Teaching Drama

Middle School Theatre in a Rural Community

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 126: Middle School Theatre in a Rural Community

Patrick Derksen works in a school with 200 students. In total. He’s a grade eight classroom teacher and playwright who decided five years ago to make theatre with his students.

Find out how he does it, why he thinks theatre is important in middle school and his advice for other rural teachers wanting to do the same.

Show Notes

 

Episode Transcript

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.

You have reached Episode 126 and you can find any links for this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode126.

Okay. So, Patrick Derksen, he works in a school – a rural school that has 200 total students. So, that’s it; that’s from kindergarten all the way up to Grade 8. He’s a Grade 8 classroom teacher and he’s also a playwright. We have his play, A Lighter Shade of Noir.

Five years ago, he started putting up plays with his students. Just like that, he made a choice to include theatre at the middle school level, and I just think that it’s always a fascinating choice when something didn’t exist before and now it does, and let’s hear why he made that choice and how he has developed it.

LINDSAY: All right. Hello everybody! I am sitting here today with author and teacher, Patrick Derksen. Hello, Patrick!

PATRICK: Hello!

LINDSAY: Hi! So, Patrick is one of our Theatrefolk playwrights. He has a play with us called A Lighter Shade of Noir which I absolutely adore. It makes me laugh. The sign of a good comedy for me – because, when we read these plays, Patrick, there’s so many times we have to read them from the first initial read to going through numerous proofs to seeing it published and the sign of a good comedy for me is I just giggle every time I look at this play.

You are also a middle school teacher.

PATRICK: Yes, primarily.

LINDSAY: Primarily. That’s the main gig.

PATRICK: That’s the main gig.

LINDSAY: And how long have you been a middle school teacher?

PATRICK: This is about ten years now, I guess, yeah. I had the ten-year award.

LINDSAY: You got the pin.

PATRICK: I’m like, “Really? Ten years already?” Time flies!

LINDSAY: Absolutely! And so, why middle school? Why is that where you sort of hang your hat?

PATRICK: Originally, I’d planned to be a high school teacher, I guess. But then, things took me to a middle school and I found out that I loved it. I love the kids and I love the staff. It’s kind of a whole different ballgame. In middle school, you’ve got to think on your feet a little bit more and go with the flow and it’s great.

LINDSAY: It’s really funny because I think you have to have that very specific mentality to relate to middle school students.

PATRICK: Yes.

LINDSAY: What about them is the most fun to teach?

PATRICK: Yeah, like I said, I think just the fact that they’re coming out of the learning ABC’s kind of thing and then you can really start to work with them and take them into territory that is new for them and, yeah, it’s just a fun, fun age to see them coming in that and they’re still eager – unlike maybe some high school students.

LINDSAY: And what do you think is the most frustrating?

PATRICK: Well, when it comes to drama, they’re starting at ground zero, right?

LINDSAY: Ah.

PATRICK: There’s no knowledge at all and how it all works. So, like, probably three-quarters of the kids that I have in my plays are starting with no experience whatsoever, and then the rest start coming with a little bit of stuff from church and community theatre, but it’s learning the very basics. So, those kinds of things like, you know, face the audience, speak louder, all those things I guess would be the frustrating part of it, but it’s really neat by the end of it how much they grow.

LINDSAY: Well, I guess the good thing about ground zero is that they haven’t learned any bad habits.

PATRICK: That’s true.

LINDSAY: So, you get to introduce everything. And then, as you say, by the end of it, I’m always amazed how quickly middle school students can catch on and actually learn the stuff.

PATRICK: It’s crazy. Like, when I started writing, it was for my students and I make little two-minute skits and thinking, “I don’t know if they can do this,” and then I keep pushing it every time and eventually we got to full-length plays. I still tend to push it and see, “Okay. How many lines can these guys memorize? How many stage cues can they handle?” and they keep amazing me.

LINDSAY: Okay. So, that’s a wonderful segue because you are not a full-time Drama teacher in your school, right?

PATRICK: No, yeah, I teach Grade 8 – Grade 7 and 8.

LINDSAY: Yeah, and you’re not in a main city.

PATRICK: No, yeah, our school has about 200 kids from kindergarten to Grade 8.

LINDSAY: Oh.

PATRICK: And we’re in the middle of a few different villages. We’re actually not even in the village. We’re in the middle of farmland and they come from all the villages around us.

LINDSAY: So, there is no Drama program at your school?

PATRICK: No, not as such. Like, we have our Christmas program. Our Christmas program was the big event when I started at this school and there was no Spring Drama program at all.

LINDSAY: So, what inspired you to take that sort of step to go, “Okay. I’m going to start writing skits for these kids to perform.” What inspired you?

PATRICK: I think, when I was in my first teaching job in this area, they had a Spring Drama, and two teachers there invited me into their, like, they’ve been running it for years and it was such a good experience. When I started at this school that I’m at now, then it took me a couple of years to sort of get my feet down on the ground there being a new teacher. And then, once I felt comfortable, then I approached the principal and said we should do a Spring Drama and away we went, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

LINDSAY: Why do you write for them as opposed to finding plays? Or do you do both?

