Episode 170: Musical Theatre in the Drama Classroom
Have you ever considered including musical theatre in the drama classroom? Does the thought of singing in front of others scare your students to death? Does it scare you to death? If you’re going to offer a full range of theatre subjects in your curriculum, musical theatre is an important piece. Listen to teacher Colin Oliver talk about why he includes musical theatre in his program and why you should too, even if you have students who will never sing a note outside of class.
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 170 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode170.
Today, we’re… cool, see? I’m already in the spirit of things. I already got a little song in my heart, a song in my voice, because we are talking musical theatre. More specific to that, musical theatre in the Drama classroom. That’s right; singing, I know, is something that terrifies many people, almost to death. You may be one of those people.
It’s one thing to sing in the car at full volume. How many of you are singing Hamilton on your way to and from work? It’s another thing entirely to do it in front of your peers.
But Teacher Colin Oliver, he includes musical theatre in his program and he thinks you should, too – even if you have students who will never sing a note outside of class.
Let’s hear what he has to say.
LINDSAY: All right! I am here, talking with Colin Oliver.
COLIN: Hi, Lindsay! Thanks for having me.
LINDSAY: Ah, absolutely!
How are you doing today?
COLIN: Very well. Thank you. How are you?
So, usually, I ask our guests where in the world you are, but we are actually in the same room. We are in the same location. We’re actually in a dining room which is not always usual but it’s the dining room of my sister and my niece. For those of you who might get our newsletter, we’re always talking about my niece and my two-year-old niece could be banging outside the door so we must get going. We must get going!
So, Colin, how long have you been a Drama teacher?
COLIN: I’ve just finished my seventh year teaching. I’ve been teaching Drama for five of those seven years.
LINDSAY: What did you start out?
COLIN: I was full English. Now, I’m part English, part Drama, part vocal music.
LINDSAY: Did you always have an interest in Drama or did Drama kind of drop in your lap?
COLIN: No, always, ever since I was a child, I was very, very interested in Drama. I did community theatre and plays at school. Then, continuing on through university where I studied theatre, I did shows and started teaching Drama.
LINDSAY: Where did the switch come for you from being a performer to being an educator?
COLIN: Ah, that’s a good question.
When I graduated university, a fellow student of mine and I started a small company called Theatre Recap where we started using these productions we were doing as fundraisers for different charities and not-for-profit organizations.
COLIN: We would produce original comedian work and partner with an organization whose cause kind of matched the thematic concerns of the play. And so, that kind of led into spreading awareness about theatre as a tool for social change and kind of giving talks and workshops about that stuff. And then, that kind of drove the educational impetus for me a little bit.
LINDSAY: Yeah. It’s always interesting to me when I made that switch from being a performer to being a playwright to actually being very involved in the education element of it. Was that something where you went, “Okay, we want to perform and this is the way we can do it” or has that social quality of it always been important, too?
COLIN: Yeah, I think the social aspect of it was a big driving force and kind of still is for me in education as well and looking at different ways theatre can influence people socially. But, certainly, that was my passion more than just performing was exploring theatre as a tool for doing those those.
LINDSAY: Well, I think what was the most interesting thing for me to learn was that, in the educational setting, like, if you really want to impact some change, if you want to get someone to be really impacted by a social issue, high school is where it’s at. Theatre can change their lives. Theatre can make them go, “I never realized XYZ” or “I am feeling the exact same thing.”
COLIN: For sure, and I think adolescence is a really interesting time where people are quitting viewing the world in black and white or quitting looking at things as just being one way or the other. And so, kind of students are opening up to the grey areas and they’re looking at things differently.
Again, being exposed to things that maybe they’re not actually aware of and learning about themselves and the world and their place in it, for sure. But I think you’re absolutely right – that identity of emotion across a spectrum of experiences is really kind of eye-opening, for sure.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. It’s so funny that we’re talking about this as a social thing when this is not our topic at all.
COLIN: I know!
LINDSAY: However, well, we’ll transition. Actually, we can talk about all things, but our topic today is actually musical theatre and teaching musical theatre and why we would teach musical theatre and include musical theatre in a Drama program or a Drama curriculum. Why is it important to you that musical theatre has a piece?
