Give it a go. Okay. Well, you did that, would you do that again?” and then constructive feedback from the teacher, the director, any teaching artists that’s in the room. Give them that opportunity to experience and to play around. I think I alluded to it earlier as far as that safe environment within theatre education – whether it’s middle school or high school. You’ve got an opportunity to throw yourself into it. Try it; you might like it, you might walk away from it right after that but give it a whirl.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. I love that. So, you were drawn to it in high school. You tried one avenue with professional. You came back and found this passion for theatre education and here you are now. Where are you going? Where do you want your journey with theatre education to take you?
CRAIG: Speaking specifically to Craig, you know, I’ve enjoyed all of my experience in theatre for the past twenty years and I see no reason to get out of it. what I have to give is the excitement of theatre, the knowledge and experience that I do have from trying things – failing, succeeding. Do I want to stay in theatre education? Absolutely! Right now, I do, whether that’s working for the Educational Theatre Association, teaching theatre either part-time or full-time. I really like the opportunities that it provides other people so I’m in this art form for the rest of my life whether I am involved with the Educational Theatre Association or if I am a theatre patron. I think that’s what theatre education is best at – sometimes it can make theatre patrons for life if it does nothing else.
LINDSAY: I agree. I agree and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all – you know, to just make someone love this art form enough to support it in whatever form. Awesome!
All right. Thank you so much for talking to me today! You know, you and I, we’re sort of preaching to the choir here that what a wonderful thing theatre education is but, you know, we’ve got lots of folks out there who are in that one-man boat and, you know, it’s good for them to hear that we believe in what they’re doing and we believe in what you’re doing out there and we think that you’re important and that they’re important and that is what we believe, yeah.
CRAIG: Absolutely! Whether you’ve got a whole lot of support from your parents, your community, or your administration, what you’re doing is so important in the lives of the students you touch.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. We should also mention before we go – and I’ll make sure I put this in the show notes – that, if you want to learn more about the Educational Theatre Association, you can go to schooltheatre.org – that’s correct, yes?
CRAIG: Indeed, it is, and that is theatre with a “tre” not a “ter.”
LINDSAY: Oh, the right way to spell it – the English way and the Canadian way!
Awesome. Thank you so much, Craig!
CRAIG: Absolutely! Thank you very much, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Craig!
Okay. Before we go, let’s do some THEATREOLK NEWS.
So, have you been checking out our blog? Speaking of educational theatre and the place to be for drama teachers, drama students, and theatre educators everywhere – little shameless plug, shameless plug, shameful plug, totally shameful, not shameless – wait, wait, which one is it? Shameless is the one where you’re totally okay about it. I’m totally okay about doing this so it must be a shameless plug. All right! We’re pretty proud of our efforts. We’ve really tried to take our blog and make sure that every post has something of value for you – yes, that’s right, you – something about you, for drama teachers, drama educators, drama students. You know, every post has got downloadable exercises or a handout or a poster.
Just this month alone, we have a video that shows Laban’s eight efforts in action which I lurve, a peer evaluation post with modeling sheets, a research and write unit with a downloadable lesson plan. We want to make your lives easier, that’s the bottom-line. So, go see if we’ve got anything that can help you out in that. It’s theatrefolk.com/blog. Go see what we’ve got.
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And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.