PATRICK: We’ve done both. Most of the time, I’ve written for them, yeah.

I remember when I was in Grade 7 – again, I was at a very small school – even smaller than the one I’m at. There was Grade 6, 7, and 8 in one classroom and there was an educational assistant, I think it was. She wanted to do a drama with our school and she asked me and my friend if we wanted to help write it. And so, the three of us wrote this play and, again, I was in the situation where my students are now and never thought of doing something like that. Again, it was such a really fun experience. And then, we acted in the play. Like, everybody has to get involved when you’re in a small school. And then, in our school now too, every single student in Grade 7 and 8 is involved – about half of them are acting and then the rest are doing backstage stuff or promotions stuff – and it’s really neat to get all the kids involved like that.

LINDSAY: It sounds like that experience – it’s obvious – that that experience just stayed with you.

PATRICK: Well, yeah, I can remember clearly the days we spent after school – getting that play written and, I mean, we went, it was a French school so we went to the French Theatre Festival in Winnipeg – the big city, right? And that was crazy and it felt like we were in Hollywood.

LINDSAY: What do you think was it about being involved in a play that was so influential as opposed to being involved with sports or some other activity? What was it about writing and putting on a play?

PATRICK: I’ve always played with whatever kind of toys have been around and I have G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles and I played with my sister with her Barbies and whatever. Once you get into middle school age, then you start to be a little bit more, uh, self-conscious about playing with toys like that, I guess. To me, this was a way to bridge into something more “culturally acceptable.” I don’t know.

So, it was still creating stories, it was still having fun with characters, and it was a way to just continue that, and it never really stopped.

LINDSAY: You know what? I’ve never heard it described like that and I think that’s perfect, particularly for middle school who are so on the edge of “I’m still a kid, I don’t want to be a kid” and yet you’re giving them still an opportunity to be in that world and yet do something which is a little more acceptable.

PATRICK: It’s called a play for a reason – you get to play.

LINDSAY: I love that. That is awesome. Okay. So, now, let’s talk about your kids now. So, you started out and you started with skits and just kept going more and more and more until you got to a play. I really like the idea that all of your students have to participate, right? I’m guessing it’s a classroom project.

PATRICK: Yeah, we work it into our ELA curriculum and, for a good month and a half, that’s what we do. The other middle school teacher at our school, he’s really great and takes on the backstage stuff so we can just get everybody involved.

LINDSAY: For your backstage students, what kinds of jobs do they do?

PATRICK: Well, we always create our own set so there’s painting the backdrops and making props and figuring out the lights and the sound – like, we have our soundboard and lighting system, but we get the kids to do it. Like, once the play is happening, the staff just stands there and watches them because they really figure it all out way better and I have to say, as the director in the play, it’s nice having the kids doing the sound because they learn the cues so much better than any adult would who would show up sort of the last day and go, “Okay, what’s going on here?” The kids are there right from the start so they know the cues and they do an excellent job of it.

LINDSAY: Well, it’s sort of a sense of pride and accomplishment, too. Those are not easy jobs.

PATRICK: Oh, yeah, and then they’re already asking, when the play is over, it’s like, “Can we do this next year?” And so, you can tell that they’re into it and they really like it.

LINDSAY: Do you feel hampered at all by being in a rural area or do you feel that we have nothing so we get to create the best theatre from nothing?

PATRICK: Yeah, I think it’s more of the second, like there’s limitations as to what we have – like, our backdrops, we have to go borrow them from other schools, and costumes – but we have a really good community of teachers that help us out that way. But, yeah, it’s fun being free to just create and do what we want to do.

LINDSAY: Speaking of which, how do the community and how do the parents react to seeing their kids do this?

PATRICK: Oh, yeah, it’s really friendly.

LINDSAY: Oh, that’s good.

PATRICK: The gym just fills up, and it’s not even just parents, it’s people come from all over – people I don’t even know who they are – and so, that’s really great to see that it can become part of the community fabric having us do these things and there’s a strong, like, Mennonite presence and they’ve got their own theatre – they do Low German theatre several times a year.

LINDSAY: Oh, what’s that? What’s Low German theatre? Like, just in a different language?

PATRICK: Yes, they speak Low German. It’s kind of closer to Dutch than German. And so, to keep their culture, the Mennonite culture, they perform in that language and it’s neat being part of that drama. Like, their dramas are often humor and comedy so I try to work with that into our plays as well and throw in the Low German jokes into the play – that’s always a hit. Maybe a bit pandering but…

LINDSAY: Well, it’s your audience, right?

PATRICK: Yeah, exactly.

LINDSAY: If your audience is having a good time, then you can do another play and another play and another play.

PATRICK: Yeah, and they’re really supportive and they show up in droves and it’s great.

LINDSAY: And so, you must have the support of administration as well.

PATRICK: Yeah, you bet. The administrator who was there when we started is not there anymore, but the new one has continued the tradition of, when I ask for something, they say it’s for the kids, “Let’s do it.” There’s not much hesitation. They figure out the details after so it’s really good, lots of support.

LINDSAY: That’s great. Okay. So, how long have you been doing plays with your students?

PATRICK: Five or six years now.