COLIN: I think there are a variety of reasons. I think one of them kind of just linking to what we just talked about.
LINDSAY: Oh, you go, you link. Go link.
COLIN: About emotion, right? I mean, it’s such a wonderful access point for so many people into the world of theatre. I have always found musical theatre to be incredibly accessible. And so, even if the situations are not accessible or relatable, it’s the kind of heightened emotion of the high stakes emotion that I find young people are particularly drawn to.
LINDSAY: Do you find that students who maybe with a monologue have trouble tapping into the emotional quality, do they find it easier when they sing or is that just me on a limb?
COLIN: I think that singing is, in some ways, more than just speaking. It’s such an expressive – emotionally expressive – method of communication to begin with. I think it’s very hard to sing without emotion. I think it’s much harder to sing without emotion than it is to sing with emotion. So, I think, in some ways, that is definitely true. You add in all the other anxieties that come from singing in front of people that maybe impedes or interferes with that a little bit, but I definitely think that it’s almost impossible to sing without emotion.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Cool! That’s one thing that’s a really good key for using musical theatre – emotion.
What else is a really important part of that piece?
COLIN: I think, in terms of practicalities, for me, my Drama department, we try to teach as if students are going to study Drama, especially in the senior grade.
So, we look at it as a responsibility to prepare them for pursuing theatre in other avenues of their life – whether it’s at a post-secondary level or even just as a personal pursuit or passion. I know that, in Toronto and the greater Toronto area, musical theatre is very heavily produced, very popular. We have a real emergence right now with mixed media theatre – theatre that’s employing a variety of different art forms. So, lots of plays that maybe five or ten years ago would have been produced without singing are kind of having music and dance and song added into them.
I really feel strongly about this part of the preparation of young people to go into the world of theatre and musical theatre is such a big part of that. It’s also more likely to have open call auditions in musicals which is not as common in straight plays or non-musical plays. So, I think there’s definitely, I feel, a necessity for preparing them for that climate.
LINDSAY: I know that there’s going to be folks who are listening who are like, “Well, that’s fine for the guy in Toronto, but what about those who are dealing with the non-singers and the students who are not going to go into the world of theatre?” Why is it important that they should do it?
COLIN: Absolutely, right? It’s kind of a tough sell. I mean, I have students, “You want me to what?! I need my art credits so I’m taking your Drama class,” or whatever.
LINDSAY: “Nobody told me I was doing any singing!”
COLIN: Yeah! “Sir, I thought this would be easy” kind of thing, right?
With the study of voice – whether it be singing or projection – you’re looking at learning a variety of helpful skill sets in terms of vocal control and projection, how to be heard clearly and safely, and those skills are applicable in a variety of fields – whether it be presentations in other classes or job interviews or what-have-you. That’s a skill that everyone can benefit from.
LINDSAY: Well, everybody at some point has got to stand up in front of a group of other people and express themselves.
LINDSAY: It doesn’t matter what job.
COLIN: That’s right.
LINDSAY: Interview skills, you know? Everything – everything, it’s got to apply. So, they’re just doing it in song.
COLIN: For sure, right? There’s a benefit to that. You might say, “Why? Why would you make them go through this song?” What’s interesting is, in addition to that, I’ve also found, after several years of teaching it, my students always seem to grow more confident as a result of the process which, in some ways, seems counterintuitive because they’re going through this kind of strenuous thing, but it’s like we build the community and we get them comfortable to the point where they sing in front of 25 of their peers. All of a sudden, they’ve done this hugely demanding, nerve-racking thing and then, like, your English presentation or your part-time job interview don’t seem that stressful anymore because you’ve kind of conquered this thing you never thought you would do.
LINDSAY: You know, I actually really like that – looking at it in terms of that perspective. Like, “Look, here’s a unit where they’re going to do something that they never thought that they would be able to do.” Maybe they’re not the best singers in the world and maybe they’re not headed for Broadway, but that confidence that they could get at the end of it, I can’t think of a thing that actually would be better. I feel the same way; I find that the same thing happens when it comes to playwriting because that’s another thing that students are terrified of doing and that the accomplishment that they feel when they write a play is just, “If I can do this, I can do anything!”
