Episode 150: Using Drama In Other Classes
Today we have two playwrights who also happen to be two teachers: Amanda Murray Cutalo is an English teacher(Nice Girl, Typecast) and Taryn Temple is a Spanish Teacher (The Redemption of Gertie Green) Both Amanda and Taryn use drama in their classrooms and believe in the power of theatre for their students. There is a place for theatre everywhere.
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 150 – one, five, zero – that’s a nice number.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at theatrefolk.com/episode150.
So, today, we have a nice little combo. We have two little interviews here, both of these wonderful ladies are playwrights and they are also teachers. We have Amanda Murray Cutalo who is an English teacher and we have a couple of her plays and Typecast which is one of our newer scripts; and then, we have Taryn Temple who is a Spanish teacher and we have her play, The Redemption of Gertie Greene.
What is great is that both of these lovely ladies are playwrights and teachers – not Drama teachers but they use Drama in their classroom and they believe in the power of theatre for their students. There is a place for theatre everywhere which, I think you know, I totally agree with.
So, let’s get into it.
LINDSAY: All right, I am here talking to Taryn Temple.
LINDSAY: How are you?
TARYN: I’m very good, thank you.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Tell everybody in the world where you are.
TARYN: I am in Topeka, Kansas. Woohoo!
LINDSAY: Ah, that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with Topeka. Long live Topeka, right?
TARYN: That’s right, that’s right, we’re the capital city of Kansas so there you go. We’ve got something.
LINDSAY: Stand proud, I like that.
Okay. So, Taryn is one of our playwrights who wrote The Redemption of Gertie Greene and we’re going to talk about a lot of things. We’re going to talk about issues, we’re going to talk about using theatre to explore issues, but the first thing I want to know is what is your background? What led you to be involved with theatre?
TARYN: That’s a great question.
I have done theatre through my whole life, but I went to a very, very tiny high school. We did one play or one musical a year, and I was that thirsty kid that always wanted more theatre. So, I found myself very lucky when I moved to Topeka for my job that I could coach forensics. I was assistant forensics coach at my high school where I work – I’m a teacher there – and then I also was able to work in a theatre camp in the summer and also perform in shows at a local theatre, a local community theatre. And so, I was finally able to satiate that thirst for theatre. I did theatre through college as well but, you know, I was so excited to find out that, in my adult life, I could actually do theatre. So, that is kind of my background for it.
The theatre camp is what led me into directing. I had always been just a performer and then I took a directing class in college and then, once I came to Topeka and started doing forensics and working at the theatre camp, I started exploring directing a little bit more.
And then, directing led naturally into scriptwriting. So, that was kind of a natural progression for me. When you direct shows summer after summer, you start thinking about themes you want your actors to explore and so that’s what led me in that direction as well.
LINDSAY: Right. Why do you think – because it’s one thing maybe to be in school and to go, “Oh, I’m going to be a performer. I’m going to pursue this,” and then it’s another thing to go, “No, I want to do it sort of in an education vein – be it at a camp…” Do you teach theatre or do you teach…?
TARYN: I actually teach Spanish. I’m a Spanish teacher by day but – believe it or not – there is a lot of elements of theatre. I have incorporated a lot of elements of theatre into how I teach Spanish because it’s something you just can’t escape.
LINDSAY: Well, I think that that is one of the things that I like about Spanish. I have so little – a teeny, tiny bit of Spanish – but, what I love about it is it’s very imagistic and it’s in words and how words come together but that is a whole different podcast.
TARYN: Yes, that would be a fun podcast.
LINDSAY: That would be a fun podcast, but tell me, how do you use theatre in Spanish?
TARYN: That’s a great question.
The method I use to teach Spanish actually teaches through stories because you are much more likely to remember something if it’s put in a story form. So, for example, if I was trying to teach you the words “green” and “hippopotamus,” you might remember them. But, if I told you that there was a green hippopotamus dancing on a coffee table, you get an image in your mind and you have an image of that. And then, I might ask you questions like, “What color is the hippopotamus? Where is the hippopotamus? What is it doing?” and all of this is done in the target language. So, you actually use the target language to tell stories and to ask questions about stories. The students create their own stories. We have costumes and props. And so, we laugh so much. There is so much laughter and that’s another great avenue toward learning, too. That’s how I’ve kind of incorporated my theatre background into foreign language teaching.
LINDSAY: How awesome is that? It’s not sitting there, conjugating – you know, what’s the difference? Oh, they just left my head. The two big…
TARYN: The “-ar” verbs, the “-er” verbs, “ser” and “estar,” yeah.
