Episode 139: Talking About Issues Through Theatre
What motivates you when it comes to your students? For Josh Adell, a teacher out of California, it was the time and time connection between teens, violence, and mental illness. Being a drama teacher, he wanted to theatricalize this issue. The result was an experience that sparked incredible conversation about an often silent issue with students, parents, administration and the community. Talking about issues through theatre is powerful.
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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 139!
You can find any links for this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode139.
And I’m going to start this episode with a question.
What motivates you when it comes to your students?
For today’s podcast guest, Josh Adell, a teacher out of California, it was the time and time connection he was seeing between teens, violence, and mental illness. And, being a drama teacher, he wanted to theatricalize this issue and the result was an experience that sparked incredible conversation about an often silent issue with students, parents, administration, and the community.
I think talking about issues through theatre is such a powerful thing and I also wanted to start off with a quote from a blog Josh wrote about his experience.
“Talking about mental illness through theatre is a life-affirming exercise that can help lead to mental health. For some, the experience can be life-changing.”
Let’s get into some more talking with Josh Adell.
LINDSAY: Today, I am talking to Josh Adell. Hello, Josh!
JOSH: Hi! How are you?
LINDSAY: I am awesome, and you?
JOSH: I’m doing great! Thanks! I’m excited to talk.
LINDSAY: Ah! That’s always a good start, isn’t it?
JOSH: For sure.
LINDSAY: Tell everybody where you are in the world.
JOSH: Well, I am in North Hollywood, California. I teach at a private school called Campbell Hall and we are a K through 12 school and I teach in the high school here. I teach three levels of theatre courses and I direct two main stage plays a year – one in the fall and one in the spring – and I oversee an evening of student-directed performances as well.
LINDSAY: Awesome. That’s a full plate!
JOSH: It is, it’s a full plate, and it keeps me really busy for nine months. And then, for three months, I spend time in my pajamas getting ready for the next nine months.
LINDSAY: And it takes three months, doesn’t it?
JOSH: Oh, totally. It really does, absolutely.
LINDSAY: Talk about how you landed into teaching. What led you to follow the path of drama and education?
JOSH: Well, I loved my high school theatre department. I grew up in Dallas, Texas. I went to high school at J. J. Pearce High School which is actually in Richardson, Texas. I just fell in love with theatre. I was a drama kid and it really saved my life and just gave me a home and it was what I wanted to do. The day after I graduated high school, I started my very first teaching job teaching theatre to five-year-olds and also teaching a marionette puppetry class to kids and I had no clue what I was doing at all but it was very telling of which path I would go down I think that I started at 8:00 in the morning at the Richardson Recreation Center the day after I graduated high school.
LINDSAY: I’ve got to tell you; that’s diving in deep. That is a choice in the making. Right after high school, not acting, but teaching.
LINDSAY: I love that.
JOSH: Yeah, it was an incredible experience and I just felt so deeply passionate about those little five-year-olds and I wrote them a little play and they performed it in the park. We had a little dinner theatre situation and it was really terrific and I was fortunate enough to be able to go to New York University and study theatre and I taught every summer when I was back home in Dallas. After college, I moved out to Los Angeles where I did a lot of theatre – acted in a lot of theatre and acted in a little bit of film and television but I always taught to pay the rent and loved it. After about ten years, it got to a point where I would be disappointed if I had to find a substitute for my class because I either had an audition or a TV job. It was like I was generally sad and felt like I would really miss the kids a lot. So, I called my agent and said, “I’m out. I’m going to into full-time teaching.” There just happened to be an opening here at Campbell Hall and I’ve been here for fourteen years now.
LINDSAY: You know, there’s always that moment when you’re going to change your life and it’s the two roads diverged and it’s always amazing when you realize – because I wanted to be an actor when I was a teenager and I had that moment when I realized it wasn’t what I really wanted, you know?
LINDSAY: And what made me get up in the morning. It really sounds like you had that experience, too.
JOSH: Big time. I totally did. When I graduated college, my graduation gift from my parents was a trip to Russia where I would volunteer for the summer teaching theatre to kids. If I look back at all of the major events in my life, teaching was always a major part of it.