LINDSAY: And how have you seen the students change from being involved with theatre?

PATRICK: Well, because the ones I’m teaching now in Grade 8 were in kindergarten when we started – or when I started teaching there – they’ve been seeing us do plays their whole school careers and so they come in excited that they’re going to be part of it and they’re kind of chomping at the bit. By the time they get into Grade 6, they’re waiting for Grade 7 when they can start taking part.

LINDSAY: I wonder if that is also a benefit of being in a small rural community where that’s the event and so, because that’s the set event, there is excitement as opposed to a larger school with more outside influences or more the chances for students to not be interested in theatre.

PATRICK: Yeah, and you see that with Drama as well as sports. Like, just because we’re the smaller school, that everybody has a chance to take part. I do my utmost to make sure everyone who wants a part in the play gets one and that’s another advantage of writing it myself; I can add things in and take things out and change things around, change genders as needed, and adapt. And, when I write these plays, I have specific students in mind often for the different parts.

LINDSAY: Well, sure, because you see them all the time.

PATRICK: Yeah, so I work that.

LINDSAY: You can write for them.

PATRICK: And that’s really neat, too.

LINDSAY: Yeah. So, A Lighter Shade of Noir is sort of a spoof on the film noir genre. Why that?

PATRICK: I am not sure. I wanted to do a mystery and I’m not sure. Even there, I’m not a big mystery person, but I became one when I decided that. So, the better part of a year was just watching different movies and reading lots of Sherlock Holmes and sort of studying the genre so that I could comment on it, I guess. Like you say, it’s kind of a spoof – a satire on genre – so I didn’t want to do that without actually knowing it first.

LINDSAY: Do you use your students as part of your writing process? Like, do you bring the script in in various forms?

PATRICK: Sometimes. When I started off, I didn’t as much. But, in more recent years, I’ll bring it in sort of as I get through the scenes or the acts and run it by them and see what they think. And some of them have great ideas. Like, the ending of A Lighter Shade of Noir was completely different when I first wrote it and one of the kids in my class says, “What if he, like, tried to kill her at the end?” like a Grade 8 boy would say, right?

LINDSAY: Yeah.

PATRICK: And I thought, “No, we’re not going to… Wait a second!” and I went back to it and the ending is so much better because of that boy’s suggestion and that’s kind of neat, too.

LINDSAY: When you were doing this – and as part of a process – do you ever take your students through the steps on how to give feedback and what’s useful feedback or is it a free-for-all?

PATRICK: Mostly a free-for-all when it’s read to the class. Now, I’ve started up a writing club at school as well and that’s sort of on and off, depending on what the interest is, and it didn’t happen the last couple of years and then, this year, all of a sudden, I think there’s fifteen kids which, in a school of 200, is a lot.

LINDSAY: Yeah!

PATRICK: Yeah, it was really awesome to see. And, again, you asked before about, like, how the Drama gets mixed into the culture of the school, and that’s definitely part of it when the interest goes up and there’s, like, the first few years I did it, it was just girls. Boys didn’t participate. This year, it’s half boys and half girls, and so that’s great to see as well.

LINDSAY: What type of writing do you do in the writing club?

PATRICK: All kinds. Like, they’re mostly interested in just writing fiction, but I try to bring in some poetry into there and, of course, the Drama part of it. And I told them too, like, when I was their age too, I would just write fiction stories and I never thought I’d be writing drama someday. So, just showing them that format of doing it and what you need to communicate and what you don’t need to communicate is all part of the learning process, too. It would give me no greater pleasure to see a play by these guys someday, too. That would be really neat.

LINDSAY: Well, for me, that’s my waving flag moment. The act of writing a play, I think, is something that students find so daunting and just from getting from an idea stage to developing it to figuring how – exactly as you say – figuring out how to communicate only what you need and taking out everything that you don’t need and then getting to the end, I just think that it’s such a wonderful project for student writers.

PATRICK: Oh, yeah, you bet, and you can see the kids coming up through the years. I can spot these kids in Grade 4 and 5 right now that are just awesome at theatre stuff. I see them in the hallways making up their own plays and performing them for their class and it’s not any kind of school project – it’s just something they like to do. So, you see that and you go, “Okay, I can’t wait for them to get to Grade 7 and 8 and see what they can do.”

LINDSAY: Why is Drama important in middle school?

PATRICK: Well, there’s lots of, like I said, we tie in our ELA curriculum so you can hit a lot, at least the Manitoba curriculum, there’s lots of different outcomes that you can meet using drama and it’s such a vivid application of those outcomes as well and it makes it real when you have the community and their friends and their parents and grandparents coming to actually see what they’ve done – that’s an audience that you don’t get with a lot of other things that they would do in ELA class. So, yeah, and just bringing something to life like that, even the backstage parts of things, those kids are equally proud of it, I would think. Some of them are so gung-ho for the project. They wouldn’t want to step on stage for the project, but knowing how to pull together something like that, it gives them a real sense of leadership.

LINDSAY: What’s the balance for you on a project like this between process and product?

PATRICK: How do you mean?

LINDSAY: Well, what do you think is more important for them to get to that final product and put it in front of the audience or is it all of the steps that go into the process beforehand?