LINDSAY: That’s the one. Those are the ones I was thinking of – you know, instead of we’re not conjugating verbs but you’re actually motivating students to think in this language and make it come to life.
TARYN: It’s amazing too because I have six different classes of Spanish. We’ll do a story in each one and, the next day, I will not remember them but my students will just rattle off that story. I mean, it’s amazing what they can retain because it’s in a story format. So, I think the power of storytelling is universal, for sure.
LINDSAY: Oh, absolutely, and that whole cross-curricular thing about making learning lively and come to life.
TARYN: Yes, very much so.
LINDSAY: Oh, I love that.
TARYN: And using it to do something – not just learning things but actually using it.
LINDSAY: Yeah! So, that it’s active. Oh, that gives me a little thrill, I love it!
Okay. So, yes, using theatre in your classroom. Okay, I’m going to circle all the way back around where I started this, there is a different tact, isn’t it? When it’s like, “I want to be a performer!” It’s like, “No, I actually want to be a teacher and I want to put this into working with students.” How did that work out for you? Why was that sort of something you wanted to do?
TARYN: That is a good question. I’m not sure I’ve thought about that before.
I’ve seen a lot of kids that are shy or timid or unsure just blossom through doing theatre, and I think I saw it way back as an actor. You know, as a teacher, that’s one of your goals – to give your kids confidence and to give your kids an avenue to blossom, to really show what their gifts are. I’ve seen that happen in theatre and I think that’s something I continue to pursue. The more I see that happen, the more you want to see it happen. It’s a great thing to see. So, the more ways I can see that, I think that led me to that profession.
LINDSAY: It’s very rewarding, too, isn’t it?
TARYN: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
LINDSAY: Not to put words in your mouth.
TARYN: Oh, no! It really is. You feel like you’ve made a lasting change, you know. They may not remember a certain word or phrase, you know. And, as a forensics coach, they may not remember what piece they did, but they will remember the feeling of getting up in front of someone, having that person look at them and listen to them. I think a lot of our youth struggle with being listened to. They find it hard to find people that will listen to them and, through theatre and through other activities that involve speech and drama, you have a captive audience and that’s powerful. And then, to feel like you have something to say to that audience makes it even more powerful.
LINDSAY: Well, I mean, it’s a very common thing. Like, our teenagers are told to learn how to take tests and to even, you know, to be quiet in the classroom and to, you know, just sort of be passengers in their education at times. So, what a wonderful experience to turn that around a little bit and, again, just as you said, to have somebody listen to them.
TARYN: Yeah, absolutely. And, in the Spanish side, they contribute the details of the story. In the theatre side, you really want to pull from them what the piece means to them. If you tell them what the piece means, that’s what it means to you. But it can mean a completely different thing to them and I’ve had some amazing, especially with some of my upper, you know, the beginning performers, it’s a little bit more like, “Put some emphasis here,” things like that – “Move your body this way,” “This expresses this,” “When you do this, you’re showing me this.” But, with those upper level performers especially, you can have some really, really interesting conversations about why they picked this piece or why this piece means something, this part, this certain section, why does this one mean something to you? You know, you have performers that will tear up because they’ve chosen something that means that much to them and that connects that strongly with their life and it’s really amazing to me.
LINDSAY: I think, because that’s another stereotype of the teenager is that they’re not having deep thoughts and that they are shallow and that they’re on their phones and they’re LOL-ing. I think that’s a detriment that we think of teenagers that way. They are, in fact, complicated and complex.
TARYN: I think they actually feel emotions more strongly than us because, to them – this is stereotyping a bit but – everything seems very urgent, very in the moment. You know, I can look and say, “Oh, in a couple of months, this will be past.” But, for teenagers, they live very much in the right now and right now it’s very painful or right now it’s very exciting. That can be a fun energy. It can be a very exhausting energy to be around but it can also be a very fun energy to be around, too. And they can use that. They can channel that passion in all kinds of different ways.
LINDSAY: I’m always amazed at the energy and, if you tell them, “Oh, we’ve got two days to put this play up,” or whatever. They’re like, “Two days? You got it! I’m in!”
TARYN: Oh, yeah. And then, my campers, I tend to work with more like the junior high group at the camp age – you know, that fifth through seventh, eighth grade – and they’re – oh, my gosh – they are so much fun that way. If you can get them involved, they are in – 110 percent. They give it everything. It’s amazing to see what they can accomplish.
LINDSAY: It’s funny because, you know, just writing for middle school and writing for high school, it took me a long time to find the value in that because, you know, “Oh, I’m supposed to be professional. I’m supposed to want these other things.” To realize that I don’t want to work with jaded adult actors. I want to work with these wonderful, optimistic, enthusiastic, and sometimes just bursting youth. It was the most wonderful thing when I went, “No, no, this is the success. This is the place to be.”
