Episode 163: Engaging the Non-Theatre student in the drama classroom
The non-theatre student is a fact of life for every drama teacher. There are those who end up in drama by accident, because they think it’s an easy course, because they’ve nowhere else to go. And the unwritten rule is that drama teachers deal with the students who walk through the door. But how? Listen in as three drama teachers share their experiences.
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.
This is Episode 163. You can find any links to this episode in the show notes, which are at theatrefolk.com/episode163.
Okay, so this is a special episode. What did they usually say? A very special episode, the most dramatic podcast ever. Okay. Shout out to any Bachelor/Bachelorette watchers or none. Maybe I’m the only one. That’s okay. I’m fine. I’m fine with it. I own it. I’m guilty. But I don’t know any of their names. So I think that’s a good thing. So in this episode, this very special episode, we have a conversation about engaging the non-theatre student.
So, you may have heard me go on about the Drama Teacher Academy. Check the links in the show notes if you haven’t. And one thing we do in the DTA is we offer monthly live online PLCs, Professional Learning Communities, for our members. And that’s an event where, you know, we have a panel of theatre educators and there’s a topic and a live chat room for folks where they can talk to each other and ask questions, and it’s really wonderful. It’s been really a great thing to watch over the past year or so that we’ve been doing them. It’s a great way to give people some information and some interaction with other drama teachers.
So, why am I telling you this? Well, we have an upcoming DTA special promotion! Woo-hoo! That’s next week. And for that, we’re opening the doors to the entire Theatrefolk family for a PLC on Tuesday August 16th at 8 PM Eastern, and that PLC is called Planning Your Season. You’ve got kids, you’ve got plays, you’ve got administrators, you’ve got an audience. What you don’t have is a season. So, how do you plan a season that will satisfy everyone? So come on and join us and see what our panel has to say and what your fellow teachers have to say.
And now, see, I’m here, I’m circling back, I’m circling the wagon back as an extra special bonus in this extra special episode, this very special episode. On this podcast, right now, in just a few seconds you’re going to hear an audio from a past PLC – Engaging the Non-Theatre Student. And I know this is something every theatre teacher has to face, right? The student who is dropped into your class, the student who doesn’t want to be there, the student who thought drama would be an easy course, an easy A, hahahaha, fools.
So that is what this podcast is all about. It’s great conversation. You’ll love it. And as a heads-up this is from a live video. There is a chat room going on at the same time. So if you’re here with me, refer to it. No, you can’t ask a question in the chat room, but that’s why. Okay, let’s get to it.
LINDSAY PRICE: Hello everybody! Welcome to our PLC. And we are going to talk tonight about Engaging the Non-Theatre Student. This has been a big topic, lots of conversation. And I think it’s because it’s something that everyone is living with, dealing with, and they want to hear what other people have to say.
So I’m Lindsay Price, co-founder of DTA. And we have an awesome panel ready to go. First of all – hey, she’s waving – we have Lea Marshall from Florida. Hello, Lea.
LEA MARSHALL: Hello!
LINDSAY PRICE: And we also have Matt Banaszynski, also from Florida. Hi, Matt!
MATT BANASZYNSKI: Hi! How are you guys doing tonight?
LINDSAY PRICE: And we have our second Matt. We have the Ms and the Ls covered today. We have the Lea and the Lindsay and the Matt and the Matt. We have Matt Webster, our intrepid host leader. Hello, Matt!
MATT WEBSTER: Good evening and welcome!
LINDSAY PRICE: Yay! So I think that it’s so funny, we were just talking about this beforehand in that it’s something that even though I’m not in the classroom all the time, I go into a classroom to do workshops and I just always assume that everyone loves theatre as much as I do, and that is just not the case. I have been in a classroom where we’re trying to do a workshop, a play, it is not going well, and I had to break it down and I figured it out, it’s because the students didn’t know what a playwright was because it wasn’t their world. And I imagine that these are the kinds of things that you guys have to deal with on a regular basis.
Matt, what’s your dealings with the non-theatre student?
MATT WEBSTER: Well, non… oh, sorry.
MATT BANASZYNSKI: Wrong Matt.
LINDSAY PRICE: Oh, you know what? That’s totally my fault. I’m going host Matt and then host Matt, you’ll throw it to Matt B. Okay.
MATT WEBSTER: There we go. The non-theatre student is just a fact of our world. Being an elective, being a non-core subject we get students who find their way to us, sometimes by mistakes, sometimes by accident, sometimes by force. And we have them in our classroom and kind of the unwritten rule that we have is that we deal with the students who walk through our door. I mean, that’s just what we do.