PATRICK: Ah. Like, the process is kind of the part that you want to teach but, if you’re not aiming for a product that is something as good as you can do, then there’s not much motivation to go through the process. So, yeah, I think it all ties together that way. Yeah, it’s an interesting way to think about it.

LINDSAY: So, for you, it’s balanced – you need both?

PATRICK: Yeah. Another reason that I started writing the plays was I have gone to so many plays with my own students, right? So, you go to plays with 12, 13-year-olds who are kind of jaded from watching all these movies and they have all these commentary, right? You sit on the bus coming back from these plays and listening to their commentary about it. “Oh, they should have done this so it looked more real,” or “This part was funny,” or that kind of thing. So, all of that went into my writing process of going, “Okay, I think I can do something that they’ll actually really like.”

LINDSAY: Well, that’s pretty astute. If you’ve got middle school students who have the ability to not only form an opinion, but to not only just say, “I like,” or “I don’t like,” but, “I wish they had done this…” like, they’re being specific.

PATRICK: Yeah, and I’d sit there sort of attune to the students as much as the play that’s happening to see what they react to and what they don’t react to.

LINDSAY: That makes you a good youth writer, you know?

PATRICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: I think that’s half the battle for writing for youth – being aware of who you’re writing for.

PATRICK: Yeah, and I’m sitting with my audience almost every day during the year so it’s pretty neat.

LINDSAY: Absolutely. Okay. So, that’s A Lighter Shade of Noir from Patrick. Patrick, what’s your favorite part of this play? What do you like most about it?

PATRICK: I don’t know. The interaction among the characters. I think my favorite character in the play is Tracy Dick.

LINDSAY: Yes.

PATRICK: Again, it’s a nod to the Mennonite last name because there’s lot of kids with that last name there. We didn’t have any Tracys so that worked out okay.

LINDSAY: It works well because it’s also a nod to, there’s the Private Dick, there’s the police aspect.

PATRICK: Yeah, but that character, every time that they interact, the exasperated frustration that that character feels in this group of detectives.

LINDSAY: Bizarre-o, bizarre detectives.

PATRICK: Yes.

LINDSAY: We have detectives and we have sidekicks and villains. Not only is the writing stylized, everyone has to act in a very stylized manner. Was that difficult to get your students to take on the sort of exaggerated posturing that would happen in a spoof of a noir?

PATRICK: They took that up pretty naturally.

LINDSAY: Yeah?

PATRICK: I didn’t have to coach a lot of that stuff. I kind of let them run with it and, I guess, when the characters are kind of caricatures like that then they can already tap into the stuff that they know about that type of character. Like, you had the old lady and, immediately, the student that I had playing her – Beatrice – knew exactly what to do. I don’t know who she was modeling her performance on but bent over double and couldn’t see properly and she really knew what to do. Like I said, I had certain students in mind from the get-go as I was writing so I could play off their strengths. The guy who played Trent Trowel, he had the right voice and demeanor for that part already. And then, I can have certain fun with that guy who would sometimes give me some trouble during class and I could make a part where he gets smacked around in the play a little bit.

LINDSAY: Okay. So, just to wrap up here, for anyone else out there who is in the same boat as you where you’re in a small rural community, there’s not an official Drama program, they’re doing Drama with their class, what would you say three pieces of advice would be to another teacher who is thinking about doing a drama or doing a play with their students?

PATRICK: Yeah, I guess the number one thing is to get everybody involved. So, whether they want to act or not, you find something that they’re responsible for so that they can be a leader and that keeps everybody motivated and working on something.

Another thing I guess, in a small community like that, then you have to make sure that you’re considering what the wants and needs of the kids are so that you can adapt for that as well.

And, yeah, get your community involved. Like, I had people in the community sewing dresses and getting me in the local paper and, like, the more that you can involve the community in the process, the better it is as well.

LINDSAY: Awesome. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

PATRICK: Yeah, you bet. Thank you for asking! That was great!

LINDSAY: Thank you, Patrick.

So, 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!

And I would love it if you all checked out Patrick’s play – A Lighter Shade of Noir.

So, Trent Trowel is your typical gumshoe. He’s searching the mean streets for crimes to solve and dames to fall for. He joins some of the world’s most famous detectives at the International PD gala. There’s Shirley Holmes, Jean Louie Phillip Eustache, Aunt Beatrice. But is this just an innocent gala? Will the world’s most dastardly villains foil them with a fiendish master plan? Oh, those fiendish master plans. Everything it not what it seems though – of course.

What I love about this play is that it’s not just the high style of noir which I think is a fantastic style to introduce to students just to get them to play around with the way that the language sounds. But it’s also the humor that Patrick brings to this style, you know, the play is A Lighter Shade of Noir after all. And, to the characters, you know, this play offers a lovely introduction to playing high stylized characters who also have something at stake. It’s not just about a shallow character presenting a style. These characters have wants and they pursue those wants and that is also something that we want to introduce to our students – that, when you’re playing a character, you have to give them something to do, something to want, something to strive for. That’s the foundation of all good plays!

So, go read sample pages at theatrefolk.com or catch the link in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode126.