LINDSAY: That is some gift from your parents.
LINDSAY: Go to Russia and teach. That’s pretty awesome! See, they knew; they knew before you did.
JOSH: Absolutely! Absolutely, it was totally amazing. I have to say, the past fourteen years have gone by so fast. I’ve learned more about theatre and acting and directing and playwriting than I think I ever did outside of school – you know, in the “real world.” I feel so equipped with just a vast and deep theatre education that, you know, it’s a gift to be making theatre all day long. I’m so fortunate.
LINDSAY: It’s pretty awesome to look at it that way, too. And to never look back at the choice that you have made with, “Oh, would have, could have, should have…” and it’s like, “No, this was the path!”
JOSH: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. I adore my students. I’m still in touch with many of my students who are now older than I was when I started the job here and, yeah, I am a very fortunate dude.
LINDSAY: Okay. Well, let’s get into the main part of what we’re talking about today in which you wrote a play – called “The Mental State” – for your students and there’s a lot of different things I want to get into. The first thing is you wrote a play for your students. When was it that you made that switch in that it wasn’t just you were going to be teaching drama and education? You wanted to make something very specific for your students and you wanted to take on writing. Had you written before?
JOSH: Yeah, I had. I’d written before some short plays for younger students and some short plays for class work but I was starting to get… I don’t know if it was an itch but I started to feel like, you know, I mean, it’s a real struggle to find the perfect play for any given year. I mean, there are so many factors that are involved. Who are the upper class men? How many males? How many females? You know, if it’s a musical, how’s the string section this year in the orchestra? How many plays have we done that have been set in New York City? You know, I mean, my goal was to have, for every four years, to have a diverse selection of plays and styles so that, you know, a high school kid will have tasted a little bit of everything so that they’re prepared for what’s out there next, you know, so that they’ve built somewhat of a range by the time that they graduate here. I’m starting to feel like I… you know, I love directing. I mean, the material out there, there’s a wealth of brilliant dramatic literature out there but I was starting to feel like there’s something I feel like I want to say and I feel like the students are the perfect people to say it.
So, I spent about a year sort of kicking around ideas and then there was a series of shootings – mass shootings in Colorado and Newtown. About a week after Newtown, my body just said, “You absolutely have to write something for your students and for this community here at Campbell Hall,” and it became something that I just could not stop thinking about constantly. It was the first thing I thought of in the morning when I opened my eyes, it was the last thing I thought of when I went to sleep.
I spent a couple of months just journaling and reading everything I could. I put together a proposal for my administration. It was about a five-page proposal and it talked about some general story ideas. I talked about why I felt this was important for the community. I wrote about why some of the research I would be doing and that this would be a two-year writing project that hopefully I would direct in the fall of 2014 which I did this past fall. I mean, the administration has always been incredibly supportive and that’s another thing I’m so fortunate to be around.
LINDSAY: A good space.
JOSH: Oh, man, they are so, so trusting and open-minded and they want our kids to be challenged – emotionally and psychologically, spiritually. They said, “Go for it.”
LINDSAY: The best thing and the most terrifying thing, isn’t it? Because, if they had said no, you could have been like, “Okay, I tried!” and it’s like, “Okay! Now, I have to write the thing!”
JOSH: Yes, exactly. I remember, I went home, I told my wife. I said, “Yeah, they were all for it.” She looked at me and she said, “What’s wrong?” Yeah. And then, I wrote the thing. I spent the summer of 2013 writing and writing. At the end of the summer, I held a workshop. It was actually a two-day workshop with about thirty alumni from Campbell Hall who were back from their various college programs. That was unbelievably helpful. I mean, the feedback I received was so smart and intelligent and consistent and it really gave me the confidence and the tools to really create what I felt was a good production draft or rehearsal draft.
LINDSAY: Okay. So, at this point, you’re writing about mental illness.
LINDSAY: In your first draft, what was your sort of thesis? What was your drive?
