Episode 61: Theatre Teacher Janice Harris
Janice Harris has been a theatre teacher for 30 years and only became one because her middle school students begged for a class. If you’re a teacher who’s been thrust into drama, if you’re just starting out and need a little motivation this podcast is for you. AND Janice is publishing her first play with Theatrefolk!
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Lindsay: Welcome to TFP, The Theatrefolk Podcast. I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello. I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
I am thrilled to death over this interview with theatre teacher Janice Harris. She has been a theatre teacher for over 30 years in North Carolina and she had very little background in it, did not pursue it out of school, and only became one because her middle school students were begging for a class. And that wasn’t enough. Janice was the epitome of perseverance. She had to pursue her administration for three years before they let her put together a drama class.
I love that. I would say that everything about Janice is the epitome of perseverance. We’ll be publishing her first play Mythologues, which is a collection of Greek mythology monologues, and I have to say I think that is an awesome title. It says exactly what it is. It is one of those titles that I wish I had come up with myself.
And it took her about three years to write. She’d only work in the summers, bring it into work with her students, and she never gave up. So if you’re new to teaching, if you’re feeling maybe a bit at sea, maybe you’re alone in the middle of nowhere trying to teach drama with no life preserver, you need a little motivation, this podcast is especially for you. So let’s get to it.
So we are here, we are standing outside. Just heard birds, oh there’s one right up there—at the North Carolina Teacher Theatre Educators…
Janice: Arts Educators Association.
Lindsay: Yes. How long have you been a member?
Janice: Since the start.
Lindsay: Which is how long is that?
Janice: I don’t know, 17 years, something like that.
Lindsay: Seventeen years.
Lindsay: And how long have you been—and you’re a teacher.
Janice: I am a teacher.
Lindsay: What do you teach?
Janice: I teach theatre arts. Right now I’m teaching creative writing.
Lindsay: Ah, okay. And how long have you been doing that?
Janice: Theatre arts I’ve been teaching about…hmm…30 years.
Lindsay: What got you into teaching theatre?
Janice: The kids.
Lindsay: Yeah? How come?
Janice: The kids going, “Can we have a drama class? Can we have a drama class? Can we have a drama class?”
Lindsay: Do you have a background in theatre?
Janice: I did not originally.
Janice: I did not originally. I started out as an English teacher.
Lindsay: I have an English degree as well, so. [Laughs]
Janice: Mm-hmm. And then the kids, “Can we have a drama class?” And finally we got one and I liked it so much I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
Lindsay: What is it about drama that you like?
Janice: The creativity.
Janice: The relationship with the students. I just love everything about it.
Lindsay: Yeah? What is it? Because it really seems that it is the students for you.
Lindsay: For me, drama is a way that they can express themselves in a way like no other, I think.
Lindsay: What is it about when the kids come to life…
Janice: Well, I always tell—you said it. Well, I always tell the kids, “You could do things onstage and you would never do it in real life.”
Janice: You can do exciting things that you would like to but you don’t have the courage to.
Janice: Because onstage it’s not you doing it, it’s your character doing it.
Janice: And so it gives you that safety, you know, of coming out of your shell.
Lindsay: Do you have any stories of students who just weren’t doing…weren’t accomplishing in the classroom and they really came to life onstage?
Janice: Yes, yes.
Janice: And I’ve got, you know, lots of experiences where teachers will come to me and say, “I can’t believe you got this student to do that onstage.”
Janice: Just their relationship with me and then the theatre is different from their relationship with their science teacher and their math teacher, you know, and what they’ll do for me and how they behave for me is totally different.
Janice: You know?
Lindsay: So when did you…was Mythologues your first play that you’ve written or have you written more?
Janice: I actually started another script, which is sitting on the shelf, based on a book.
Janice: The life of someone in North Carolina.
Lindsay: So you have been working in theatre for 30 years…
Lindsay: …and then it was Mythologues, which sort of you made the jump to playwriting.
Lindsay: So what was it about the whole situation? What was it about Greek myths or your students or the writing that just said, “Okay, I have to do this?”
Janice: When I’m teaching and we’re dealing with the theatre history, I like to have a place in with the curriculum…
Janice: …what they’re doing onstage. And for Theatre 1, so many…you know, for them to do Antigone, for example…
Lindsay: It’s overwhelming.
