Episode 135: Starting from Scratch
Ruth Mirabella was asked to start a middle school drama program three years ago. They had the smallest stage imaginable and no sound equipment. Since she began, Ruth has more than doubled student interest. How did she do it? What did she do? How do you start from scratch?
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
Welcome to Episode 135!
You can find any links to the episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode135.
Okay. So, today, we are talking about building – not buildings – building.
How do you start from ground zero?
Ruth Mirabella did it and she’s going to tell us how. It’s a tour de force kind of energy that Ruth has and, I have to say, I love hearing stories like this. It makes me feel like drama programs are possible – they’re possible to start up, they’re possible to maintain, and they can thrive. You can start from scratch.
So often, the stories we hear are those about removal of the arts from school systems or from after school programs so let’s listen to a success story.
Take it away, Ruth!
LINDSAY: Today, I am happy to be talking to Ruth Mirabella. Hello, Ruth!
RUTH: Hello, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: Ah! Tell everybody where you are in the world?
RUTH: I am in Butler, New Jersey. Kind of in the northern part, about 40 minutes west of New York City.
LINDSAY: Ah! All right, awesome! How long have you been a teacher?
RUTH: Well, let’s see, I have been helping to run middle school drama programs for the past nine years. We started at one school. I started as helping out doing the choreography and kind of as a vocal coach and a general “hey, that doesn’t work, let’s try this kind of person.”
LINDSAY: So, the guinea pig person?
RUTH: Yeah, kind of – the “hey, the stage is not balanced, that’s not working, wait a minute, you know, we don’t have an entrance for this person” – you know, whatever it kind of was.
LINDSAY: You know what, everybody needs that kind of person who can just go, “All right, let’s try this and let’s hope nobody gets injured.”
RUTH: Ain’t that the truth!
LINDSAY: Okay. So, what we’re going to talk to you today is about you started a program basically from scratch.
RUTH: Yeah. Three years ago, the school that my children attended closed so we moved to a new school that had no drama program whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the school in general has a very little in a way of the arts. Like, they have a music program, they have an art teacher, but they don’t really incorporate the arts much into education which makes me a little crazy. And so, when they asked if I would start a drama program, I was like, “Sure, why not? How bad could it be?”
LINDSAY: Again, again, the guinea pig.
RUTH: Yes, and, you know, it was like, “Here, we’re going to give you some teachers to act as moderators but they have no theatre experience. One of them has a little bit but only, really, as an actor or actress onstage. She’s never ran a program or worked backstage or had any formal training,” which is fine because she was gung-ho to sort of take on stage crew which is great because it’s really hard to direct and do stage crew at the same time.
LINDSAY: Agreed. Were you bugging the school to kind of get into a drama program? Why do you think they said, “Hey, here you go, try this”?
RUTH: Honestly, because when the program we had started at the previous school had such a good reputation, when that school closed and we were looking at other schools, parents were asking if I was going there because they knew that I had done the other drama program and were hoping I would do one at this school.
LINDSAY: The voice of the parent is very strong, isn’t it?
RUTH: Yeah, it really is. When I sat down with the principal to talk to her – because it was a very emotional time when our school closed, because nobody wanted it to close and it’s just not a whole lot of fun – she had said to me, “A lot of parents have mentioned that you were in the drama program. We don’t have one here. Once you get settled, I think we should talk,” and she left it at that at first. And then, I think we were in school maybe a month and she’s like, “I think we should talk.”
LINDSAY: Awesome. Talking is good. And then, how did that go from there?
RUTH: From there, we chose what day we were going to meet. Now, they run a clubs program at the school. It’d be, like, every other Wednesday and the kids do BINGO or clay or chess or whatever it happens to be for the marking period, and I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, I need to meet with them at least every week.” That was the first big change for them. And then, we started out with no real idea where we were going and we started out the first few weeks with some theatre games and some improvisation. And then, the kids got really excited and I brought in a script I had just so they could kind of try it out and I handed out parts just like, “Okay, let’s just see what happens,” and, well, that was the beginning.
LINDSAY: How many kids were interested in that first year?