Finally, where, oh, 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 you can find us on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you’ve got to do is search for the word – what is it? Oh, yeah, “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

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.

You have reached Episode 126 and you can find any links for this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode126.

Okay. So, Patrick Derksen, he works in a school – a rural school that has 200 total students. So, that’s it; that’s from kindergarten all the way up to Grade 8. He’s a Grade 8 classroom teacher and he’s also a playwright. We have his play, A Lighter Shade of Noir.

Five years ago, he started putting up plays with his students. Just like that, he made a choice to include theatre at the middle school level, and I just think that it’s always a fascinating choice when something didn’t exist before and now it does, and let’s hear why he made that choice and how he has developed it.

LINDSAY: All right. Hello everybody! I am sitting here today with author and teacher, Patrick Derksen. Hello, Patrick!

PATRICK: Hello!

LINDSAY: Hi! So, Patrick is one of our Theatrefolk playwrights. He has a play with us called A Lighter Shade of Noir which I absolutely adore. It makes me laugh. The sign of a good comedy for me – because, when we read these plays, Patrick, there’s so many times we have to read them from the first initial read to going through numerous proofs to seeing it published and the sign of a good comedy for me is I just giggle every time I look at this play.

You are also a middle school teacher.

PATRICK: Yes, primarily.

LINDSAY: Primarily. That’s the main gig.

PATRICK: That’s the main gig.

LINDSAY: And how long have you been a middle school teacher?

PATRICK: This is about ten years now, I guess, yeah. I had the ten-year award.

LINDSAY: You got the pin.

PATRICK: I’m like, “Really? Ten years already?” Time flies!

LINDSAY: Absolutely! And so, why middle school? Why is that where you sort of hang your hat?

PATRICK: Originally, I’d planned to be a high school teacher, I guess. But then, things took me to a middle school and I found out that I loved it. I love the kids and I love the staff. It’s kind of a whole different ballgame. In middle school, you’ve got to think on your feet a little bit more and go with the flow and it’s great.

LINDSAY: It’s really funny because I think you have to have that very specific mentality to relate to middle school students.

PATRICK: Yes.

LINDSAY: What about them is the most fun to teach?

PATRICK: Yeah, like I said, I think just the fact that they’re coming out of the learning ABC’s kind of thing and then you can really start to work with them and take them into territory that is new for them and, yeah, it’s just a fun, fun age to see them coming in that and they’re still eager – unlike maybe some high school students.

LINDSAY: And what do you think is the most frustrating?

PATRICK: Well, when it comes to drama, they’re starting at ground zero, right?

LINDSAY: Ah.

PATRICK: There’s no knowledge at all and how it all works. So, like, probably three-quarters of the kids that I have in my plays are starting with no experience whatsoever, and then the rest start coming with a little bit of stuff from church and community theatre, but it’s learning the very basics. So, those kinds of things like, you know, face the audience, speak louder, all those things I guess would be the frustrating part of it, but it’s really neat by the end of it how much they grow.

LINDSAY: Well, I guess the good thing about ground zero is that they haven’t learned any bad habits.

PATRICK: That’s true.

LINDSAY: So, you get to introduce everything. And then, as you say, by the end of it, I’m always amazed how quickly middle school students can catch on and actually learn the stuff.

PATRICK: It’s crazy. Like, when I started writing, it was for my students and I make little two-minute skits and thinking, “I don’t know if they can do this,” and then I keep pushing it every time and eventually we got to full-length plays. I still tend to push it and see, “Okay. How many lines can these guys memorize? How many stage cues can they handle?” and they keep amazing me.

LINDSAY: Okay. So, that’s a wonderful segue because you are not a full-time Drama teacher in your school, right?

PATRICK: No, yeah, I teach Grade 8 – Grade 7 and 8.

LINDSAY: Yeah, and you’re not in a main city.

PATRICK: No, yeah, our school has about 200 kids from kindergarten to Grade 8.

LINDSAY: Oh.

PATRICK: And we’re in the middle of a few different villages. We’re actually not even in the village. We’re in the middle of farmland and they come from all the villages around us.

LINDSAY: So, there is no Drama program at your school?

PATRICK: No, not as such. Like, we have our Christmas program. Our Christmas program was the big event when I started at this school and there was no Spring Drama program at all.

LINDSAY: So, what inspired you to take that sort of step to go, “Okay. I’m going to start writing skits for these kids to perform.” What inspired you?

PATRICK: I think, when I was in my first teaching job in this area, they had a Spring Drama, and a teacher there (00:05:40 unclear) and Cindy (00:05:42 unclear) invited me into their, like, they’ve been running it for years and it was such a good experience. When I started at this school that I’m at now, then it took me a couple of years to sort of get my feet down on the ground there being a new teacher. And then, once I felt comfortable, then I approached the principal and said we should do a Spring Drama and away we went, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

LINDSAY: Why do you write for them as opposed to finding plays? Or do you do both?

PATRICK: We’ve done both. Most of the time, I’ve written for them, yeah.