JOSH: Well, the idea, really, the controlling idea was that there are so many components that go into what drives teenage violence and, when we read the news stories, we do not know what those components are – all of them. We make our judgments and we either write someone off as crazy or we blame fire arms in America, you know? The media is very quick to take one angle. I mean, the politicians are quick to pick one angle and drive that home. I mean, you take a step back and, I mean, it’s so many factors that go into this one explosive or tragic event – like socio-economic realities, the education system, the community health system and what kind of funding that gets from the state and the federal government, the familial dynamic, what’s going on with the parents, what’s going on with any siblings, and the fact that this country has been at war since 9/11 factors into a lot of the psychological realities. So, the play was motivated by this mass shooting but it really became I guess a tapestry of all the conditioning forces that can lead to this final result. I did a lot of research on serious mental illness and there are a lot of people and there are a lot of teenagers who need help and who don’t have the resources to get it and I was hoping that, with this play, I could make people aware of that and motivate people to vote for politicians who support mental illness research or funding for community mental health centers or I could motivate people to get involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness or simply to have teenagers perform this play and feel like they’re not alone.
JOSH: That their voice can be heard. I really realized that when we started the rehearsal process.
LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s always amazing to me. I really think that the best issue plays have to speak on two levels and that issues are always epic, you know, particularly something like this which has, as you say, so many factors and so many arms that you could go down. What it really boils down to is can a character on stage speak to someone in the audience and somewhat that little light bulb just says, “He or she is saying exactly what’s in my head and I didn’t think that that was possible.”
LINDSAY: I find that a big responsibility as a playwright.
JOSH: Yeah, I was very nervous. I was nervous. I did not want to come off as insensitive toward this subject matter. I did not want any sort of messages to be confused. During the rehearsal process, I had kids come up to me and say, you know, “I have a family member” or “my dad has a brother” or “I didn’t know if you know this about me but I’ve been in therapy for years.” Through the rehearsal of this play, people, students started to become very comfortable and very open in talking about whether it was OCD or ADHD or someone in their family who has a serious, serious mental illness such as bipolar with psychotic features or schizophrenia. There was just a real openness which I didn’t anticipate happening but the breaking down of the stigma was just organically happening because we were surrounding ourselves with this subject matter. And then, when we performed the play, I was so moved by the audience’s reaction and the goal was to create a discussion here on campus about serious mental illness and teen violence. I had just audience member after audience member come up to me and say the same thing. “Wow, I have a brother who has dealt with this for years and years and years.” Or, you know, “I’m a lawyer and I work in the L.A. County system and you wouldn’t believe the cases we deal with where there’s no help for people with serious mental illness.” And so, there was quite a conversation and it was very, very moving. It was quite an experience.
LINDSAY: Well, I always like to say that the last page of an issue play is what happens after the play is over.
JOSH: So true.
LINDSAY: What’s the discussion that’s going on? What’s the conversation? That’s where I just get so worried about places that don’t want to talk about the issues that teenagers are going through and they’re just like, “Okay, if we don’t talk about it, it’s not happening.”
LINDSAY: And about how amazing conversation is.
LINDSAY: Particularly with teenagers. So, having them open up like that. I was just talking to a teacher – she was doing an issue play – and it was unexpected for her as well that the students really opened up and she was unprepared to sort of handle that aspect of it. How did you handle the students opening up and sharing this very private topic with you?
JOSH: Well, the program I run here, I teach a lot of Stanislavski based work and Lee Strasberg method work and a lot of emotion comes out. Kids are sort of aware that that’s a strong component of the program – that kids are laughing hysterically or sobbing from minute to minute in classes and in rehearsal – and they get into the program because of that component – because they need to explore their emotions, they need to express their really strong feelings. And so, it was, I think, a terrific relief to have kids open up about the issue of mental illness whether they were directly affected by it or indirectly affected by it. It was a huge relief. It felt like we were right at home in this material and I was so grateful to them for reading the material and responding and really listening to the material and then sharing it back with me. It was really a beautiful experience and I was so grateful. I remember we did the Laramie Project about five years ago – oh, my god, I think it was more like nine years ago.
LINDSAY: All the time, it just passes.