RUTH: The first year, we had 27 kids in total.
LINDSAY: Was that a good number for you? Was that a good number for your principal? How was that?
RUTH: She was very excited at 27. She thought that was great. I was like, “Huh! That’s all? Only 27?” because I was used to having, like, 80 at the school before. But we used to do musicals at the school before and the school that I did it in before, they called it Drama Club but it really was more like, “Hey, come audition for the musical and we’re going to put on a production.” At the new school, I was like, “No, I really want this to be more of a drama workshop. I want them to learn. I want them to not just ‘okay, turn left, turn right, stomp your feet three times.’ I want them to know why. I want them to understand a little bit better about upstage, downstage, use all the theatre terminology, work on character development and all that good stuff that makes you a better thespian.”
LINDSAY: Yeah. What was your background in terms of this? Why was that important? Why was having sharing that knowledge of theatre and the terminology and learning to develop characters and all that, why was that important to you?
RUTH: Okay. My background, basically, I did my very first show when I was in first grade and I took every opportunity to be onstage through high school. After that, I did a lot of community theatre and then I went to the American Musical and Dramatics Academy in New York City for a couple of years. I decided – although I loved theatre – the theatre life is really hard and I didn’t like the life of being in New York City that went with it.
So, I came back to New Jersey, spent time on classical music, got married, had a family, put them in school, and started a drama program. The director I worked with at the first school had no theatre background so she really had no idea on teaching theatre – to teach, you know, say, Stanislavski method or anything else. She was really just, “Hey! Let’s get everybody onstage where they’re supposed to be, let’s make sure they know their lines, let’s turn on the lights, and go!” and that was fine and that was great and it was wonderful that they had that opportunity and that experience but it always bothered me that they didn’t know how to develop a character.
You know, I’d ask them, “Well, why did you do that? Why did you enter in that fashion? Why did you respond that way?” or trying to get through to the kids like, “That character would never behave that way. They wouldn’t talk that way. Who is this character? Where did they come from? What’s their background?” and I never had the time to sit with them and really work through any of that.
So, when, at the new school, they asked me if I’d start a program, I was like, “Yeah, sure! But I want to dig a little bit deeper into how to build a character and why a set would be designed the way it is and why this character would wear a particular costume and just to get them thinking outside the box or to get them thinking at all in some cases. You know, they do so much in school or they just do rote memorization and, if that is all that a show is going to be, it loses so much of the magic. I wanted something else. I wanted something different. I mean, my primary focus was always on musical theatre and I feel like, even as a young kid, I missed out by not doing straight dramas. I was a music person so I always did the musical theatre and I wish I had sat down, you know, ten, twenty years earlier in my career to learn more about straight drama – to learn, let’s say, the Stanislavski which happens to be my favorite, but to really learn more about character development because, unfortunately, everything gets lost behind the flash and the costumes.
LINDSAY: It’s a presentational – it can be a presentational method as opposed to something deeper.
LINDSAY: And it’s just, you know, drama and education is a very specific thing and I think that I live in a province – which is Canada’s version of a state – where I have seen a number of people go into theatre programs, try to make it as professional actors, don’t make it as professional actors – or they get to the age where they’re like, “yup, this life, I’m done with this,” – and they go into teaching. I’m like, “That’s fine to have an appreciation of theatre and want to pass it on,” but there’s a very specific way to teach theatre that is more than – and exactly what you’re talking about – that stand here, turn here, smile here. I think that there’s so many things that we can really teach kids about being human beings through theatre.
RUTH: Oh, absolutely.
LINDSAY: I think that is, for me – and it certainly sounds like for you – that those are those skills that we want to pass on.
RUTH: I was reading an article – and I wish I knew where it was at this moment – where it talked about how, yes, it’s important to teach the arts but how we teach the arts is even more important. You know, we’ve all seen the art program where everybody draws the same picture and they color it the same way or they give you the same geometric design and they might have different colors but it’s the same geometric design and they call it art. Although that’s great and it’s an expression, it takes away ownership, I think. And, if you don’t give children ownership of the arts, their ability to say, “Hey, I want to turn this sideways,” or “I want to take and I want to move this object below that object,” or “I really think my character has this background so I think they would walk this way or they would speak more slowly,” or whatever it is – if you don’t give them that opportunity to explore, you really haven’t taught them anything.