But I did want to ask Matt and Lea, how is it that you get the non-theatre students at your school? Because we’re talking a little bit about this before. I know that at my school students can request on their enrollment sheet if they want to take it and they can rank 1 to 5, or whatever they want to do. And then sometimes when they don’t rank anything and there’s slots available, they just drop people in there. But I think different schools have different ways that the non-theatre student end up in the theatre class.
So now let me throw it to Matt and say, Matt, how is it that they end up in your class? What can you tell us?
MATT BANASZYNSKI: Well, mine is a lot like yours. We have very limited electives because of testing, because of core subjects. And the majority of my students are in there because either they didn’t select anything or the classes that they wanted to be in, there’s no slots available in the times they want. Probably, almost 80% of my students have no interest in theatre and don’t want to be there.
LINDSAY PRICE: Eighty percent?
MATT BANASZYNSKI: About that, yeah. And I have 150 students this semester alone. I could honestly make one small class of the kids who really want to be there.
LINDSAY PRICE: And yet you still smile.
MATT BANASZYNSKI: I do. Well, I start off the first class by telling the kids, “Even if you’re not going to have fun, I am going to have fun because I love doing this.” And once they realize that there’s no getting away from me being in a good mood, they sort of start falling into place and start getting in a good mood and start trying to enjoy it.
MATT WEBSTER: Absolutely.
LINDSAY PRICE: I think that’s an awesome way to start, is that because not only are you in that first class, you’re going to tell your students what you’re expecting of them, but you want to let them know what you’re going to get, as well, you know. How are you going to participate in this class? What are you going to bring to the table? And if you bring to the table, “Look, I love this, I’m having fun, and that’s what this class is going to be,” I think that’s a wonderful attitude. I love that.
MATT WEBSTER: Absolutely. Lea, how do the non-theatre students end up in your class?
LEA MARSHALL: They get lost on the way to other classes and I grab them. I teach in a performing arts middle school and so it’s a magnet school but not like Fame, though I am like Debbie Allen. So, we have some kids. I have a little better ratio than you on kids who wanted to be in theatre class, but I also have a lot that are just kind of “don’t sign the form.” And I can take them.
But I have a high school credit class, even in middle school, and those are the kids that have already taken Theatre 1, passed with an A or B, and definitely want to be there. So that is my gung-ho, “I want to be in that class.” And then my four other classes are a mix of probably about 50/50, I think, some classes more, sometimes I get about 70 that want to be there and 30. But about 50/50 of kids that have requested it and kids who just got put in there because they are the luckiest kids in the world. That’s what I tell them.
MATT WEBSTER: Yes, they are. Now, once you get them, once you’re sitting there looking at them – and Matt gave us a little taste of this already – what do you do to grab them? What do you do on that first day? Because we know how important it is day one in the first five minutes, and I would tell my students this all the time. When you walk through the door, before you open your mouth the first time, you’re the adult, you’re the expert, you’re the teacher, there’s an assumption about you when you walk through the door that you’re confident that this is going to be a good class, that you know what you’re doing, and then you open your mouth and you either prove or disprove it. But that first five minutes is important to grab those kids and either get them onboard or get them with the program.
So, Lea, what do you do to get them engaged day one?
LEA MARSHALL: I start by talking about what theatre is because a lot of them come in here and they have no idea. It’s just on their thing they can’t, you know. And I tell them it’s spelled wrong on their sheet because they have an ER on there. So I’m only snobby about that and a million other things. But what I do is, I saw that brilliant TED Talk a couple of years ago by Simon Sinek and I think Lindsay is going to put up a link to it. It talked about the power of “why,” about understanding why you do something. And we talk about what theatre is and we talk about how we’re going to do it. We do those procedures. I love procedures. But more importantly, we talk about why we do it. And I tell them it’s because when they walk out every day, they should be a better human being. And when they leave my class at the end of the semester, they should be a better human being.
And so we talk about what theatre is good for. How it makes you a better human being, a better communicator, a better listener, understanding emotions, understanding your emotions. Mine are middle-schoolers. They need to understand their emotions, and other people’s emotions. And so I have them, at the end of our fist week, make their personal why statement and they put it on the cover of their notebook. And so I pull some for you all today. This is a cover of a notebook of a student, and “I love theatre because I can be artistic in many ways. It makes me a better person because I get to learn fun things.”
So they make a personal why statement, why are they in theatre class and we refer to it all the time. We’re doing Macbeth this week and one of our things is, why does learning about Macbeth make you a better person? And so, you know, we just talk about that as we go through why, for everything. And I tell them they can always ask me why. “Whatever we do, you can always ask me why are we doing this, Ms. Marshall?” And I will make up improvs, some why, reason for them. So we do a lot about that, why are we in theatre and why is it going to make you a better person.