TARYN: Absolutely, and I feel like they won’t necessarily become those jaded, sad adults if they learn early where to have fun, where to cut loose, where to let go. You know, our kids, they’re so scheduled, so controlled. They’re on their technology. To give them an outlet to explore their creative side and find ways to have fun that don’t involve technology necessarily, yeah, that’s a really fun thing to witness, too.
LINDSAY: This is a nice segue.
So, Redemption of Gertie Greene is about someone who is typed as a bully and it’s like, “Well, we see this and we see that and we hear this and we hear that so, therefore, it all must be true and this person must be this horrible thing.” And what happens when that’s not true? And how a drama class sort of comes together and works together and reveals the truth.
You talked about the power of theatre in exploring difficult topics. What does that mean to you?
TARYN: I think theatre is a safe space to explore difficult topics because, first of all, when you have a part – or even as a director, when you have a show – you’re going to grow into that. First of all, you’re just looking at the words. And then, you’re looking at what they mean. And then, you’re looking at the larger message of what the show is saying and you have those lightbulb moments about the different characters, the different experiences. And so, I think it’s a way to delve deeper and deeper into a topic without rushing over it superficially, making a judgment on it because, when you’re an actor and you have to play a certain part, you sympathize with that part.
You can’t not like yourself. You have to like yourself as a character. And so, you have to see where you’re coming from – what’s motivating you. And so, I think, when we explore difficult subject matter, something that can create a lot of opposition in people or can create judgment in people, theatre gives us a way to sort of reverse that and say, “Hey, these are people, too. They’re having their own experiences. They’re having their own feelings. They’re coming at it from a different way than I do, but it’s a safe space to explore,” that because you’re not necessarily giving up yourself or your own identity. You can still have your beliefs but you can explore these other channels too without feeling threatened, I think. So, that’s one of the things I like about it.
LINDSAY: Well, that whole notion of having a safe space where, again, a safe space to be listened to, a safe space to maybe express something that just can’t be expressed in an everyday life, and I think that’s the other thing that theatre does. Theatre brings out these situations that don’t happen in everyday life, you know? Like, we don’t often learn that the bully is somebody else. But, if it’s presented, it opens a door.
TARYN: Yes, absolutely. That’s very true. I really like how you said that because, you know, some of my kids at my camp haven’t really dealt with bullying. They may be very lucky. They may not have dealt with it but they can look at this issue and suddenly realize with some of the bullying education that we do where things are important. And, even on a smaller scale, how kids look at each other because kids have been taught or really have a tendency to put each other into categories and any chance they can have to break free of those categories or to allow someone else to be something beyond just the category they’ve been put in – like, “Oh, you’re a sports jock, you know, that’s what you are. You don’t have anything beyond that.” I think something I really wanted to explore in Gertie was, well, the sports jock isn’t always a sports jock or that the bully isn’t always a bully or the nerd isn’t always a nerd. There’s more to them than that and there’s more beneath the surface than just what the superficial thing is that you show everybody else.
LINDSAY: Well, and there’s always something going on besides the face that we present – in this case, in school – isn’t there? Like, what’s going on at the cheerleader’s home? We don’t know because, you know, they could be a completely different person.
TARYN: Absolutely, saving face by acting a certain way, feeling a lot of pressure to act a certain way, and I think that’s one of the reasons I tend to also love drama – because there seems to be a tendency within drama and within the drama community, especially in the younger levels, to sort of embrace the weird, embrace the crazy. You don’t have to conform in the same way because no one conforms, kind of. You know, embrace the weirdo, et cetera. Well, let’s not call anyone a weirdo but embrace the person that is unique or different because you realize they bring something unique and different – unique talent, unique gifts – to your program, to your stage, to your play, things like that.
LINDSAY: Well, ah, when you walk into a theatre classroom, I’m okay – I’m okay with the word weirdo. I know exactly… I’m one. Just to see people in other places – because that’s the other thing – there’s a lot of kids in these classes who are not safe in other classes and they’re not safe with other people because of how they’ve been labelled. And so, just to think that, if there’s anything that we can do to make – well, I’m going to repeat myself – to make them feel safe, I think is a good thing.