LINDSAY: I think critical thinking and creative thinking, they’re partners, right?
LINDSAY: You can’t have one without the other. You know, you can’t think creatively without having that assessment like, “Okay, why does my character move this way? How can I support my answer, too?” so it’s not just like, “Well, you do a duck walk because…” It’s like, “No, he does this because of this line and this movement in this.” If we can get our kids thinking in that way, I mean, really, the sky’s the limit. I’m going to be very cliché about it!
Okay. That first year, 27 kids, how did you start on this journey of getting a little deeper with theatre?
RUTH: Well, I guess that, you know, we had done some just initial improvisation and theatre games. You know, the first thing I did with them was, “Okay, make a picture.” I find that that is one of the best icebreaker games you can do. You break them into groups. “All right, each of you, start the picture and then everybody add to it.” It’s funny because, three years later, they still want to keep playing that same game. Or make a machine and now add a sound to it. Now, slow the machine down. Those things helped them work together because we did grades four through eight and I find that there’s not enough interaction amongst the grades. I really believe that younger children learn from older children and older children learn themselves by being leaders. I love that I got to kind of mix up the grades.
And then, like I said, we handed out the script – the one I had had at home – and I said, “Oh, let’s try it. Let’s see how you like it,” and then they were like, “Can we do this? Can we put the show on?” and I was like, “Sure, why not?” Then, I really took a good look at the stage I had to work on.
LINDSAY: I loved the note that you sent me that it’s like, “All right, we’re the smallest stage ever!”
RUTH: It is the smallest stage ever. The school beforehand, I used to complain about the size of the stage. I’d kill to have that stage back.
LINDSAY: Okay. Give us a visual. How big is this stage?
RUTH: It’s only, like, 28 feet across. I mean, it’s tiny!
LINDSAY: The arts person in me goes, “Ah, 28 feet, hmm…”
RUTH: That’s like it, and it’s about the same in depth – maybe a little narrower. And then, once you get past the curtains, it’s actually narrower in the back. So, I think it’s only 25 feet in the back.
LINDSAY: That’s the weirdest thing.
RUTH: Oh, you have no idea. And there’s no real wings. The wings go to, like, a drop-off. They have these wooden stairs that are built that you’ll pull up the side of the stairs to the stage so you can get off without jumping – I’m not kidding. There is one curtain in the front that opens and closes and that’s it. That’s what I’ve got so it makes it very interesting.
Now, I kind of look at it as a challenge.
LINDSAY: It’s a great challenge, actually.
RUTH: It really is because you have to get creative. You really have to get creative. You have to not only think about how you’re going to play each scene out but how are you going to get everybody off without knocking over people trying to get on and how are you going to move sets?
Obviously, we keep our sets to the barest minimum possible – because I don’t really have a choice. The first show we did was actually one of the shows from Pioneer called Mother Goosed because I had 19 kids who wanted to be onstage and the other – what – nine, ten wanted to do stage crew – whatever. I was like, “Oh, perfect! Here’s a show, 19 parts, let’s go.” At one point, I had to have all 19 kids onstage and I was like, “Oh, well, look at that,” and the directions, you know, they talk about, “Okay, well, have part of the stage where people are in fantasy land and then part of the stage that’s your current timeframe,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s not going to work. I don’t have that much room.” So, we had to a lot of more exit and entrance movement than the play really called for. But the kids were great. I mean, I had no sets, I had no costumes. I had this little teeny tiny stage. I had to go to the music ministry – and, luckily, I’m friends with them at the church because it’s a Catholic school that I work at – and ask for help because I had no microphones, I had no speakers. I’m telling you, I had nothing – no spotlights, no nothing. Luckily, they were very helpful.