Janice: It’s overwhelming, you know. So I was looking for more familiar stories and I found some information…you’ll find things occasionally, some Readers Theatre scripts and that kind of thing, but I wanted something, particularly with the theatre ones, Beginning Theatres they’re called now…
Janice: …with a new curriculum where they could develop a character and learn those beginning movements, expressions, gestures, which is where I generally start out with them onstage, is with a small monologue.
Lindsay: Right. And so just sort of tying in the Greek…
Janice: Tying in the Greek mythology with the…
Lindsay: …to a character…
Janice: …with the ancient Greek theatre history.
Janice: That’s what we’re doing at that point.
Lindsay: So where did you start?
Janice: Where did I start with…?
Lindsay: With Mythologues?
Janice: With Mythologues?
Janice: Well, first of all, I just looked over a list of just characters and just started reading about a lot of different characters.
Janice: And then I would choose one to focus on.
Lindsay: Do you remember the first one you wrote?
Janice: First one I wrote. You know, I’m really not sure which were the first ones…
Lindsay: Well, how long has it been? How long have you been working on…?
Janice: About three years.
Lindsay: Three years?
Janice: Basically in the summertime.
Janice: Is when I write, because during the school year I’m too busy…
Janice: …to sit down and focus on that.
Lindsay: So what’s the writing process? What is it like for you, like when that first time when you sat down and decided, “This summer I’m going to do this?”
Lindsay: You started reading, and then did the character start speaking to you or did you just start free writing? Like what was your first step?
Janice: Well, free writing because I would just make notes, just random notes, just a fact here, a fact there, a quote from one of the ancient manuscripts or whatever. And then I would…and just it’s more of a mental thing. I’m not really writing it down. It’s more of a mental thing.
Janice: I would just start literally talking it out. I talk when I write and I talk when I read. And I like to hear what I’ve written. I want to hear how it speaks. And so I would start talking it out, and I would be talking on the computer as opposed to most of the time when I’m writing like an essay or something I’ll write on paper, then I’ll put it on the computer.
Janice: Good old-fashioned, that’s the way I grew up doing it, you know? But these, I usually would do like one…I try to do a couple of monologues a week during the summertime.
Janice: So I do like one a day and I sit down and I focus on one character, and I’ll work all day on that one character.
Janice: By the end of the day I would have something written and I would sit there and I would read it and I would listen to it, and I would go back and I would revise it and I would change it and I would read it out loud again as I’m sitting there, you know, or just speaking it, just listening to it, to how it flows.
Lindsay: And what did you…did you find sometimes that what was on the page didn’t fit when it came out of your mouth or…
Lindsay: …how was that really…was it helpful for you to just speak it out loud?
Janice: It was. It is helpful for me to speak it out loud and to hear it.
Janice: And to make sure that it’s exactly how I want to hear it.
Lindsay: Right, because that’s what theatre…that’s what dialogue is, right?
Lindsay: We don’t silent read, we…it comes to life.
Janice: Yeah. Yeah.
Lindsay: So what was it like the first time you brought them into the classroom? And how many did you bring in?
Janice: The first class. Um, I don’t even remember exactly how many kids I had in that class, and that actually started with an advanced class.
Janice: I let them start and they picked out the monologues. A couple of them didn’t get done. There were more…there were what, 31 titles I think in the book…
Janice: …and I don’t think I had 31 at that time. I think I had more like 25, 26, maybe 27.
Janice: There were a couple of them that didn’t get done but the kids really liked it. They responded very positively to them.
Lindsay: And how do you know that? What did they do? Did they get into it?
Janice: They really got into it.
Janice: They really got into it. They would read and they would share them with each other and they would talk about them, and then they’d come up to me and they’d say, “Right here,” you know, they’d point out something that it didn’t sound right or maybe there was a typo in the paper [laughs] or something…
Janice: …you know? So they helped me to refine the scripts just even before they started to perform them.
Lindsay: And then what was it like…because it’s different when we speak it out loud…
Lindsay: …but then to actually see it come out of another person, what was that like for you?
Janice: Oh, it was just awesome.
Janice: “Wow, I wrote that! They’re really doing it. It’s really good working,” you know? “It’s cool.”
Lindsay: It’s a wonderful feeling.
Janice: It really is. It is.
Lindsay: It’s one of the coolest things when you go, “Wow, that came out of my brain…”
Lindsay: “…and then I wrote it down, and then I finagled it, and then someone else did it, and it works.”
Janice: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I may have even had a student director at this point. I think I did.