TARYN: Absolutely. The other kids are a big part of that. I really like the role of Mrs. Fillmore in my show because she kind of fosters that community – that sense of community – but, ultimately, it’s up to the other students to extend that kindness to Gertie, to demonstrate to her that they, you know, they aren’t going to judge her, that they’re going to give her another chance – a chance to see who she really is. And, I think, ultimately, you know, teachers and all those people of authority, we can definitely create environments. But I think, ultimately, the kids need to take ownership and responsibility for the judgments that they’re making, for the consequences of how they are treating people, and realize that they are the ones that have the power to then be kind and reverse that. So, I think that’s very important, too. The adults can absolutely be involved in that conversation and need to be involved in that conversation, but the kids themselves are the ones that have to step up and include people and not judge people and be kind to each other.
LINDSAY: I think that, too, that’s the issue sometimes with presenting difficult topics and presenting issues from a lecture standpoint or from a pamphlet or, you know, let’s have an assembly because there is an adult at the front who is saying, “This is how you should behave.”
TARYN: Yeah, that’s absolutely right because, you know, the day of the show, when the director steps back, it’s all in these kids’ hands. They’re the ones telling the story. And, through theatre, through any show you do that explores a difficult topic like that, especially if you use, you know, kids as performers, that’s absolute. They are the ones telling the narrative and they’re delivering that message to other kids their own age and that’s an amazing tool. I think that’s way more powerful than any adult getting up there. It’ll resonate a lot more, I think, than those assemblies or videos or the online clicky-click classes, things like that.
LINDSAY: Well, it’s because they’re looking at someone who looks like them and talks like them, is the same age as them, and they’re saying things that maybe they have thought but were afraid to say. It’s all about not being alone, you know?
TARYN: Yes, that’s very true, absolutely. Yeah, kids can feel isolated or feel like they’re the only ones going through something and, suddenly, it was really interesting, actually, during the rehearsal process is, you know, we’d have a kid occasionally say, “Yeah, I’ve had something like that happen to me,” or, you know, “I know someone this has happened to,” “I’ve thought this before.” You know, they kind of admit here and there – it comes out – that something resonates with them and, you know, the fact that it’s on paper and in a script or that someone else in their cast is saying a similar thing, all of a sudden, they’re like, “Oh, I’m not alone, I’m not the only one feeling strange and like a creep and like a freak.” You know, “There is a place for me and there are other people that feel this way.”
I have a totally silly question. When I think of theatre camp and when I’ve had other conversations with theatre camp, it’s always been the plays have always been, you know – I’m totally drawing a creative blank but you know – Mad Men on Mars, just very silly. What drives you, do you think, to put a little substance into the plays that you put on in the camp setting?
TARYN: Well, to be fair, I would say a majority of mine have been relatively silly.
TARYN: This one was kind of a step out of character.
LINDSAY: How did it go? Okay, let’s go in that direction. So, if it was a step out of character, what was the result?
TARYN: You know, actually, the kids themselves really enjoyed it. They got really into it. They got kind of a meatier role – like, they had more meat to explore – and, I mean, there’s also some fun stuff in there so they liked that.
From a kid perspective, I had one girl say to her mom – and her mom hadn’t seen the show yet and had no idea what it was about or anything – she said, “You know, this year, when I go back to school, I think I’m just going to be myself and, if people don’t like me, that’s their problem.” She was like, “Where is this coming from?” and she came and saw the show and she was like, “Oh.”
I will tell you that the parent response was actually what surprised me. I had parents coming up to me afterwards that were just like, “Oh, thank you so much for doing this.” It was much less like, “Oh, good job! What a good show!” and much more, “Thank you for doing this for our kids.” It was really interesting, you know, for a camp show to have that response. I found that I really enjoyed it and it put thought in my mind. “I need to do more of this.” I think there’s a balance, though. I think you can go a little too far the serious direction. I think it’s good to have some light stuff mixed in. Well, also just in general. You’re more likely to cry if you’ve laughed first, if you’ve released that emotion and things like that, too.
I found the response overwhelmingly positive – from the campers and from parents. They felt like they had seen something that meant something rather than just gone to a silly little show. That was really nice.
LINDSAY: I think that, well, first of all, my comment always is that, if you want something to have impact, before you kick them in the gut, you have to make them laugh and vice versa. I’ve seen too many dramas where, oh, I have this very, very vivid image of an AIDS play twenty years ago where I was screamed at for forty minutes and I’m like, “I will never do this…” you know what I mean? I think that that’s where issues are the most illuminated – when we’ve made the audience relax a little and laugh a little.
TARYN: Yeah, you can’t change anyone if you alienate them. Like, you’re not going to change any opinions if you alienate the person that’s listening to your opinions. So, I think, bringing them along with you is a much better tactic, probably.
LINDSAY: Yes, I love that. I love that image. Was it “more flies with honey than with vinegar”? Something like that.