And then, I had them do actual auditions for the parts and that was a lot of fun because it was interesting to see how the kids responded in an audition situation. Some of them really stepped up to the plate and I was like, “Oh, look at you – this person who just grew 10 feet tall on my little tiny stage.”
We put the show together, one rehearsal a week for three months. It was kind of crazy but that’s what I could do and it really went over well. The kids found their own costumes. You know, we spent a lot of time with the Salvation Army and other thrift shops. The only sets we had were a couple of chairs, a bench, and then, at the back of the stage, there’s this long wooden… it’s just a big piece of wood and it’s on two ropes that you can let down almost like a pulley system but through eye loops. We painted a canvas and stapled it to that piece of wood, pulled it up, and that was our backdrop.
LINDSAY: You know, sometimes, aren’t the limitations that you have – and working with limitations – I think sometimes that makes the best theatre because you’ve got to put that thinking cap on and figure out, “All right, this is what we’ve got, let’s do it.”
RUTH: It has forced me to definitely be more creative and to become very much of a problem-solver because every play I look at is like it’s just one big challenge to how am I going to and where am I going to and how are they going to get on and how are we going to fit them? Even for the kids, they get onstage and like, “No, no, no, you can’t spread out, no, no.” You know, “You have to actually pretend you like each other and get closer,” and they learn to work within those confines, too. And then, what’s great is when they have ideas and they come to me and say, “Hey, I’m having trouble coming on because of XYZ, what if I did this?” or “What if we added a little line over here to give me a reason to come from the other side?” or something like that. Whenever possible, I try to incorporate their ideas.
LINDSAY: Well, because then that’s that whole thing of ownership.
RUTH: Yes, and they always feel better and then, very often, their ideas are brilliant and they work because I feel like children have this freedom that I don’t have. You know, I was trained to do things a certain way. I grew up and I did a lot of stuff on the big stages with all the layers of curtains and the catwalks and everything, and these kids don’t have any of that so they’re almost not held by those previous notions of how something is supposed to work. To them, none of that exists and they can just say, “Hey, let’s do this, let’s do that,” and – I swear – I learn more from them sometimes than they learn from me.
LINDSAY: It’s a pretty exciting when that happens, I think.
RUTH: It is. It makes me feel like I’m doing something right.
LINDSAY: Okay. So, that was your first year. Now, you have just completed – or you’re nearing the end of – your third year, right?
RUTH: Yes, we just finished last week. All we have left is our wrap-up party.
LINDSAY: Awesome. So, where and how have you grown?
RUTH: This year, I had 60 kids.
LINDSAY: You have the same stage…
RUTH: Same stage.
LINDSAY: 60 kids…
RUTH: 60 kids, and it was interesting! I had 50 of them that wanted to be onstage and 10 of them who wanted to do stage crew. This year, I reached out because I wanted to do something a little different. Last year, we did another play that required, you know, we painted a backdrop and hung it up and I said, “Uh, I don’t want to do another backdrop this year. I want to do something different.” With 50 kids, I read an awful lot of scripts, looking for a combination of plays – because I find it easier to do two or three smaller ones than to try to do one big one – that I could accommodate 50 kids because, if they want to be onstage, I want them to have that opportunity. So, we did two of your plays. We did School Daze and Hoodie. It worked out great because both of them are vignette style and I found a dad – I found two dads – one was a carpenter and one was a contractor. One built me stage flats and the other one built me stage boxes. I was able to kind of change up the look of the stage a little bit without having to do anything big and huge. We let the kids paint the back wall on the stage black and graffiti it so that was very fun. Stage crew thought that was great that they got to paint on the wall. It was tough. I mean, you know, that opening in School Daze with the three vignettes onstage? Whoa! That got a little tricky!
LINDSAY: Close quarters.
RUTH: Yeah, close quarters. But, you know, I borrowed some spotlights from somebody and that really helped highlight where people were supposed to look and I pulled those steps up to the front of the stage so we could use a little bit of that space and the shows were well-received. The kids had a great time. It took a while because vignette style is not something they had ever seen before – most of them – and they just couldn’t understand how it went together until we got to run from scene to scene to scene and then it all fell into place and then they got really excited. But, yeah, we went from 27 to 60 in three years. That’s huge.