MATT WEBSTER: You know, I think that why is so important, because especially the ones who come in not knowing, not necessarily wanting to be able to see the value in it and understand the importance of it. The conversations I have with my students deal with a lot of the same things. And being in a high school setting, I have the opportunity to sit down with them and say, “Look, I can almost guarantee you that you will not use algebra every day of your life. And I can almost guarantee you that you will not write formal words and letters and things every day in your life. But I can guarantee you will talk everyday of your life and you will communicate with people every day of your life. And what you can learn in this class will help you be a better communicator, whether you’re interviewing for a job, whether you’re trying to impress your girlfriend’s father. Whatever it is you’re trying to do with words, this class can help you.” So those are great points.
Matt, what do you do? You talked a little bit about just having good attitude on day one. What do you do to help get them hooked on day one to get them on board with you?
MATT BANASZYNSKI: Well, you had touched at it as well, where I try to make sure my students understand that theatre isn’t just acting. Theatre is everywhere. It’s an everyday life. And try to get them to understand how the skills they’re going to learn with me can translate later on. And you had mentioned the job interview, and I actually have done mock job interviews with students to try to get them to understand how, when you’re in a job interview, yeah, you’re yourself, but you’re also acting.
You’re performing so that you can show the best side of you, the best side of everything. And getting them to realize that sometimes the skills that we’re going to learn are things that they might not even realize that they need to understand, need to be able to see and understand the why of what they’re doing, and how people show different faces of themselves everywhere. So everything they do is an act.
One of the things I always ask them the first day is, “Do you act the same way around your friends as you do your parents? And then do you act the same way around your teachers?” And 9 times out of 10, they say they act differently in front of all three groups of people. So, whether they realize it or not, they’re already acting. They’re already doing this. Now I’m giving them a way to have some fun with it and show them how to make it even more practical in life because there’s no job out there where you’re not in front of people.
MATT WEBSTER: That idea of practicality is so important. And we had been talking a little bit before we went on air about how some of the classes that we teach allows us to give practical life skills, whether it’s through technical theatre or communication or whatever to our students. And when they understand that, when they see the value of that, it really makes a difference.
If I can just a quick story, when our school first opened up it was brand-new and we had our first graduating class. And one of the high-flyers in our school applied for one of the ultra full-ride scholarships at some of the state institutions, where they paid all four years. You get to travel on their dime. You get a computer. I mean, it’s a really amazing scholarship that some of these things are. And so she was going through that process, and came to my class. She was in one of my classes. And she came to my class one day and said, “Part of the interview process that we had to sit around a table and debate ideas that were given to us, cold.” And she said, “Because of what we did in your class I stood head and shoulders above everyone else in that room.”
And she not only got the scholarship she wanted, she was offered a scholarship similar to another institution and recognized that the skills she learned in my class – and once again, this isn’t about acting. This isn’t about going to be a professional actor on stage. This is about using your voice, your body and your imagination as tools that will serve you no matter what you do. And I think that idea, that buy-in, that explanation, that why as Lea was saying, why are you here, what can you get from this, here it is, is going to turn a lot of the students’ heads early on. And, you know, might not get 100%, but that’s fine. You’re going to make inroads with them, and that’s an important thing to do. So, those are great, great things that you bring up.
LINDSAY PRICE: Hey, there’s a comment in the chat room, which I think would be a great thing for each of you to sort of speak to. And Krista (ph) is talking about a lot of the resistance she sees is from low self-confidence. What do you do, you know, to get those students on board of just thinking better of themselves? That whole notion of just being able to step in front of someone and speak out loud is terrifying for some. Lea, let’s start.
LEA MARSHALL: One thing that I do from day one is every day, we go around the room and they have to tell me in three words or less how are they feeling and what is their intention for the next 40 minutes of their life. And so, they do that. We go around the room. We do it. We listen to other people. And after about a week and a half of it, I ask them, “Has that gotten easier for you?” And they always say, “Yes, it has.” And I said, “Look, you are getting up. So many of you in the beginning said, I don’t want to speak in front of other people.” And I had them fill out a little thing, and so many of them say they don’t want to. But yet, they’ve been doing it for 10 days and they realize, “Oh, my gosh, it got easier.”
And I love that Gerda quote: “Everything is hard before it is easy.” And actually, that’s always one of our quotes of the week. And then we talk about, “Look, that got easy because you did it every day just a little bit and now you trust the people in the room.” And so, they start to see how quickly they get better at that and how quickly it becomes pretty natural to stand up and say how you’re feeling and what your intention is. So, just a little taste of success helps.