I remember when I was in Grade 7 – again, I was at a very small school – even smaller than the one I’m at. There was Grade 6, 7, and 8 in one classroom and there was an educational assistant, I think it was. She wanted to do a drama with our school and she asked me and my friend if we wanted to help write it. And so, the three of us wrote this play and, again, I was in the situation where my students are now and never thought of doing something like that. Again, it was such a really fun experience. And then, we acted in the play. Like, everybody has to get involved when you’re in a small school. And then, in our school now too, every single student in Grade 7 and 8 is involved – about half of them are acting and then the rest are doing backstage stuff or promotions stuff – and it’s really neat to get all the kids involved like that.

LINDSAY: It sounds like that experience – it’s obvious – that that experience just stayed with you.

PATRICK: Well, yeah, I can remember clearly the days we spent after school – getting that play written and, I mean, we went, it was a French school so we went to the French Theatre Festival in Winnipeg – the big city, right? And that was crazy and it felt like we were in Hollywood.

LINDSAY: What do you think was it about being involved in a play that was so influential as opposed to being involved with sports or some other activity? What was it about writing and putting on a play?

PATRICK: I’ve always played with whatever kind of toys have been around and I have G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles and I played with my sister with her Barbies and whatever. Once you get into middle school age, then you start to be a little bit more, uh, self-conscious about playing with toys like that, I guess. To me, this was a way to bridge into something more “culturally acceptable.” I don’t know.

So, it was still creating stories, it was still having fun with characters, and it was a way to just continue that, and it never really stopped.

LINDSAY: You know what? I’ve never heard it described like that and I think that’s perfect, particularly for middle school who are so on the edge of “I’m still a kid, I don’t want to be a kid” and yet you’re giving them still an opportunity to be in that world and yet do something which is a little more acceptable.

PATRICK: It’s called a play for a reason – you get to play.

LINDSAY: I love that. That is awesome. Okay. So, now, let’s talk about your kids now. So, you started out and you started with skits and just kept going more and more and more until you got to a play. I really like the idea that all of your students have to participate, right? I’m guessing it’s a classroom project.

PATRICK: Yeah, we work it into our ELA curriculum and, for a good month and a half, that’s what we do. The other middle school teacher at our school, he’s really great and takes on the backstage stuff so we can just get everybody involved.

LINDSAY: For your backstage students, what kinds of jobs do they do?

PATRICK: Well, we always create our own set so there’s painting the backdrops and making props and figuring out the lights and the sound – like, we have our soundboard and lighting system, but we get the kids to do it. Like, once the play is happening, the staff just stands there and watches them because they really figure it all out way better and I have to say, as the director in the play, it’s nice having the kids doing the sound because they learn the cues so much better than any adult would who would show up sort of the last day and go, “Okay, what’s going on here?” The kids are there right from the start so they know the cues and they do an excellent job of it.

LINDSAY: Well, it’s sort of a sense of pride and accomplishment, too. Those are not easy jobs.

PATRICK: Oh, yeah, and then they’re already asking, when the play is over, it’s like, “Can we do this next year?” And so, you can tell that they’re into it and they really like it.

LINDSAY: Do you feel hampered at all by being in a rural area or do you feel that we have nothing so we get to create the best theatre from nothing?

PATRICK: Yeah, I think it’s more of the second, like there’s limitations as to what we have – like, our backdrops, we have to go borrow them from other schools, and costumes – but we have a really good community of teachers that help us out that way. But, yeah, it’s fun being free to just create and do what we want to do.

LINDSAY: Speaking of which, how do the community and how do the parents react to seeing their kids do this?

PATRICK: Oh, yeah, it’s really friendly.

LINDSAY: Oh, that’s good.

PATRICK: The gym just fills up, and it’s not even just parents, it’s people come from all over – people I don’t even know who they are – and so, that’s really great to see that it can become part of the community fabric having us do these things and there’s a strong, like, Mennonite presence and they’ve got their own theatre – they do Low German theatre several times a year.

LINDSAY: Oh, what’s that? What’s Low German theatre? Like, just in a different language?

PATRICK: Yes, they speak Low German. It’s kind of closer to Dutch than German. And so, to keep their culture, the Mennonite culture, they perform in that language and it’s neat being part of that drama. Like, their dramas are often humor and comedy so I try to work with that into our plays as well and throw in the Low German jokes into the play – that’s always a hit. Maybe a bit pandering but…

LINDSAY: Well, it’s your audience, right?

PATRICK: Yeah, exactly.

LINDSAY: If your audience is having a good time, then you can do another play and another play and another play.

PATRICK: Yeah, and they’re really supportive and they show up in droves and it’s great.

LINDSAY: And so, you must have the support of administration as well.

PATRICK: Yeah, you bet. The administrator who was there when we started is not there anymore, but the new one has continued the tradition of, when I ask for something, they say it’s for the kids, “Let’s do it.” There’s not much hesitation. They figure out the details after so it’s really good, lots of support.

LINDSAY: That’s great. Okay. So, how long have you been doing plays with your students?

PATRICK: Five or six years now.

LINDSAY: And how have you seen the students change from being involved with theatre?