TARYN: Yes, exactly.
LINDSAY: We’ll go with that.
Oh, Taryn, this has been lovely. So, that’s The Redemption of Gertie Greene which I will make sure we put a link in the show notes and I love that you use theatre in your Spanish class. I think that makes you a rock star!
TARYN: Most of my students do. There are few that are like, “What did I sign up for?” but a lot of them that, once again, aren’t your stereotypical theatre geeks are some of my best performers. So, there you go! Everybody has a little theatre in them.
LINDSAY: Everyone’s got theatre in them.
Thank you very much!
TARYN: Thank you! It was a delight!
LINDSAY: All right, I’m here with Amanda Murray Cutalo.
AMANDA: Hi Lindsay!
LINDSAY: Amanda is one of our playwrights. She’s got two plays with us – Nice Girl and a brand new one called Typecast. You are a teacher, yes?
AMANDA: Yes, I am. I teach English – tenth and eleventh grade.
So, my first question is then, what is your connection to theatre?
AMANDA: Oh, well, I mean, I started performing when I was in high school and fell in love with it and continued through college. I was a theatre minor and I kept performing in community theatre. When I started teaching, I had the opportunity to start directing so I’ve been doing that for the past ten years.
LINDSAY: What was it about your high school experience that always stuck with you?
AMANDA: Oh, wow! I just loved the opportunity, I loved being up onstage, I loved performing with my classmates, and I guess I loved the opportunity to really jump into new characters – really, just to try someone else on and become a different person, just for that short amount of time.
LINDSAY: It’s quite an experience. Now that you’re on the other side, as a director, what do you see in your students when they get up there?
AMANDA: Well, really, it takes me back. But I see a lot of the same things. I mean, when I ask them, usually, as we begin a production, I ask them what they enjoy the most and they say they love kind of slipping into this alternate reality and becoming somebody that maybe they find… I guess discovering a different version of themselves.
LINDSAY: Well, I mean, at this age that they’re dealing with, being a teenager, being yourself, I would say that that’s kind of – when I look around – that’s the hardest thing for them to do because they’re finding themselves, aren’t they?
AMANDA: Yes, exactly. And, theatre, I think gives them a great outlet and the ability to discover who they are by playing these different characters and it gives them a whole community of people that share that interest.
LINDSAY: Do you find there’s a safety in that?
AMANDA: Absolutely, yeah, especially. I’ve just seen a lot of my more introverted students that I’ll teach in class, they just come alive when they get up onstage. Or we’re doing theatre activities during class where they’re all of a sudden comfortable. It’s amazing to watch.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I imagine. Well, amazingly so, we all don’t learn the same way or we don’t express ourselves the same way. I think that’s the beauty of theatre for them at this age.
Here’s another thing – you’re an English teacher. What theatre do you incorporate into your classroom?
AMANDA: A lot! Oh, geez.
For instance, when we’re learning new vocabulary words, I will go over the words and then I’ll give them a situation and they have to write and perform a skit where they use as many words as possible in the correct way. Or they’ll write alternative scenes to plays that we study – like The Crucible or A Streetcar Named Desire – and we’ll improvise scenes. For instance, when we study The Scarlet Letter, we’ll improvise a puritan meeting where they’re deciding the fate of Hester Prynne and they have to all be the men of the town which is fun because I teach at an all-girls’ school so that’s fun to watch.
LINDSAY: I can imagine!
Okay. So, how is their response to that? Because I’m going to assume – rightly or wrongly – I’m going to assume that this is not how English class usually goes.
LINDSAY: So, yeah, how does that go?
AMANDA: A lot of them get into it, especially – I said this before but – it’s really fun to watch the quieter students that feel a little bit self-conscious during the regular discussions but then, all of sudden, I guess they maybe feel safer because they’re taking on a character and they’re able to be a bit bolder with what they’re thinking, what they’re saying.
LINDSAY: How does this sort of cross-curricular approach, how do you think it helps their comprehension?
AMANDA: I think, well, it’s much more kinesthetic. I think that because they’re getting up and actually taking on a character, they are able to remember it more, especially when I ask at the end of the year what they remembered the most from the class. A lot of times, they will say the activities where they were completely immersed in the world that the author had created. So, I think even just the act of getting up helps them remember.
LINDSAY: Do you get them to perform Shakespeare?
AMANDA: I do! I’m currently not teaching Shakespeare right now.
LINDSAY: What? Oh, no!
AMANDA: I know. But I did when I taught it. I taught Romeo and Juliet and what else did I work with? Midsummer Night’s Dream. We did do that.