LINDSAY PRICE: I think baby steps are the primary thing. When I teach playwriting I have to say over and over again, “I know this sounds simplistic. It’s not simplistic. It is a baby step towards greatness.” You know, when I talk about writing monologues I don’t start with writing monologues. I start with a sentence, just one little sentence. You know, five minutes and then we’re out and it’s amazing. When you hit it on the head, it’s the habit and it is consistency that builds confidence.
LEA MARSHALL: And tricking them. They don’t realize they’re giving a monologue every day. They’re giving a monologue every day. They have no idea. I’m so smart.
LINDSAY PRICE: Matt B, what do you for a low self-confidence? And a segue into that, Claire Broom (ph) is also talking about kids who think they’re too cool. So, we have two ends of the spectrum, the low self-confidence and the too cool for school.
MATT BANASZYNSKI: And I actually do get both of those in my classroom. I think we get all likes in the classroom. One of the things I make sure that kids know is that, first of all, nothing they do is something I won’t do as well. When we start doing monologues, I’m the first one up there performing. When we’re doing improv games, when we’re doing all of this, I’m right there performing with them. And I let them know. And being a middle school teacher, these kids are at such a weird time in their lives, and a lot of them are so afraid to look foolish. And I let them know, “Yeah, you’re going to look foolish some days. We’re going to laugh. You guys are going to laugh at me.”
I also let them know that I actually suffer badly from stage fright. I’ve been doing theatre for so long, but yet I still have stage fright. And trying to get them to understand that, even though I’ve been doing this for a long time I still deal with the same issues that they do. And get them to understand, “Well, when you’re up here performing, you’re not you. It’s the one time you get to be whatever you want.” And it sort of helps them. And I do have those that are reluctant.
The ones who are too cool, a lot of times – and I do have students who don’t have the greatest of home lives, have had run-ins with the police, things like that, have bad reputations with administration, and I try to get them to understand that, “Hey, in all your other classes, you’re going to get in trouble if you get up and act out. And yet, in my class get up, act out. Get it out of your system now, so when you go to history class, you’re not the one getting in trouble because you had all these pent up energy from having to sit still for so long.”
And it seems to work real well for me in that trying to get that respect with the kids and letting them know, “It’s okay in here, that it is a safe place, it’s all about respect. Yeah, you’re going to laugh at me. I’m going to laugh at you. We’re all going to laugh together and we’ll all remember what happens. But that’s the fun of theatre.” Their one time in school, where they can act out and not get in trouble, most of the time, as long as they don’t go too far with things. So.
MATT WEBSTER: Yes. It’s actually in syllabus, Matt, that nobody gets to sit back and laugh at other people. If you make fun of the person on stage now, guess what? In two minutes, you’re going to be the one on stage getting made fun of. So that idea of mutual respect, of that you get what you give and that if you have an attitude of “I’m going to tear this people down,” well, what do you think is going to happen when you stand up there? So let’s just put that aside right now. Let’s just give what we get and everyone is on the same footing.
And towards that end as well, Lindsay, what I’d say is that we talk about baby steps, absolutely. I’m a huge proponent of baby steps, especially for the non-theatre kid because it can be daunting. It can be terrifying. Even if they did sign up for it, they don’t fully understand what it is we’re doing and they may think it’s going to be at a level where they simply cannot do it and so they’ll shut down. So, along with those baby steps I would say you want to look for opportunities for success. You want to give those students the opportunity to do work that might not be the best theatre, it might not be the most challenging or rigorous work, but they can succeed at it. And that succeed gets them a high-five, gets them a fist bump, gets them a laugh from the audience. And suddenly, they sit up a little bit straighter and they’re paying attention a little bit more because they want to see the next thing they can do.
And once again, this is another way that the theatre classroom is separate from the other classrooms we see around the building. I mean, Matt, you make a great point. In other classrooms there’s right and wrong. There’s black and white. And here, if you make big choices, if you’re creative in what you do, you know, we still have rules, we still have standards, we still have to, you know, make sure that we don’t get it out of hand, but by allowing them to tap into that creativity and break rules in a creative way that they get applauded for, suddenly, being the outcast makes them even cooler. That the coolness comes not from “look at the trouble I get into, but, whoa! I would have never thought about that. How does your brain work that way?” And that becomes a whole different idea.
And then one more thing I wanted to piggyback on what Matt was saying, the official definition of “creative drama” talks about the difference between a teacher and a leader. And in the theatre classroom you’re considered more of a leader than a teacher because a leader gets up and goes first. A leader says “follow me.” And that’s one of the big advantages we have in class is that you stand up and you do make a fool of yourself, and you do the monologue, you do this scene, you do the improv with them. You make a mistake. And when you make a mistake, you go, “Whop, there it was. Okay. Well, now we got that out of our system and let’s go on.” And the difference between leadership and teaching is a difference between “I stand up here and am the end-all be-all” and “I’m down in the trenches with you. Let’s all get there together.”