COLIN: Absolutely, and it’s certainly a rewarding thing to have, year after year, students come up to you and tell you, “I’ve grown so much more confident and comfortable with myself and with other people from studying this or from learning this.”
LINDSAY: When do you use a musical theatre unit? Are you doing it in Grade 11? Were you doing it with your Grade 9’s? When in the year do you usually throw this at them?
COLIN: Definitely not right at the beginning, for sure!
For Drama not in the junior grades, I do it in Grade 11 as something that happens towards the end of the course and I make it actually often like an option so they’re doing a genre study so the whole class is divided into groups and takes genres is one way you could do it so that way you get the kids that are really into it maybe that are doing it.
You know, I don’t always do it that way. It doesn’t have to be done that way. But I think, certainly, the later in the semester, the better, because a lot of that establishment of safety and community needs to already have a really solid foundation. As Drama teachers, that’s something we do a lot of already and we recognize the importance of, but it seems to take on this whole other persona when we ask our students to sing. I mean, there’s just some fear that gets triggered in them that I’ve never seen before when I tell them they’re going to sing. So, I find, the further into the semester, the better, in terms of their comfort level.
LINDSAY: Well, I mean, I think it is one thing to do a monologue in front of an audience because you can’t necessarily screw up your speaking voice. But there’s just some people who can’t sing!
COLIN: Absolutely, for sure, there are, and I think that there’s this temptation to tell young people, “Oh, everyone can sing!” and they know that that’s not true. Not everyone can sing. I think that most people can learn to sing – reasonably or possibly well – and I’ve actually just bought a book I’m reading this summer about the science behind tone deafness and how few people are actually scientifically tone deaf and the vast majority of people can be taught or learn how to sing.
LINDSAY: I find this with playwriting. Do you think that people who feel they can’t sing, it’s because they’ve been told they can’t sing? Is it psychosomatic?
COLIN: I think there might be some of it. I think that certainly I’ve encountered with some students, often with teenage male students but not always, they don’t want to be able to sing.
LINDSAY: What does that mean?
COLIN: It’s not the identity they’re fashioning for themselves. Sometimes, it’s heartbreaking because I’ve had students that are actually quite naturally talented and kind of sabotage themselves and don’t sing well. And so, they don’t seem to want to be able to sing which is kind of weird to wrap your head around.
LINDSAY: Yeah, but, you know what? It fits the profile of a certain teenager. “I don’t want anyone to see who I really am” and also “I don’t want to ever want to make a mistake.”
COLIN: Absolutely. There’s definitely that fear of not even failure but not being perfect – the fear of the lack of perfection at something.
LINDSAY: And that’s the thing that’s really happening now these days. “If I can’t be perfect, why should I do it at all?”
COLIN: And so, singing is something that I say is easy to learn, hard to master kind of thing where you can be taught to sing but it’s hard to be the best, and who’s the best singer? That’s not a measurable thing, really, right?
LINDSAY: Well, and then, also, because then there are those people who are just natural singers. Like, I always think of Mandy Patinkin who has never had a singing lesson, you know?
LINDSAY: So, how do you construct a unit then when your goal is to sing – your goal is to perhaps perform a solo or be part of a group – and you’re very conscious of this notion that there are going to be those who perhaps can pick it up naturally but those who either don’t want to sing well or who have been told they can’t sing well or maybe the confidence is there and they don’t sing well, how do you deal with that in terms of getting them to put a piece together?
COLIN: I think, to start the unit, I always do an activity as an icebreaker. I call it “drawing your voice” and I don’t tell them really what I’m doing but I give them a sheet of paper and a marker and I say, “Everyone draw what you think your singing voice sounds like.” Inevitably, every single student has some self-deprecating response about their voice – even the kids that are really, really strong singers.
I think it does a couple of things. It allows the students that are really maybe nervous or shy or kind of self-deprecating, it gives them a chance to openly express their insecurities or their anxieties about the project in a way that is not threatening. Like, they’ve been provided with the forum to do that in which I think is really important, but it also shows everyone that every other student in the class has some insecurities or self-doubt about it as well. I’ve never once done that activity where anyone said, “Oh, I don’t have any worries about my voice.”
LINDSAY: “I am wonderful!”