LINDSAY: Is there a reason for that? Why? Are they taking it out on purpose or is it just because?
AMANDA: It’s covered in the other grades.
LINDSAY: Right, okay. I was going to say, “Don’t take it away!”
AMANDA: No, definitely not.
LINDSAY: So, not only do you use theatre in your classroom – which I just think it’s awesome, you know? That certainly was not the way my English classes went, and I have an English degree!
AMANDA: No, it’s fun for me, too, because I’ll jump in every now and then and play with the girls, too. I get just as much out of it as they do.
LINDSAY: Well, you know, we’re told constantly, “Oh, you know, this is the generation that has the short attention span,” and that we’re losing them with writing and whatever. Instead of – oh, I don’t know – instead of like complaining about it, why not just find a different door, you know? Like theatre.
AMANDA: Absolutely, yeah. I think that there are so many ways to get them interested in something and theatre is such a great way to do that.
LINDSAY: I agree – 1,000 percent!
Okay. So, not only do you use it in your classroom, do you often direct at your school?
AMANDA: I do one show a year. Currently, right now, I’m working with middle schoolers. We put on a one-act play one year and then we’ll alternate. The following year, we do some sort of musical or musical review.
LINDSAY: And you also write for them. You’re also doing original work.
AMANDA: Yes, the past two shows, yeah, I’ve been very fortunate. The middle school head said that I can write my own work for them and produce it so that’s been really fun.
LINDSAY: What was the impetus to that? Why did you decide “I have to write something” instead of find something?
AMANDA: I think that I often had difficulty finding good material for an all-girls’ cast – because I’ve always taught in an all-girls’ school – that had a lot of parts available to the girls and that was about a topic that they would be interested in and I guess that didn’t have a romantic story to it, just because I wanted some variety. So, that was one of the reasons why I did want to write stories that related to them in the best way that I could.
LINDSAY: Do you have writing in your background or is this something you dove into?
AMANDA: It’s actually something that I used to do a lot in grade school and then I just kind of forgot about it until maybe five years ago when I just said, one day, “I’m going to write a play.” And so, yeah, the topic of Nice Girl, too, I felt it was a little autobiographical and it was just one of those days where I just had a bad day and so I just said, “I’m going to write something,” and so that’s what came out.
LINDSAY: Well, that play, it’s very interesting. The theme of it is something that I hadn’t seen before, you know, because it is so very true. It’s about how being nice can be to your detriment and I speak to middle schoolers a lot and that whole notion of friends and best friends and what I’m going to do to keep a friend, I’m guessing you had lots of experience.
LINDSAY: Lots of first-hand material.
AMANDA: I did, and the situation that happened in Nice Girl, I’ve seen it happen so many times to my students where they come up to me after a project is over and they’re so upset because they did all the work and, you know, they didn’t really know how to assert themselves while it was happening and so they felt like they had no voice and so that’s another reason why I wanted to write the play.
LINDSAY: So, what was your process when you wrote? You had a day and you got things down on paper. And then, what was your process?
AMANDA: Well, I like to write down, I like to have a roadmap, always, I guess. So, I kind of just do a breakdown of the scenes of what I think I’d like, I guess, what should happen in the scene. And then, I do a lot of talking out loud. I like to talk to my friends, I talk to my husband, just to really get to the root, I guess to know what the story is about before I even start writing dialogue.
LINDSAY: I like those two because my next question is going to be, like, because there are lots of the teachers out there who are sort of in the same boat as you, they want something very specific for their specific students and the result is often, “Ugh, I should write something,” but often their next thought is, “I can’t write something.”
AMANDA: Yeah, “now what?”
LINDSAY: Yeah! So, I like those two points there about just sort of figuring out the roadmap and then just talking out loud. It’s a play, right? It’s theatre. So, the more that it’s sort of up and out is probably a really good thing.
AMANDA: Right, and I like the metaphor of the play, too, because that’s just something I learned along the way – that I can go into it with a very specific idea of what I’m writing about but I need to also be flexible and, if it goes in a different direction, fine. So, I think that’s important, too.
LINDSAY: At what stage do you show it to your students?
AMANDA: Usually, I guess I show it to them when I’m feeling pretty good about it, but I do a read-through I guess the summer before we actually put on the play so that I can get their feedback and work on it one more time just because I want to know, is it relating to them? Are there jokes that are just not working? So, I’ll show it to them maybe a few months before we actually start auditions.
LINDSAY: So, that’s a third really great point. You’re not writing this on the fly as the production’s coming up. This is something that you’ve thought about a good six months beforehand and started work on.