LINDSAY PRICE: Yay, Matt! Yay, Matt! Okay, so do any of you have non-English speaking students? We call it ESL in Canada, but I’m seeing ELL in the chat room. And how do you deal with that? Matt B, you were nodding your head. Do you have to deal with that as well?
MATT BANASZYNSKI: I do. Yeah. In most of my classes I have at least one English language learner. Luckily, I have a very good rapport with our ELL teachers, so they’re very supportive. And I always pull those students off to the side in advance and let them know, “Okay, I understand English is tough for you.” And I’m willing to work with them. I let the students know that I’m not rating them all the same way. I know everyone has different ability levels. I’m assessing them against themselves and no one else.
I have had a few students who, because their English was so poor, they couldn’t perform in front of the entire class. Most of my classes are about 30 to 40 kids. So, for an English language learner, that’s really a big deal. So what I’ve done is I’ve had like administrators come in in the morning, set up time in advance with them, and let them know that I’m not going to leave them behind. They’re not going to be able to use that they can’t speak the language as well as an excuse to get out of it, and try to put as much time with them as we can. Let them come in early. Give them a separate setup of people that they’re comfortable with to try it in front of before putting them in front of the mob in class. And most of them have done really, really well. And they keep coming back, so that’s a good sign, I think.
LINDSAY PRICE: I agree. Lea, do you have to deal with that?
LEA MARSHALL: I do a little bit, probably not as much as Matt does. I’ve done some things like let some students do the monologues in their language and then see if we can guess from their physicality what they were talking about. It’s a great physicality exercise. And so, we’ve done a little bit of that, but I had not dealt with it that much. And I’ve had kids who’ve been able to find some success in here because there’s not as much reading or things that they need more help with.
And they enjoy coming in and being able to do that and even use their own language for things that we talk about. “How would this sound in your language? Can we say that in a way that we know what you’re saying? You know the subtext. Can we get those sorts of things over in your language?” It’s like doing that game about the visiting foreign poet game where you make up the gibberish language with it, but you get them to do it in their language and, “Can we guess what your subtext is?”
LINDSAY PRICE: I think that’s interesting. There are some people talking it. This is again, a very big conversation in the chat room. And they’re talking about how even sometimes ELL students have trouble reading in their own language. And I really like the idea of a subtext exercise where they’re not reading something, they’re saying something and everyone has to guess. It’s helping them to be part of your community and teach a theatre element and yet, they are part of the class.
MATT WEBSTER: Yeah. You know, Lindsay, I’ve done what Lea talked about. I have a unit in my class on storytelling. That’s one of the kind of the introductions to performance is just have them tell stories. And when people are an ELL or an ESL, I pull them aside. I don’t do it publicly. I pull them aside and say, “Would you feel comfortable in telling the story in your language?” And sometimes they go enthusiastically and sometimes like, “Oh, boy!” They’re kind of embarrassed to do it. But if they’re willing to do it, I make it a treat. I mean, I tell the class, “Here’s something that you don’t get to see every day. Here’s something that’s really kind of cool. And we’re not going to tell you what the story is. They’re going to tell the story and I want you to be able to tell them what you think the story they were telling and the end is.” And it’s very much about subtext. It’s very much about physicality. It’s about vocal work.
And then it becomes a learning exercise from both sides because now you can talk about those things in the classroom. It’s like, “How did you know what they were talking about?” “Well, the way she started talking and got really excited that I thought it was this and the way that she got down on all fours.” Right! So, storytelling is not just what you do with words. Storytelling is what you do physically and vocally and all these other things. And it’s a really neat opportunity for cultural exchange at a lot of different levels. And I’ve heard stories in Spanish. I’ve heard stories in Hmong. I’ve heard stories in Korean. I’ve heard stories in Atrian. And it’s an exciting time when they get to share a little bit of what their culture is and the class gets to hear something they normally don’t get to hear.
LINDSAY PRICE: Okay, I have another question. Okay, so we are talking about how we’re going to engage everybody in all of these real world skills that they need and yet there is also curriculum that you guys have to follow. And the thing that leaps out most at me is theatre history. Like, how do you engage these non-theatre peeps, how do you engage them when you are dealing with curriculum? Lea.
LEA MARSHALL: I love theatre history, as Lindsay knows, because I am working on an absurd unit and it’s going to be absurd, not just theatre history but in the classical sense also. But I love theatre history because I think there are so many fun things to pull out of that. And I think some of it comes back to that same why question. I got no other ideas for you people.