PATRICK: Well, because the ones I’m teaching now in Grade 8 were in kindergarten when we started – or when I started teaching there – they’ve been seeing us do plays their whole school careers and so they come in excited that they’re going to be part of it and they’re kind of chomping at the bit. By the time they get into Grade 6, they’re waiting for Grade 7 when they can start taking part.

LINDSAY: I wonder if that is also a benefit of being in a small rural community where that’s the event and so, because that’s the set event, there is excitement as opposed to a larger school with more outside influences or more the chances for students to not be interested in theatre.

PATRICK: Yeah, and you see that with Drama as well as sports. Like, just because we’re the smaller school, that everybody has a chance to take part. I do my utmost to make sure everyone who wants a part in the play gets one and that’s another advantage of writing it myself; I can add things in and take things out and change things around, change genders as needed, and adapt. And, when I write these plays, I have specific students in mind often for the different parts.

LINDSAY: Well, sure, because you see them all the time.

PATRICK: Yeah, so I work that.

LINDSAY: You can write for them.

PATRICK: And that’s really neat, too.

LINDSAY: Yeah. So, A Lighter Shade of Noir is sort of a spoof on the film noir genre. Why that?

PATRICK: I am not sure. I wanted to do a mystery and I’m not sure. Even there, I’m not a big mystery person, but I became one when I decided that. So, the better part of a year was just watching different movies and reading lots of Sherlock Holmes and sort of studying the genre so that I could comment on it, I guess. Like you say, it’s kind of a spoof – a satire on genre – so I didn’t want to do that without actually knowing it first.

LINDSAY: Do you use your students as part of your writing process? Like, do you bring the script in in various forms?

PATRICK: Sometimes. When I started off, I didn’t as much. But, in more recent years, I’ll bring it in sort of as I get through the scenes or the acts and run it by them and see what they think. And some of them have great ideas. Like, the ending of A Lighter Shade of Noir was completely different when I first wrote it and one of the kids in my class says, “What if he, like, tried to kill her at the end?” like a Grade 8 boy would say, right?

LINDSAY: Yeah.

PATRICK: And I thought, “No, we’re not going to… Wait a second!” and I went back to it and the ending is so much better because of that boy’s suggestion and that’s kind of neat, too.

LINDSAY: When you were doing this – and as part of a process – do you ever take your students through the steps on how to give feedback and what’s useful feedback or is it a free-for-all?

PATRICK: Mostly a free-for-all when it’s read to the class. Now, I’ve started up a writing club at school as well and that’s sort of on and off, depending on what the interest is, and it didn’t happen the last couple of years and then, this year, all of a sudden, I think there’s fifteen kids which, in a school of 200, is a lot.

LINDSAY: Yeah!

PATRICK: Yeah, it was really awesome to see. And, again, you asked before about, like, how the Drama gets mixed into the culture of the school, and that’s definitely part of it when the interest goes up and there’s, like, the first few years I did it, it was just girls. Boys didn’t participate. This year, it’s half boys and half girls, and so that’s great to see as well.

LINDSAY: What type of writing do you do in the writing club?

PATRICK: All kinds. Like, they’re mostly interested in just writing fiction, but I try to bring in some poetry into there and, of course, the Drama part of it. And I told them too, like, when I was their age too, I would just write fiction stories and I never thought I’d be writing drama someday. So, just showing them that format of doing it and what you need to communicate and what you don’t need to communicate is all part of the learning process, too. It would give me no greater pleasure to see a play by these guys someday, too. That would be really neat.

LINDSAY: Well, for me, that’s my waving flag moment. The act of writing a play, I think, is something that students find so daunting and just from getting from an idea stage to developing it to figuring how – exactly as you say – figuring out how to communicate only what you need and taking out everything that you don’t need and then getting to the end, I just think that it’s such a wonderful project for student writers.

PATRICK: Oh, yeah, you bet, and you can see the kids coming up through the years. I can spot these kids in Grade 4 and 5 right now that are just awesome at theatre stuff. I see them in the hallways making up their own plays and performing them for their class and it’s not any kind of school project – it’s just something they like to do. So, you see that and you go, “Okay, I can’t wait for them to get to Grade 7 and 8 and see what they can do.”

LINDSAY: Why is Drama important in middle school?

PATRICK: Well, there’s lots of, like I said, we tie in our ELA curriculum so you can hit a lot, at least the Manitoba curriculum, there’s lots of different outcomes that you can meet using drama and it’s such a vivid application of those outcomes as well and it makes it real when you have the community and their friends and their parents and grandparents coming to actually see what they’ve done – that’s an audience that you don’t get with a lot of other things that they would do in ELA class. So, yeah, and just bringing something to life like that, even the backstage parts of things, those kids are equally proud of it, I would think. Some of them are so gung-ho for the project. They wouldn’t want to step on stage for the project, but knowing how to pull together something like that, it gives them a real sense of leadership.

LINDSAY: What’s the balance for you on a project like this between process and product?

PATRICK: How do you mean?

LINDSAY: Well, what do you think is more important for them to get to that final product and put it in front of the audience or is it all of the steps that go into the process beforehand?

PATRICK: Ah. Like, the process is kind of the part that you want to teach but, if you’re not aiming for a product that is something as good as you can do, then there’s not much motivation to go through the process. So, yeah, I think it all ties together that way. Yeah, it’s an interesting way to think about it.