Janice: That I let them sort of direct it on their own, and so they would come up, you know, “Can we do so and so?” And I’d “Try anything you want to.”
Lindsay: What kind of things would they do?
Janice: Um, the setting, how they wanted to set it, or perhaps more than one person onstage at a time would be either doing a monologue—you know, traditional monologue is typically one person onstage at a time—or the interaction of characters within the monologue and yet it’s still a monologue.
Lindsay: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Janice: You have the other person who’s there who’s reacting to what’s being said by that character.
Lindsay: Mm-hmm. Right. So, started writing them, and so the second summer were you writing more or were you revising?
Janice: The second summer I wrote more and I revised.
Lindsay: Okay. And then what was it like with a different class? How did they…?
Janice: It was interesting to see because the second time we did it I did it with the beginning theatre students.
Lindsay: And how did they do?
Janice: They did well but they were beginning theatre students, and you could see the difference between the beginning theatre students and the advanced students, which is why I made that note at the beginning of the script that it was written intentionally – when I started writing I was writing for beginning theatre students.
Janice: But the first workshop was advanced students, and to see how they just took that material and ran with it…
Janice: …you know, as opposed to the beginning theatre student who’s just first dipping his toe into a performance…
Lindsay: Do you think that was helpful? Was that helpful in your process to…
Janice: It was. Mm-hmm.
Janice: To realize that the script could go obviously in more directions than in the way I was thinking about it.
Janice: About it going.
Lindsay: That you knew it worked…
Lindsay: …so that maybe when the beginners stumbled a little that they just needed a little more time.
Janice: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Janice: A little more time, a little bit more coaching…
Lindsay: Right. Yeah.
Janice: …a little bit more direction.
Lindsay: Right. How did they take to the characters?
Janice: Very well, very well. They really got into it. Some of them they weren’t familiar with and it was interesting.
Lindsay: I was…that was one of the coolest things. I was like, “I’ve never heard of a couple of these, uh, Greek things.”
Janice: Uh-huh. Mm-hmm.
Lindsay: And then as I said that, you know, in a couple of ways the myths went in a different direction than I heard, and I just think that’s fabulous to be able to put that out there.
Janice: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Lindsay: So that’s really cool. So what made you want to take the next step with it, which is try and get it published?
Janice: I just thought, “Well, why don’t I see if I can get this published?”
Lindsay: Do you feel like a playwright?
Janice: I don’t know. [Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t know what a playwright feels like. I’m just proud and, you know, excited that you would publish my script, that you would think that it’s good enough to publish.
Lindsay: What do you feel…how is your confidence level as a writer now that you’ve…? You’ve been through the whole thing now, because you’ve been through…you had an idea and you got it on the page, and then you let students work with it. So you’ve seen it alive, you’ve gone the next step and tried to get it published, and then we had a conversation and we said we wanted it to sort of have a bit more shape.
Lindsay: Then you had to go revise.
Lindsay: And then we moved forward with it and it’s going to go out into the world, right? So…
Janice: It’d be interesting to see how it’s received.
Janice: Yes, and to see who’s interested in it and what they do with it.
Lindsay: Do you see…can you even envision like strangers picking it up and dealing with it? What was that like? What is that like to think about a stranger…
Janice: It’s exciting. It’s exciting.
Janice: It’s very exciting.
Janice: And I’d like to hear…I’d like to hear their reactions to the material and their feedback, what they think about it, how it works with them and their kids, and what they do with it.
Lindsay: Right. So do you feel…well, you’re working on another play, so do you feel… Talk about what you feel like as a writer now.
Janice: It’s something that I want to pursue. I want to have more time to sit down and perhaps try writing more.
Janice: Yeah. So it’s something that I want to explore.
Lindsay: That’s very cool.
Lindsay: So is your theatre background just been what you’ve learned on your feet through work, through school or…?
Janice: When I was in high school I was in chorus and we did a musical every year. That’s where…
Lindsay: That’s where it started.
Janice: That’s where it started.
Janice: And then of course I was teaching English, but we had a friend who—this is sort of an aside—
Janice: —was on a recumbent wheelchair. She had received an injury when she was a child, and so she never walked from the time she was 4 years old till when she died. She never walked again. But we were living in Alabama and we would take her to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival every summer. We would go and we would spend several days at the festival, and then of course we would take our own children as they were growing up to see shows.
Janice: And—I’m trying to think—when I was teaching, sometimes we would do a play at school. Once or twice we did something.