My high school credit class just did commedia and so we talked about why did this make you a better actor? Why did this help you? And so, they were able to talk about the kind of the stock characters and physicality of commedia and starting to pick that out when they went to the movies and seeing things there. So I think again just linking it with that why. And then we’re about to do melodrama, which you know they really enjoy melodrama. And then absurdism. Why do you think we study it? So that we can say “I don’t know” about things.
So I think again linking it to the why and just how theatre history has changed the way people have thought about things over time. Melodrama and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and how influential that was. Or A Doll’s House and how influential that was. So I think showing them how that changes people’s minds through theatre history and so, for me that what gets me excited about that.
LINDSAY PRICE: Well, as we’re seeing right now with Hamilton, isn’t it?
LEA MARSHALL: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
LINDSAY PRICE: And, Matt B, you were talking about how you were using Hamilton in your classroom.
MATT BANASZYNSKI: Yeah. I do use a little bit of Hamilton to get my students involved because a lot of them when they come in and I mention that we’re going to talk musicals, they groan and they do everything they can to avoid those days and try to get them to understand that there’s a musical out there for just about everyone. And I recently showed my new group a clip from Hamilton. And as one of my students was leaving he looked at me and he goes, “I hate you now.” And I was all confused, he goes, “You made me enjoy a musical.” And I’m like, “Okay, so I did my job.” But there’s so much out there for them.
And I started off as a history teacher before I was able to convince our administration we need drama classes. So teaching the theatre history for me is just a lot of fun, and I do it with, you know, showing them how plays have changed throughout the centuries. What was going on in Greek theatre? Talk about how it’s changed and how it’s stayed the same. But just showing them that, you know, what’s happening in theatre tells you what was happening in the world at those times, what was important to the people because that’s what’s theatre. Those were the subjects for the most part that they were talking about.
MATT WEBSER: So there’s a phrase that I learned that really encompasses this very well and that is “art reflects the truth in society.” And one way to look at theatre history and history in general as it comes into play in the classroom is what’s happening on the stage is a reflection of what’s happening in the world at the time and whatever particular culture is generating it. So, whether you’re finding plays like Angels in America, which talks about the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s and how that is a certain point in time, or Enemy of the People and how that reflects what’s happening at that time, or ancient Greek theatre or Shakespearean theatre or Commedia dell ‘arte, any of those types and styles of theatre – and absurdist is one of my favorite and a lot can be talked about that era as well – things were happening in the world. Things were happening in the country. Things were happening in society that playwrights took that information and made it a very distilled version of that information and put it on stage to share with people in a story.
So, history is not some disconnected thing that we don’t have any relation to. It is a reflection of what was happening in the world at that time. And if that place still exists, it’s because the themes that were talked are so universal that I can almost guarantee you, we can still talk about them today. And now we’ve made that connection, now we’ve made that link to their lives, to their day, to their culture, and they can start thinking about the stories they want to tell.
LINDSAY PRICE: My favorite exercise when it comes to Theatre of the Absurd is to not even talk to students about absurd and here are the playwrights and here are the plays and here’s The Bald Soprano and nobody understands what’s going on, but to show students a picture of a bombed out town in France because that’s what Samuel Beckett was living through for World War II. And that’s what Neonesco (ph) was living through, is seeing a completely destroyed world. And there’s more connections when you can look at something that’s destroyed and go, “Imagine this is your home. Imagine this is the rubble that you are sitting on of your home, and can you connect to life is meaningless.” It’s so much easier to connect to the theme, exactly as you say, when you connect to the point of what’s going on and then connecting it to your own life and then getting into the theatre, the theatre of it all.
MATT WEBSTER: Absolutely. Well, let me ask you this question. As challenging as it is to have these students in our class it’s often also very rewarding to have non-theatre students in our class. And I’d like to just get a story or two from each of you of what you find rewarding or an example of when you had a student who might’ve been a challenge to begin with, didn’t want to be there to begin with, but in the end really kind of blossomed and kind of turned things around for you? Lea, did you have a time like that?
LEA MARSHALL: Yes, I do. Just recently I had a language arts teacher who came to me with an essay that one of the students had written. And I had this student in a semester before but I don’t have her this semester. She was in a semester-long beginning class, and she had written about how theatre class had helped her get over anger issues. And this teacher said, really she had seen a huge change in her. And I was like, “Really? Because I didn’t see a change when she was in my class very much.” But she wrote really well about how – again, one of the things I talk about with the students, you’re going to work with everybody in here. And I do remember her saying, “Oh, I don’t work with this person, this person, and this person. My mother has said no.” And I said. “Well, your mother isn’t here.”