LINDSAY: That is huge. Well, that just says that there’s, first of all, that there’s interest and that the program is good. They want to stay around.
RUTH: And most of my kids keep coming back. This was a rough year because this was my daughter’s eighth grade year – my older daughter – so this was her last show with me. She’s been doing them with me since she was in kindergarten so that was kind of tough. It was her and her friends for their eighth grade year which made it extra special in a lot of ways and extra hard to watch the final bows. And, by the way, I did get all 60 kids onstage for final bows.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Of course, you did!
RUTH: I have to tell ya!
LINDSAY: Of course, you did!
RUTH: I was like, “All right, guys. You’re just going to have to squish in and love each other a lot.” We even used those stage boxes in the bows because I need to get some kids raised up a little bit higher.
LINDSAY: Well, basically, I think what we’re really learning here is limitations schmimitations. There’s nothing that can’t be accomplished – from a small stage to a school that has no program to just figuring out your limitations. Ask people. I think that’s the biggest one, isn’t it? Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
RUTH: Oh, no, absolutely not! Like, last year, we tried to print the playbill in-house – that didn’t work out so well. This year, I went to a local printer and I explained to him, “Hey, look, it’s a small Catholic school. I really don’t have any budget. I will put the playbill together. All I need is you to print it,” and he gave me a ridiculously lowball price. I was like, “I think he just charged me for paper, really.” I was like, “Oh, this is great!” but just because I went in and I asked him, you know? And I asked for the spotlights and I asked people to help build things and I even had one of the parents offer to go out and buy pizza and stuff for the kids at rehearsals. You know, when people start to support the program and you open them up to what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and you ask, you do, you have to go out and ask people and talk to them, most people I find are helpful. They want to help. You know, they kind of want to be part of it in whatever way they can.
LINDSAY: Talk about how you’ve seen the impact of this program at this particular school. How has this program impacted the community, the students, the school itself?
RUTH: This year, we had a lot more families who did not have children in the program come out to see the program. That, in and of itself, was huge because people who go to the school live in, like, ten different surrounding towns. But people who don’t have kids in the program came out to see it and to support the school. That helps to build the community environment at the school and that was great.
I had one girl. I’ll give you one really amazing success story. There was one girl who came out for drama this year and, when I held auditions, I thought to myself, “Whoa, she’s struggling. She’s struggling just to stand on that stage and read the lines that are written on the piece of paper in front of her.” I noticed that, when she’d come to drama, you know, I’d greet them all, “Hey! How are you doing?” whatever. She would say “hello” but she wouldn’t raise her chin. She wouldn’t really look at you. She would just sort of mumble “hello” and keep going. So, I knew. I was like, “Okay, if she gets through her scenes with her lines, that’s a success.” Can I tell you that she raises her chin and says “hello” now. The principal came up to me after the first show and was like, “I can’t believe she’s up there, I can’t believe she got her lines, and I can’t believe she’s looking directly out into the audience and she’s not afraid.” Like, you would never know, to see her onstage that, if you ran into her in the hallway, she might not make eye contact because she had no problems up on the stage by the end. That, in and of itself, was awesome.
We had a lot of kids this year come in from another school that closed. It’s a bit of an epidemic around here right now with school closings. And so, the new kids got to integrate better into the kids who have been at this school for several years. And, after a while, like in the beginning, like the kids from new school sat in one place and the kids from the school we’re at sat on another. And, by the end, everybody was just one big mix. It didn’t matter. So, that was kind of nice to watch.
Overall, people have been stopping me and telling me what a great job we were doing, what a great program it is, how excited they are to see their kids or their friends’ kids or kids they’ve known since kindergarten up on stage. And, as I said, the school itself does not have a lot of arts. But, this year, they did do a biography day. It was the first time they’ve done it since we’ve been there. And one of the classes did a wax museum. Another class was actually like the tour guides in the museum. Some of the classes, they had to stand up and, like, you’d go by and you’d push the little button and they’d have to give their biography. It was interesting to watch some of the kids who, three years ago were afraid to get onstage, just give that biography as if they were completely comfortable speaking in front of an audience.