Janice: Within a class we did plays. So when I was in that middle school and the kids wanted to have drama class, that’s where, and we finally got the class. And then I just had to sort of explore on my own because never having taught it, didn’t have any material, had to go and…
Lindsay: So what did you do? How did you… Because I think this is a…because you’re a pioneer, you know?
Lindsay: You’re on your own and you just found a way. So what did you do to…
Janice: Well, the first thing I did was the high school that I’m teaching at now. I called them and said, “Do you have any materials that I could borrow?” and they had a set of books that they weren’t using.
Janice: So I got those books and that’s where it started.
Lindsay: What were they?
Janice: It’s an old book called Rehearsal published I think in 1974, ’73. It’s really old.
Janice: But it’s got a lot of good material in it. And then I, you know…this was really before…I don’t remember how much Internet/computer we were doing back in the early nineties, but this was before you could go online and look up scripts and that kind of thing.
Janice: Somehow I got scripts, I got catalogues of scripts, and I would read a description of a script and order it and see if I liked it or not, so.
Lindsay: What was your determination? What was your criteria for what you saw in a script that you liked or not?
Janice: Well, I was looking for a particular type of play, a play that was fun, a play that had enough roles, male and female, for the students. Sometimes you’d have to have girls play guys because there’s typically in high school not enough guys.
Janice: Ones that were appropriate for the classroom. Monologues – we started off with like the one-minute monologue books and that kind of stuff.
Janice: So I was looking for things that I thought like that I could do with my students.
Lindsay: How did you learn to be a director? Like how did you…
Janice: Just by doing it.
Lindsay: Just by doing it?
Janice: Just by doing it. I had also done some community theatre by that time.
Janice: I had been involved in acting and stage managing and just working with the theatre process through that. So I had some…
Lindsay: You had base knowledge.
Janice: …base knowledge, you know, either from observational before actually being involved, either as an actor or crew member or whatever, so.
Janice: And I got a book about directing called The Director’s Survival Guide or something like that.
Janice: Yes, and you know, and I read that, so.
Lindsay: Can you think of the best piece of advice you got from all these things that you’ve sort of gleaned along the way?
Janice: I guess I would say, and it’s something that I really emphasize with my students, and the fact that it’s a team process.
Janice: Yeah, it’s a group thing. And I tell my kids when they came through that theatre door that they‘re a team, just as if they were in a band or the chorus or football or the basketball team. They’re a member of a team. And so we all work together.
Lindsay: And how do you instill that?
Janice: From that old Rehearsal book there is a statement that I make my kids memorize and I call it our acting method. It was, “Acting is a group enterprise. The finished performance is the first concern of the player as well as of the director. Discipline is indispensable.” And so they memorize that. That’s my homework on the first day of school.
And then the next thing that I do is I talk about collaboration. Before we start talking about anything else, we talk about the collaborative process and the different arms of theatre—the director, the actor, the crew, designers, the businesspeople—how they all work together to make theatre successful.
Lindsay: And what do you want your kids to leave with once you’ve had them for four years?
Janice: Generally speaking, they leave with self-confidence. They leave with a better self-conceptI think. And they do leave with that ability to work together as team members.
Lindsay: It always makes me so sad when drama is maligned…
Lindsay: …in the classroom, where I think that what you just established as what you want students to leave with, it’s not a knowledge of drama games, it’s self-confidence and teamwork…
Lindsay: …which will serve them forever.
Janice: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Lindsay: Do you feel really proud as a teacher?
Janice: I am.
Janice: I’ve enjoyed what I do.
Lindsay: Yeah. Did you always want to be a teacher?
Janice: Yes. I always wanted to be a teacher and never wanted to do anything else.
Lindsay: And did you ever imagine…I imagine that drama teaching wasn’t what you started out…
Janice: No, it was the English.
Janice: It was the love of English, which is, you know, closely related.
Lindsay: It’s got a connection.
Janice: There’s a connection there, you know, because you do have…drama is part of the English curriculum. So, but yes, I always wanted to be a teacher.
Lindsay: Okay, so as we end, I think there are…we meet so many teachers who were in the same boat as you in that they started out in something else and they sort of fall into drama because it’s…it’s necessary, but they don’t know where to start.
Lindsay: So if there’s one piece of advice that you could give to a teacher who is in the middle of nowhere, has no resources, and they’ve got kids coming up to them and saying, “We want a drama class. Can we have a drama class?” what would be your advice to that teacher?