COLIN: Right. It kind of levels at starting point a little bit in terms of everyone’s feeling that kind of trepidation and that it allows everyone to sort of move forward together or to feel like they’re moving forward together.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I like that, actually. Everyone’s on the same page.
Do you do the exercise?
COLIN: I do, yeah. I usually do it with them. I mean, I have insecurities about my voice, too. And so, it kind of puts everybody in the same place and then I get to be part of it. I mean, I’m also observing as a teacher, it’s a great activity because you get to learn what your students’ concerns are, but I think it’s important for them to see as well that I’m not above – like, I’m not the perfect singer that’s going to be judging them for what they’re doing.
LINDSAY: Do you do any modeling when it comes to singing or do you think it’s more important that they try this stuff out on their own?
COLIN: I model. I think that I can’t ask students to take a risk that I’m not going to take. I don’t think that’s fair. So, particularly in warmups, I model. You know, “Sing your vowels.” Show them kind of what I’m talking about. But, even when I work with the small groups or one-on-one, I’ll sing the part for them or I’ll sometimes, when they’re nervous, I’ll sing it with them. You know, sometimes, they just feel like they need a security blanket – a voice to hide behind until they’re comfortable with it. But I think it’s really important, again, to take that risk with them.
The first time I taught this, I didn’t do that and I got the “well, you’re asking us to do something that you’re not doing yourself” which – fair enough – like I said, it’s kind of a monumental risk, right? People will get nervous about that. Even adults get nervous about singing in front of people often. So, I think it’s really important to model.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I think this is really important to talk about musical theatre – not as this thing where everyone’s going to go off and be Broadway performers but what are we actually asking our students to do? We’re asking them to risk. We’re asking them to get out of their comfort zone and accomplish something they’ve maybe never done before and I think that, as an education piece, it’s awesome!
COLIN: Well, that in of itself is a learning experience, regardless of what the product. You know, there’s process and product and the process is a valuable learning one as well. I think, too, in terms of kind of what your goals are, I mean, in Drama, you don’t even need to evaluate their pitch or how well they sing. I mean, if your goal is to get them to kind of convey or communicate character through a variety of different text, a song can be one of those texts and that is irrespective of whether or not they hit all the notes perfectly. They can still maybe deliver a powerful emotional performance without hitting the notes properly.
LINDSAY: That’s a good thing that students need to know, too – again, you’re not being evaluated on your perfect singing. You’re being evaluated on how you bring this character to life and this character just happens to sing.
COLIN: Exactly. The song is the script or the text you’re using, but it’s about your character delivery.
So, let’s wrap this up and you’re going to talk specifically to the teacher who is listening to this who is terrified of the thought of musical theatre – of teaching musical theatre, let alone letting their students do it.
What would you say are three pieces of advice that you would give to a teacher to say, “Look, musical theatre is unit that you should include in your program?”
LINDSAY: Not to put you on the spot or anything.
COLIN: I think that you need to acknowledge the fear that your students will have – absolutely – and be as reassuring as possible. I know, as Drama teachers, we support our students through a lot of risk-taking and I think, from my experience, that support that is required for asking students to sing is tenfold what it normally is. So, just be aware of that fear that they will have.
Secondly, I think that it’s okay to not be expert. I think it’s actually a benefit sometimes for your students. We were talking a little bit earlier about the drawing your voice activity. It’s comforting for your students to see that you’re not a world-class singer or maybe that it’s a learning journey that you’re going on together. It’s sometimes something students find really comforting.
Three, you’ve got to give them opportunities to perform for you before you evaluate them. that is the most important thing I can say if you’re going to teach musical theatre as a unit of study. They have to have sang their song several times in front of their peers and in front of you before you evaluate them because, otherwise, they’re defeated more often than not before they begin because their nerves just take control of them. I think that’s the single most important piece of advice if you’re doing a unit like this.
LINDSAY: You know, so many things happen with nerves that directly affect the singing voice, don’t they?
COLIN: Absolutely, right? If we look at our diaphragm and our breathing, if we’re shaking our breath wavers and that’s kind of instantly we lose the posture and the breath control that we need to sing successful.
LINDSAY: Okay, final, let’s talk about what is your favorite musical theatre piece?