And so, she had to work with them and she distinctly said, “I learned that I can work with anyone and that even though I was feeling something, I didn’t have to let that feeling consume me. I could get over that feeling and work with anybody.” And she had talked about it had been life changing for her and how she was a better person today. I mean, it was exactly what I had been, you know, drilling into them. And it was just so gratifying because I didn’t really see that change when she was with me. I think she kind of started putting it all together near the end. And so, it was great to see that she was a better human being, exactly what my why was for her and that had happened while she was in theatre class.
MATT WEBSTER: What a great lesson! Matt, what have you got?
MATT BANASZYNSKI: Oh, gosh. I honestly think that my favorite is a student of mine who will be leaving the school at the end of the year who is autistic. And they put him in my class because it was, “Well, we have nowhere else we can put him and we want him to try to do something.” But I was told from day one, they told me, “Oh, don’t expect him to say anything in class. Don’t expect him ever to stand up. Just put him through. Mom doesn’t care what he gets in the class.” And I couldn’t let that happen. And so, I sat with him and I started working with him. And he was lucky enough to be in a class with just some amazing students who really cared about seeing him do well.
And last year was my first year with him and towards the end of the school year I was walking into school and a mom came running up to me, yelling, asking who I am. And she goes, “I have a problem with you.” And I stopped and I go, “What do you mean?” She goes, “My son will not stop talking at home now.” And I’m like, “Okay, who is your child?” And she told me his name and it turns out it was this autistic student who now he is verbal in all of his classes. At home he won’t stay quiet anymore, and he sort of come out of that shell of what it is. And I got to have him again this year and he wanted to try more difficult pieces. And he knew he might not be able to do it well but he would try.
And just knowing the connection that I’ve had with him and just knowing how much it’s changed. His parents were even fighting to get him in a full year class with me, which unfortunately they weren’t able to do. But it was just amazing watching him go from this boy who really sat there doing and saying nothing to whenever I’d asked for volunteers he was one of the first to always volunteer. He didn’t care what it was and he was right up there. And a lot of the kids started becoming really good friends with him now as well. And he really never had many friends outside of the autism unit.
So, it was really great for me seeing how he has changed, how he’s matured almost. And just the fact that now in his classes he wants to participate and he does in every class now. So, mom and dad are really thrilled that, you know, because of what we were able to do with him, he’s now changed as a person and they’re not as worried about him going to high school and not fitting in and having trouble with that change and accepting it.
MATT WEBSTER: Wow!
LEA MARSHALL: Wow.
MATT WEBSTER: I mean to think about theatre as the key that helped unlock this individual and some of the basic lifestyles that they need, that’s inspiring. That’s really exciting.
LEA MARSHALL: My story seems so blah now.
LINDSAY PRICE: No. It does not. It does not. It’s important. Everything that you guys do is really important, and we forget, right? We forget how important the things that we do, the little things and the day-to-day things.
I have a very similar story to you, Matt, in that I had a relationship with a teacher and she did a number of my plays over a period of three years. And I watched this one student, this on the spectrum student who at the beginning of my time of seeing him in plays, the teacher – it was a constant conversation with this student to shower. Did you shower today? It was just the basic life skills were not there. And in his final year he was a mentor, like he was mentoring the younger students because he had just grown and was engaged and was chatty, like chatty and putting his arm around. Like, it was just the most wonderful thing.
And then I had another, I was teaching a playwriting class with a very disruptive student who was very not into theatre and not into playwriting and it just so happened that he wasn’t doing any of the of the exercises and it just so happened that he accidentally said, you know, “I hate writing. I usually do it on a computer.” He had a laptop in his special needs classes. And I’m like, “Well, can you get the laptop? Let’s use what you use.” And he got it and he started writing. I do automatic writing exercises where I say, “Grammar means nothing. Spelling means nothing. You just have to get the words on the page.” And that was like lightning for this kid who had no spelling ability and had no grammar ability. And he just word dumped and was like happy that he wasn’t being pressured.
And I looked at one of his pieces and I looked at this kid and went, “You are a writer. Did you know this? Did you know that in the middle of this is this beautiful, wonderful…?” And after I had left the teacher said that no one has ever told him that and he finished the play. He actually committed to getting the formatting and getting all the grammar and getting the spelling and he finished the play after the end of it. And it’s the little things, you know?
MATT WEBSTER: And what I was going to say, Lindsay, is that the reward for me is the students who I had them as freshmen in beginning theatre, they were a pain in my backside. They seemed disengaged. They seemed like they didn’t care. And then as a junior they walked by and go, “I signed up for your class because I really missed it because you’re my favorite teacher.” And I went, “You hated me!” And they said, “No, your class is the most fun. You know, it’s just where I was then, I didn’t know, and I was angry about things. But your class was different. Your class was fun.”