JOSH: Yeah, it goes fast. I’ll tell you, I was shocked then too with the way that the students read the material, listened to it, connected with it, and shared it back with me and then with their audience. I agree; I mean, I know that there are administrators out there who feel like, “Well, it’s better not to talk about it because then we won’t be responsible for something that could happen,” or, “We’re afraid that, if we talk about it, something bad is going to happen.” But, I tell you, the administrators who understand the art of conversation and dialogue and honesty and authenticity, they understand that the rewards from that are so profound and so deep – I mean, our campus in the past fifteen years has changed so much because the administration supports really open dialogue here and, if there is an administrator listening, I hope that you would trust that maybe you can trust that that open dialogue is a huge benefit for the health and well-being of the community.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and nothing good comes from silence.
LINDSAY: So, what a wonderful experience this has been. It’s been a rollercoaster two years.
JOSH: Yes, it has, and I can’t wait to try it again. I’ve got so many ideas running through my head and I’m thinking about, and the beauty is I didn’t have to rush it – and I won’t have to again whenever I settle on something I want to write. You know, I’m here and I have no plans to go anywhere. And so, it’ll happen in its organic amount of time.
As we wrap up here, what advice do you have for someone listening? A teacher who is in the same boat, in the same struggle? They can’t find the play that works for their students but they’re afraid to take that step and write something perfect for their group that might be very beneficial for their group, what advice do you have for them?
JOSH: Well, that’s a great question. I would say that nobody knows your students and your theatre and your community better than you do as the theatre teacher there. You know your theatre students. You probably know more about them than their parents do maybe. You certainly spend a lot more time with them. And so, listen to them. You know what their needs are. You know what their needs are artistically but you also know what their needs are emotionally and you know what they need to say. Trust that they want material. They want your material and high school kids are so open and willing to try things. They have so much to say. If you write in a way that will honor them – which you can because you know them – they will be there and they will do wonders for your play that you would never imagine.
LINDSAY: I think that ties it up in a nutshell. “Write in a way that honors your students.”
LINDSAY: You know, that’s really all you have to do. Write in their voice. You know them so you hear their stories – all day, every day.
JOSH: So true!
LINDSAY: Yeah, awesome. This has been lovely. I know, when we exchanged emails, I was like, “No, this is a story that is a really great one to share.” Congratulations on your journey!
JOSH: Thank you so much, Lindsay! I am so grateful for the opportunity. It feels so good to talk about it.
LINDSAY: Oh, awesome!
JOSH: It’s therapeutic for me to talk about it. Thanks for the support and the encouragement. It means a lot to me.
LINDSAY: Thank you so much.
JOSH: Thank you, Lindsay. Have a great day!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Josh.
For any links from this episode, go to theatrefolk.com/episode139.
You know, I just had a conversation with some teachers whose school board policy seems to be, when it comes to issues, no talking. For example, plays about suicide are not allowed – not allowed to happen. I don’t know. That just seems to be for the benefit of administrators rather than students. It’s ludicrous to me to say, “Oh, well, you know, we can’t have that because, you know, if it triggers somebody…” If it triggers somebody, what? You know? Like, maybe there can be a conversation? Maybe, when you do an issue play, maybe you have social workers? Maybe you have people that they can talk to so they don’t feel alone? Instead of just going, “Oh, no, we just won’t do it. We won’t do it. If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t happen.”
I’m sure there are many of you out there who are dealing with the exact same thing. It just drives me batty.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
On this whole topic, I really just wanted to mention a recent added issue play of ours without the singing that I usually do. It doesn’t really seem appropriate.
Check out The Butterfly Queen by Christian Kiley. The Butterfly Queen opens with the sound of gunshots and a teacher telling her students to hide so that, when the shooter comes into the classroom, she’s the only one he sees.
The play is not so much about that specific experience but it’s about the notion of sacrifice. What will you do to help others? Do you have the capacity to put others before yourself despite the consequences? It’s a play that starts a conversation and, further to that, has a beautiful physical component that I think makes the whole thing a vivid theatrical experience both for actors and for the audience.
So, I’ve got a link in the show notes for The Butterfly Queen and you can also go to theatrefolk.com and read sample pages.
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 also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And keep talking. I think that’s the only thing I have to say. I don’t know what silence helps.
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.