AMANDA: Yeah, I’m actually working on my play for 2017 right now. I just finished my rough draft. It’s kind of a two-year process, actually.
LINDSAY: Yeah. Well, that’s a good way to think about it because I’m sure that your time with, you know, work and stuff, that writing, you must have to really slide it in or make time to write or schedule.
AMANDA: Right. I think also it helps to just put a piece of writing to bed for six months and then take it back out again and see if you still are happy with it. I know I’ve been horrified sometimes when I’ve looked. You know, sometimes, it just takes time.
LINDSAY: I think, for me, that’s one of the most useful things – when you get to the end of a first draft, the next thing is to just stick it in a drawer for a little bit if you can because, well, writing – and I think plays – they just take time. As you think about them, then questions form, and going back to a piece with a fresh eye is one of your greatest assets.
AMANDA: Right, absolutely.
Okay. So, you show it to them, you work on it over the summer, and do you get suggestions? Like, do you let them go, “Oh, can I say this instead of this?” “Oh, what if this happened?”
LINDSAY: What is your collaborative process? Yes, you do that, huh?
AMANDA: I do, yeah, and I kind of make that clear to them from the very beginning. You know, I’ll say there are some things that I’m very, you know, that need to stay the same, that I have a certain vision. But there are other parts that we can definitely change or, you know, “If it feels more natural for you to say something differently, definitely tell me about that.” We were making changes to Typecast up until maybe the week before. I mean, little tweaks, not major changes. But, you know, I told them, “Just be patient with this process because this script is going to grow as you become more into your characters.”
LINDSAY: I think that’s a great point if you want to write for your students and, also, in the writing, it is a process and it takes time and better to let it take time than to rush something that maybe could be improved upon.
AMANDA: Right, exactly, yeah. If it’s organic to the process, I think it’s important. I’ve seen, I mean, some of my students have just accidentally said lines that weren’t the original line and we’ve changed it because it worked better.
LINDSAY: I actually love it when that happens – when a rearrangement of words comes out of their mouth naturally and it’s like, “Well, that’s better! I’m just going to use that.”
AMANDA: Yeah! Or truer to the character, yeah.
LINDSAY: And how do your students feel about being part of this process?
AMANDA: They have a lot of fun with it, too. I mean, they’re really excited that they’re doing the first version of the show and, yeah, they get really into it.
LINDSAY: Well, it’s a new thing. It must be so interesting to not only just be handed a play that’s finished but to be handed a play that’s in progress.
LINDSAY: So, if you were talking to a teacher who is scared of writing for their students, what are a couple of pieces of advice that you would give them?
AMANDA: You mean, if they were actually…
LINDSAY: They’ve got this group that they cannot find a play for. They know the answer is, “I’ve got to write something for myself but I’m terrified.” What would you say?
AMANDA: I like having conversations with the actual students. I mean, if nothing, I like to know what are the major issues that they feel are relevant to their age group and I’ve gotten so much just from talking to them, I guess, about what it’s like to be in middle school or high school, and I think that’s a good place to start to get good concept down.
LINDSAY: I agree. When I write my middle school, myself, when I write middle schools, I am very lucky that I have a nice relationship with a school with incredibly talkative youngsters who are dying to tell me what their life is like and it’s remarkably dissimilar to what I think some adults would like everybody to believe that middle school is like.
AMANDA: Or you forget, yeah. I think that’s important – that it needs to come from a real place.
LINDSAY: I think so, too. Also, that it’s written specifically for them, too – that it’s not a fairy-tale and that it’s not a truncated high school play but that it’s for eleven- and twelve-year-olds.
LINDSAY: And then, just as we wrap up here, Nice Girl, it’s really clear in your work that you really have your students’ stories at heart because I really loved getting Typecast because it’s the kind of thing that happens – I think it happens a lot in middle school plays, not out of a place of malice but out of a place of “well, that guy’s going to great for that role because he’s already like that.”
AMANDA: Right, exactly. I think we all, as directors, I think that we all do it even if we don’t want to – that we’ll go into an audition process and even have certain students in mind that we know would be a good fit for a role.
LINDSAY: And then, I quite like how but then, you know, there is. And then, the other thing that also happens is the typecasting in life. I find it remarkable that I haven’t been in middle school in – oh, hell, let’s say thirty or forty years – a long time, and that that same issue, that same pigeonholing of students is that they’re like that, they’re always going to be like that, that it’s something that’s very hard to break free of.
AMANDA: Right. I think, at that age too, it’s difficult because I know we’ve said before that they’re trying to define who they are, define their identity. So, if they get casted in a series of the same parts over and over again, I think it’s very easy for them to identify that as who they are onstage and in life.