And like you were saying we lose track of that, and especially the day-to-day, guys, the day-to-day when you are facing those 30 students or more and you’re not feeling it and they’re not feeling it and they’re like, “Why the heck are we here?” And you’re like, “Yeah, why the heck are you here?” You know, those days are the struggle. But when you put the whole picture together, you often get a really beautiful picture that they appreciate because it’s so different, it’s so unique. And what you’re bringing to them on a day-to-day basis is so different and so unique based on the things we’re talking about, based on the ability to express themselves, based on the ability to be creative, based on being in a non-judgmental environment where what you bring, we’re going to accept and we’re going to mold it. We’re not going to say it’s necessarily good enough because we want you to be better. But, hey, you bring it to the table and we’ll help you work with it.
And that is such a breath of fresh air for these students. And it’s one of things that helps turn them. It’s one of things that makes a non-theatre student a theatre student. And it’s very rewarding when those kids come back and come back and then maybe even audition for your show, and then maybe really consider themselves to be part of the program. That’s one of the most rewarding things.
LINDSAY PRICE: Awesome! Okay. So, as we wrap up let’s leave our folks with some advice. What advice would you give for our teachers who are struggling with non-theatre students? How are you going to engage them? Lea.
LEA MARSHALL: I think figure out your personal why. I tell my kids I’m here because, like Matt, I want to have a good time. I think theatre is a great time and I want to do work that matters. And I feel like it does, so that’s my personal why and I have that up for them. And so, I think figure out your personal why, share it with the students and then have them figure out their personal why and put it where they can see it every day, on the notebooks, you know, hang them up on your room so that they can see it, and hopefully that will inspire them to get to class.
LINDSAY PRICE: Yeah, we had a question about surviving the day-to-day and I think that that’s one way to do it, is know why you’re there, right? What is your why? And I like sharing it, making sure they know why you’re there. Matt B.
MATT BANASZYNSKI: I’ll piggyback on what she said, know why you’re doing it. But also, I think one of my survival tactics has been be ready to change. The non-theatre student, you never know what they’re coming in from, and some days you have to throw out the game plan and start over right then and there to make sure that they are engaged because some days it’s going to be tough, it’s going be different and you got to be flexible with them. Know the students and figure out what will catch their attention but never give up with them. No matter how stubborn they are, just keep going and going and going.
LINDSAY PRICE: Love it. And Matt Webster.
MATT WEBSTER: That idea of flexibility is key. It’s just key. We come in with a curriculum and things that we want to learn. But we have more flexibility in our curriculum than most any other subjects across the board. And being able to poke in different directions, try this and try that and you’ll see little pockets of your class kind of sit up and get more interested in maybe the design aspect because they have a more artistic side and it’s not on stage, maybe more of the storytelling and performing because they’re more outgoing, maybe improvisation because they find themselves to be comedians. But having that flexibility and that ear of, “Okay, what’s getting the excited? And here’s a student who’s never really shown interest, so maybe I can have a little discussion with them about what would they like to see and what would they like to hear.”
And we have the opportunity over the course of our entire curriculum to touch each and every student where they live, and then being able to do that that will engage them because engagement might not be a 24/7, 365 day a year proposition. Engagement might work one small piece at a time, one lesson at a time, one engagement at a time. And once you make that engagement, you’re putting a piece of the puzzle together on the way to making the large picture that works for your classroom.
LINDSAY PRICE: Awesome! Oh, thank you so much guys. This has been a lovely conversation. I’ve enjoyed hearing your stories. I’ve enjoyed seeing what people are saying in the chat room. The chat room is going to remain open, so you guys continue your discussion there. Ally is going to put up a certificate of attendance for all of you who are there. And I really have to thank our panel. Thank you for your expertise and thank you for your stories. Lea Marshall.
LEA MARSHALL: Thank you! This was great.
LINDSAY PRICE: Good. Yes. Love it! And Matt Banaszynski.
MATT BANASZYNSKI: Yep. Thank you very much. It was a lot of fun.
LINDSAY PRICE: Good. And Matt Webster.
MATT WEBSTER: Thank you to all of you. Thank you, guys. It was a great conversation tonight.
LINDSAY PRICE: Awesome. All right, thank you very much, guys.
Thank you Matt and Lea and other Matt!
Before we go, let’s do some Theatrefolk news. So, once again I want to mention the Theatrefolk-wide PLC on August the 16th. August 16th. August 16th at 8 PM Eastern, Planning Your Season. We’ve got a link in the show notes for this event so that you can get more information. And sign up. Look for the link in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode163.
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