So, between the kids stepping up and being more comfortable speaking in public – which is so important no matter what field they ever go into – and then, I do think more arts programs are slowly starting to creep into this school with the wax museum.
The eighth grade did something called “mock trial” this year. I’ve never done it myself but they create, you know, there’s I guess a book and there’s all these different scenarios and you pick one and you create a trial. I thought that was pretty cool.
There’s been so much positive feedback for the drama program that I kind of expect to see more and more programs – little things that go on into school. I mean, I can even tell you a first grader memorizing poems and reciting them which is pretty awesome.
LINDSAY: You know what? Baby steps, man.
LINDSAY: Like, little steps and just keep every step moving forward us another step where this stuff is going to impact their lives. It’s awesome. Ah, it’s just awesome. I love it. I love it.
As we wrap up here, what advice would you give to someone who might be having the same inkling about starting something – or if they’re in the position where they have to start from scratch – what are a couple of pieces of advice you would give?
RUTH: Go for it! Go for it. Just do it. You’re going to come up against all kinds of obstacles. There’s going to be problems that come along that you’re not going to foresee. That’s okay. You can work around them when they come. But go for it is the biggest. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s more people out there willing to help you than you realize. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that everybody wants you to succeed. You know, whoever you’re doing the program for – whether it’s a school or a rec program or whatever – they want you to succeed. No one’s against you. They really want to see the program take off and grow into something amazing so they’re going to help you if they can. But you also have to stand your ground sometimes and say, “No, I cannot run a drama program where I only have the children once every other week.” Like, “No, it doesn’t work that way,” and, “No, if we’re going to run this and we’re going to do a performance, I need a tech week. I need a week where we are here every day and everybody is here for the entirety of the show. I don’t want to hear about baseball or lacrosse or whatever else they’re doing.” Sometimes, you have to stand your ground on some of the rules but go for it, take a chance. Every year, I think, “Oh, how am I going to do this?” and then every year it comes out great. You can do it so go for it, ask for help, but stand your ground when you need to.
LINDSAY: Awesome. That’s lovely. Ah, Ruth, I hope next year you just keep growing and growing. Maybe you outgrow the space and that means you’re just going to have to put your thinking cap on and work your way out of it.
RUTH: I’ll borrow some other space.
LINDSAY: That’s right, that’s right.
Thank you so much for sharing your story today!
RUTH: Oh, thank you! It was great to talk to you.
RUTH: Okay. Take care.
LINDSAY: Thank you, Ruth!
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!
Oh, there’s going to be lots of these. We’ve got new plays in the Theatrefolk catalogue that I’m so happy to get out into the world. Let’s talk about one of them – The Redemption of Gertie Greene and this is a play by Taryn Temple.
It’s sort of a reverse bullying story. That’s the thing that really struck me when I read it for the first time. All bullies have legends about them, don’t they? They have the strength of ten men and can turn you into a puddle of water with just one look. Gertie Greene is that kind of bully. Everyone stays out of her way because she has a mythology. She attacks other kids in the bathroom, knocks down teachers, gets suspended all the time. She’s your typical stamped-it-no-erasies bully – or is she? What if the stories aren’t true? What if Gertie isn’t the monster she’s portrayed as? What if Gertie just lives with the names she’s called? “Freak,” “Mean,” “Strange,” “Stupid.”
When Gertie is dropped unceremoniously into a middle school drama class, everybody kind of has to separate fact from fiction. The play is really about the transforming… it’s the power of kindness – the transforming power of kindness and the importance of standing up for people who can’t defend themselves.
I’ll tell ya, it’s a play – another play – I have many of these experiences which is one of the reasons I love my job so much but it totally made me cry on the page. I love that. I love having that experience. It’s an excellent character exploration piece for middle school.
Check it out. There’s a link in the show notes. Again, that’s theatrefolk.com/episode135 or go to our website – theatrefolk.com. We would love it if you did that. You can check it out. Read sample pages. Go. Do it.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every 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 also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for – what? – the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.