LINDSAY: They have to play that part, right?
LINDSAY: So, to have that sort of turned upside down theatrically because then here is what theatre does most wonderfully is to take these situations that we see every day and then to sort of turn them on their ear and to have these characters who are forced to sort of play parts that they aren’t in life.
LINDSAY: But the girl who says nothing is just always going to be the rock in the corner, you know, is the one who has to have all the lines and, you know, as someone who was a rock in the corner, it’s wonderful. It must have really been inspiring to see this play come to life, I think, I hope.
AMANDA: Oh, so much fun, yeah. From the first auditions, when girls would come in and they would just nail certain characters because they fit. I actually did have to cast this play according to type. They had to fit that specific look. But then, it was really fun during the rehearsal process because the characters, a lot of them become more multidimensional as the story goes on, it was fun to watch those actors kind of go through the same process, through that same discovery.
LINDSAY: It’s almost like they’re learning.
LINDSAY: I love that.
Okay. Well, thank you so much!
AMANDA: Thank you!
LINDSAY: You know what? I am tickled pink that you use theatre in your English classroom like that. I think that’s lovely. Thank you so much for doing that, Amanda!
AMANDA: I have a lot of fun with it.
LINDSAY: I’m glad and, well, it’s just one of those things where you always hear the negatives about what’s happening with education and stuff – “and stuff,” that’s very specific, Lindsay.
AMANDA: I know what you mean though.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and so I just think, at any time that there’s a place for theatre in a place where it doesn’t normally show up, I say, “Congratulations!” and, also, congratulations on Nice Girl and Typecast.
AMANDA: Thank you.
LINDSAY: I just think that, just in hearing you talk about them, I just love your mentality, your point of view in giving these kids a voice. I think that, the more I write, the more I realize that these are the kids that need plays for them.
AMANDA: Absolutely, yeah, and it’s an honor to write plays for them.
LINDSAY: I agree with you – 100 percent.
Thank you so much for talking to me.
AMANDA: Thank you, Lindsay!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Amanda and Taryn!
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!
Today, I want to feature the plays of our lovely guests.
First, we have Nice Girl.
So, the question that is asked in Nice Girl is: “Is there such a thing as being too nice?”
We have a student at an all-girls’ school. Do you have lots of girls in your program? It’s the whole idea that this character is too nice. She knows that she should be strong and she should be assertive and stand up for herself but she’s the kind of girl who does her friends’ homework, lets people cut in front of her in line, and pretends to be someone she’s not in order to get a boy to like her and she keeps learning over and over again how being a nice girl actually requires a lot of frustration and sacrifice.
What happens when she reaches her breaking point and decides that it’s time to not be so nice? I love it. That is Nice Girl. There will be a link in the show notes.
And then, Typecast, I love the stuff – the themes and the concepts – that Amanda writes about. Here, this is all about the whole notion of typecast and putting people into roles and what happens when we are ourselves think that the roles and the types that we have been put into are the right ones for us.
The auditions are coming up for an upcoming production – excellent, that makes sense – and that the teacher is the one who, you know, she connects people to the roles who she thinks that they’re a good fit for. Like, the nice girl gets the ingénue; the diva gets the villain; the quiet girl gets to be the role of a rock.
What happens when everyone gets cast a type and then another teacher comes in and changes it all up so everybody is put in a role which is not to their type? What happens when the diva girl who expects the lead only ends up with a couple of lines? What happens when the nice girl becomes the villain? All of these characters have to deal with being cast as someone who they’re not usually cast as. They have to venture into unknown territory and forced to see themselves as more than just a type which I think is fantastic.
Okay, last one, we have The Redemption of Gertie Greene by Taryn Temple.
Again, this is another play which is about perception. What I love about this play is that it’s about the perception of the bully and about how everybody sees someone act in a certain way – or hears about – this is even more to the point – hears about how somebody acts and thinks that they’re a bully and, therefore, that’s all that they are.
You know, everybody talks about how Gertie Greene is knocking down football players, getting suspended, teachers are afraid of her, but is she really this terrifying monster that everyone talks about?
In The Redemption of Gertie Greene, the truth comes out. You know, Gertie is not what everybody calls her – a freak, strange, clumsy, mean – and it’s up to a class of drama students to see past all of that, to discover the real person behind the rumors. You know, what do we think when we actually know someone for who they really are?
So, that’s three plays. We have Nice Girl, Typecast, and The Redemption of Gertie Greene. You can find the links for all of these plays in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode150.
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 on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. Novelty! Shocker! All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends – my good, good friends. Take care.