LINDSAY: So, for you, it’s balanced – you need both?

PATRICK: Yeah. Another reason that I started writing the plays was I have gone to so many plays with my own students, right? So, you go to plays with 12, 13-year-olds who are kind of jaded from watching all these movies and they have all these commentary, right? You sit on the bus coming back from these plays and listening to their commentary about it. “Oh, they should have done this so it looked more real,” or “This part was funny,” or that kind of thing. So, all of that went into my writing process of going, “Okay, I think I can do something that they’ll actually really like.”

LINDSAY: Well, that’s pretty astute. If you’ve got middle school students who have the ability to not only form an opinion, but to not only just say, “I like,” or “I don’t like,” but, “I wish they had done this…” like, they’re being specific.

PATRICK: Yeah, and I’d sit there sort of attune to the students as much as the play that’s happening to see what they react to and what they don’t react to.

LINDSAY: That makes you a good youth writer, you know?

PATRICK: Yeah.

LINDSAY: I think that’s half the battle for writing for youth – being aware of who you’re writing for.

PATRICK: Yeah, and I’m sitting with my audience almost every day during the year so it’s pretty neat.

LINDSAY: Absolutely. Okay. So, that’s A Lighter Shade of Noir from Patrick. Patrick, what’s your favorite part of this play? What do you like most about it?

PATRICK: I don’t know. The interaction among the characters. I think my favorite character in the play is Tracy Dick.

LINDSAY: Yes.

PATRICK: Again, it’s a nod to the Mennonite last name because there’s lot of kids with that last name there. We didn’t have any Tracys so that worked out okay.

LINDSAY: It works well because it’s also a nod to, there’s the Private Dick, there’s the police aspect.

PATRICK: Yeah, but that character, every time that they interact, the exasperated frustration that that character feels in this group of detectives.

LINDSAY: Bizarre-o, bizarre detectives.

PATRICK: Yes.

LINDSAY: We have detectives and we have sidekicks and villains. Not only is the writing stylized, everyone has to act in a very stylized manner. Was that difficult to get your students to take on the sort of exaggerated posturing that would happen in a spoof of a noir?

PATRICK: They took that up pretty naturally.

LINDSAY: Yeah?

PATRICK: I didn’t have to coach a lot of that stuff. I kind of let them run with it and, I guess, when the characters are kind of caricatures like that then they can already tap into the stuff that they know about that type of character. Like, you had the old lady and, immediately, the student that I had playing her – Beatrice – knew exactly what to do. I don’t know who she was modeling her performance on but bent over double and couldn’t see properly and she really knew what to do. Like I said, I had certain students in mind from the get-go as I was writing so I could play off their strengths. The guy who played Trent Trowel, he had the right voice and demeanor for that part already. And then, I can have certain fun with that guy who would sometimes give me some trouble during class and I could make a part where he gets smacked around in the play a little bit.

LINDSAY: Okay. So, just to wrap up here, for anyone else out there who is in the same boat as you where you’re in a small rural community, there’s not an official Drama program, they’re doing Drama with their class, what would you say three pieces of advice would be to another teacher who is thinking about doing a drama or doing a play with their students?

PATRICK: Yeah, I guess the number one thing is to get everybody involved. So, whether they want to act or not, you find something that they’re responsible for so that they can be a leader and that keeps everybody motivated and working on something.

Another thing I guess, in a small community like that, then you have to make sure that you’re considering what the wants and needs of the kids are so that you can adapt for that as well.

And, yeah, get your community involved. Like, I had people in the community sewing dresses and getting me in the local paper and, like, the more that you can involve the community in the process, the better it is as well.

LINDSAY: Awesome. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

PATRICK: Yeah, you bet. Thank you for asking! That was great!

LINDSAY: Thank you, Patrick.

So, 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!

And I would love it if you all checked out Patrick’s play – A Lighter Shade of Noir.

So, Trent Trowel is your typical gumshoe. He’s searching the mean streets for crimes to solve and dames to fall for. He joins some of the world’s most famous detectives at the International PD gala. There’s Shirley Holmes, Jean Louie Phillip Eustache, Aunt Beatrice. But is this just an innocent gala? Will the world’s most dastardly villains foil them with a fiendish master plan? Oh, those fiendish master plans. Everything it not what it seems though – of course.

What I love about this play is that it’s not just the high style of noir which I think is a fantastic style to introduce to students just to get them to play around with the way that the language sounds. But it’s also the humor that Patrick brings to this style, you know, the play is A Lighter Shade of Noir after all. And, to the characters, you know, this play offers a lovely introduction to playing high stylized characters who also have something at stake. It’s not just about a shallow character presenting a style. These characters have wants and they pursue those wants and that is also something that we want to introduce to our students – that, when you’re playing a character, you have to give them something to do, something to want, something to strive for. That’s the foundation of all good plays!

So, go read sample pages at theatrefolk.com or catch the link in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode126.

Finally, where, oh, 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 you can find us on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you’ve got to do is search for the word – what is it? Oh, yeah, “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

 

Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

 

About the author

Lindsay Price

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