Janice: Keep pushing your administration to let you teach that class, which is what we did.
Janice: And then, you know, with today’s technology can reach out and have so many more resources than I did when I was starting out.
Janice: So, you know, when I started out and I was just one little lone teacher who didn’t really have an association with other theatre teachers…butreach out through the Internet, reach out through organizations like NCTAE, ITS and other organizations and establish some relationships with other teachers. You can go through emails and blogs and chat rooms and all kinds of things with the other teachers now.
Janice: Sometimes you’ll see…on the Internet you’ll see somebody just looking for a play and they don’t have any idea how to…with the publishing companies and how to find a contact…
Janice: …how to find those contacts and how to find a script. Just reach out. It’s really hard if you’re a teacher out in the middle of nowhere by yourself.
Lindsay: It is.
Janice: And there’s nobody else around you doing that job. So, but with the Internet I think that makes things a little bit easier.
Lindsay: World is a little smaller.
Lindsay: What was it like when you went to your administrator and said, “Um, I’d like to do a drama class, please?” [Laughs]
Lindsay: What was it like?
Janice: I think I hammered onthat idea for probably two or three years before they finally…
Lindsay: Oh my God!
Janice: …they finally let us, you know. My husband says I’m like a bulldog chewing on a bone and won’t let it go.
Janice: Persistence, yeah. I think I hammered on that idea for a couple of years before he finally would even let us do that first class.
Lindsay: Oh, well, that’s pretty awesome.
Janice: And then after that it was a go.
Lindsay: So it can happen.
Janice: It can happen.
Lindsay: Janice, this has been really lovely. Like I just…when we meet our authors—it’s quite often that I never meet them because it’s all done through email and it’s all done through…
Lindsay: So, and it’s so wonderful to hear people’s stories. I’ve just had a…it’s been great to hear your story…
Janice: Thank you.
Lindsay: …and I love your idea about what theatre means to you in the classroom…
Lindsay: …because I believe that a thousand percent. And that’s always been my mission, that that’s what drama builds, that teamwork, that self-confidence…
Janice: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Lindsay: …and we got to be persistent, we got to be like bulldogs. [Laughs]
Janice: Yes. Exactly.
Lindsay: Thank you so much.
Janice: Thank you.
Lindsay: Before we go, let’s do some Theatrefolk News.
[Sings] It’s a play feature, it’s a play feature, it’s time to feature a play!
Jazz hands! Okay, so today I’m talking about Malled. Malled is a collection of two one-act plays by Colleen Neuman. You can get it at www.theatrefolk.com, of course. That title again is Malled. And yes, both plays take place in a mall. So the first is called Ellen, Alice, Mona, and June, and the second is Yes, Virginia, There is a Virginia. Both plays feature all-girl casts.
The first one is about the true nature of friendship and those really, really uncomfortable truths that only close friends can say to each other – very human, exceptional characters. And the second play is deliciously absurd. Yes, it is a delicious play which is just a treat to read, a treat to watch, in which among other things Virginia must answer the cosmic question: Is Ann Landers real?
Perform them separately, perform them together, go to www.theatrefolk.com. Search for Malled. So here is a little tidbit from Ellen, Alice, Mona, and June:
“Mona, are you going to finish your fries?”
“June, Alice never eats anything and you are like a vacuum cleaner. You had doughnuts in the car, nachos when we got here, and now a meatball sandwich, fries, a Coke, chocolate soft serve…”
“With carrot sticks, which is surprisingly not bad.”
“June, maybe you should think about why you eat so much.”
“Oh, now you’re going to fix me? Now I have a problem with food? Food is a condition of life. It’s like climbing a rope in gym class. Do you like it? No. Do you do it? Well, no. But you try. And you get a C. Next day in gym class you play basketball, which you happen to be pretty good at, and you get an A. Some days we get C’s, some days we get A’s, some days we flunk – depending on the conditions of life that day. We don’t get to pick the conditions. The trouble with most people is they forget that. They have one bad day and they fall apart. Conditions change and food is a condition of life that produces joy. I eat, therefore I am joyful. These carrots are so good. I’m getting a salad.”
That’s Malled, Colleen Neuman, www.theatrefolk.com. Go there. Get it. Do it. Now.
Lastly, where oh where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at Theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/theatrefolk. You can find us on the Stitcher app, and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search on the word Theatrefolk. And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care my friends, take care.