COLIN: Like, pick a song?
COLIN: Oh, man, that’s super hard!
LINDSAY: Okay, what’s your favorite musical?
COLIN: Okay, my favorite musical is The Phantom of the Opera.
COLIN: I think it’s because it was the first one I saw when I was a child and it was like I came to Toronto, I came to the big city and I saw a real professional show and I think I’ve seen it three or four times since and I just love it. I like the spectacle. I’m a sucker for the glitz.
You know, Les Miz, I love the music and I went to see it and I was like, “It’s so drab and dark!” and I’m like, “Of course, it is, Colin! Come on!” But it’s like I love the glitz in Phantom, yeah.
LINDSAY: You like the masquerade.
COLIN: I do masquerades. In Venice, I bought the Phantom mask and I was in the Opera House in Paris a couple of weeks ago and my partner and I found each other walking down the grand staircase singing Masquerade. I don’t know. I’m a sucker for it, yeah. Masquerade is one of my favorite songs, too.
LINDSAY: Well, there you go – favorite song.
Now, what is a piece – or a musical – that, if you never heard from again, you’d be a very happy camper? What do students sing for you that you’re like “uhh…”?
COLIN: Okay, well, I banned Frozen from my classes, honestly, like, before it even happened because it was like… I just can’t. Like, you hear it everywhere.
A musical if I never heard from again I’d be okay? Oh, man, the risk of being unpopular, like, the Disney stuff because the kids are all over it which is great but I’m just, I think if I hear – what’s The Little Mermaid song? Part of Your World? A Whole New World? Yeah, anyway…
LINDSAY: A Whole New World is Aladdin. Part of That World – “look at this stuff, isn’t it neat?”
COLIN: Yeah, that’s right. If I just through one of more of these, you know, it’s hard.
But, yeah, in terms of an actual musical, I think that probably – what do I hate? Oh, The Producers. Couldn’t stand it; not my thing.
LINDSAY: It’s really interesting because my rule is, I think that, if I am leaving a theatre and I am not singing a song…
COLIN: Yeah, that’s a problem for me.
LINDSAY: What did we see? We saw A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I cannot name a single song. You know what? Also, 25th Putnam Annual Spelling Bee.
COLIN: Couldn’t name a song? You know what else I have to take a second to complain about?
LINDSAY: That was Craig Mason who is recording us right now who doesn’t usually make an appearance on the podcast but he’s just so excited to be involved, he’s got to chime in.
And you have to complain.
COLIN: The Jukebox Musicals – like, Rock of Ages, I saw it was bad. What was the other? There was another one that was similar to that and I can’t remember what it was but they’re bad.
LINDSAY: You know what’s hilarious? And we’ll end on this. We were in Iceland and we saw Mama Mia in Icelandic.
LINDSAY: All it was was character physicality and songs that I already knew. It was really awesome. They did a really good job because I’ve seen the movie and I know it’s not a great story. It’s a “I’m going to say some words that are going to lead me right into this song” but, when you’re not even thinking about the quality of the dialogue and you’re just looking at this thing, it’s almost like seeing Mama Mia in Icelandic is kind of like the uber-musical because it’s just music. Awesome.
Okay. Thank you so much, Colin! This has been awesome.
COLIN: Thank you so much for having me!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Colin! I’m still singing!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Colin is not only a teacher – because, you know, that’s not taking up any of his time – but he is also one of our instructors in the Drama Teacher Academy.
The DTA is a membership site. It’s our education arm here at Theatrefolk and it is just for Drama teachers where you can find an emergency lesson plan for a sub, where you can find an entire Drama 1 curriculum, where you can find professional development courses that you want to take, where you can find a community of teachers just like you. You don’t have to be alone again.
Colin’s course on musical theatre is upcoming and we’ve just posted a course on the production classroom. How do you produce a play during class time and keep every student engaged? We’ve also included a mock audition unit and, next month, we’re going to have two makeup tutorials and a great one on old-age makeup.
So, there’s always something new, there’s always something you’ll be able to take to your students immediately, and there’s always something that will make you the best that you can be for your students.
That’s the Drama Teacher Academy – dramateacheracademy.com.
You can also find the link in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/e170.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook and on Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can even subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.