Monday, October 29, 2012

Why Teach Theatre? - A Guest Blog by Thomas Arndt

Thomas Arndt, who is the Program Assistant in the Youth Education Program (YEP), joined Bay Area Children’s Theatre in 2011 and worked as the Assistant Director for The Aristocats and Sleeping Beauty.  He is now directing Winnie the Pooh in Piedmont and Alameda with the Little Performers (ages 5-6) and Young Performers (ages 7-11) programs and is the Lead Teacher for Crocodile Junction, a Drama Residency at Montclair Elementary in Oakland (where he is assisted by the fabulous Katie McGee, who plays Pinkalicious, and Bryan Quinn, who was Farmer Brown in this summer’s Click, Clack, Moo).  Thomas grew up in Washington State, going to school in Redmond (where he played roles such as The Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof) and spending summers farming with his family in the San Juan Islands.  He later attended Bard College in Upstate New York, where he graduated with a B.A. in Human Rights (Concentrating in Theater). 


Hi folks!  I’m excited to be writing for Nina’s Notes, and thought I’d use this time to talk about some of my experiences teaching and working with YEP and discuss a question that I really enjoy answering: “Why teach Theatre?”  Thanks for reading!

There was a time when I thought Theatre would no longer be a part of my life.  I was in the middle of my college career and, faced with what I saw—and still see—going on the world around me, I figured that I needed to be more serious; I thought I needed to take on all of the problems of the world.  Looking back, I think that this mindset is actually indicative of exactly why I believe Theatre is so important to all people in general, and young people in particular.  It’s not that I think Theatre all by itself is going to save the world—that’s silly!  But I do think that it can do some really important things for all of us, and I know now more than ever that I want to and need to be creating and teaching Theatre!

Theatre teaches us to make choices.  When developing a character or directing a show, you can have lots of good ideas, but you can’t use all of them.  Theatre forces the artist to choose, take risks, make mistakes, rethink, and practice, practice, practice.  For example, in Winnie the Pooh Kids, which is an incredibly fun show to work on, we have been spending a lot of time on character development.  The characters are all so expressive and different, yet so malleable for each actor to make his/her own.  Each character of the story really illustrates a different side of human emotion and the kids get that.  We recently did some work with character walks, having the kids move through our rehearsal space putting attention into embodying their characters.  At one point, I had everyone freeze and just look at Tigger and Eeyore next to each other.  Totally frozen and soundless, they each were able to communicate such volumes about who they were as characters—it was quite striking to everyone there.  One of the most common refrains I return to in teaching theatre is “Drama means telling stories.”  It’s not a profound statement on its own, but I think it’s important to remember what we are doing and why we are doing it—we step onto the stage to communicate something, and to do so in a way that you can’t achieve with words alone.  I also think Winnie the Pooh is a great show because there are so many opportunities in the script for Physical Comedy and tongue-in-cheek laughs.  We also do this because it’s fun—to see and to do!

Theatre also encourages us to think about what I call “Big Picture, Little Picture.”  Theatre expands our ideas of what is possible.  And this extends beyond the classroom and the stage—creativity is a muscle and the more we use it, the more it grows.  Children need to experience seeing and feeling themselves in different roles than those they may have always assumed.  So Theatre encourages us to think big!  At the same time, we are also called in Theatre to get very focused on small details—an expression in the face, the movement of a hand, or a moment of a scene.  This practice helps us to look at problems up close, analyze them, and think and feel our way through.  And the amount of focus that this can teach is priceless!  At Montclair Elementary, we are really exploring all of this in our Crocodile Junction program.  Based on the Process Drama work of the late British Theater Education Expert Dorothy Heathcote, Crocodile Junction utilizes group storytelling to explore language arts, writing, and acting skills, while building creativity and teamwork. Currently we are building a story with the 1st Grade about Jungle Explorers searching for the Magical Monkey, and with the 2nd Graders one about Pirates searching for Captain Blagl’s lost treasure. In role as a character in the story (be it One Eyed McGregor, Jungle Jim, or Dr. Fleet, the world’s leading Piratologist, to name a few), I lead each class—who are also in character as part of the story—in an exploration that fills in details and builds unique narratives.  At the end of the semester, we will look through what we have done together and create a performance.  Process Drama in Crocodile Junction is an incredibly fun and powerful way to step wholeheartedly into Theatre and performance!

Finally, Theatre teaches us to speak up!  There are all kinds of actors, but ever heard of a quiet one?  (Okay, okay, mimes, I’m sorry! … Wait, excuse me, what’s that you’re saying?).  Being introverted and being shy are not the same thing.  Acting can teach us very literally to stand up on a stage in front of a group of people and speak powerfully.  And as I say when kids are really nailing an improv piece: “If they’re this amazing when they don’t know what they’re going to say, imagine what they could do when they know what they want to say!”

You have to do what you love.  Not for any big philosophical reason, but just because your life isn’t going to be very fulfilling if you are not.  I love Theatre and I love working with kids.  Seeing them light up with excitement about a project, work hard at it, and succeed in front of their families, friends, and community is absolutely thrilling!  And more than anything, I truly believe that the more young people can use Theatre to learn to make solid choices, expand their creativity, and speak up, the greater their possibilities will be in the future.  I see groups of BACT kids doing this time after time in our programs, and if we can do all that we must be doing something right.  So, Hip-Hip-Pooh-Ray for our kids!

Monday, October 22, 2012

BACT Blogger Genevieve Interviews Ms. Nitpicker

     This week's blog is brought to you by special guest blogger Genevieve! Genevieve is nine and a half years old and in the fourth grade at Kensington Hilltop School. She attended her first live theater performance at three years old. She enjoyed it so much she has been returning regularly to most Bay Area Children’s Theatre performances. Genevieve also enjoys acting, particularly in musicals, playing the piano, writing, reading, traveling, and playing sports with her friends. She lives in Kensington with her parents and two younger siblings.
If you are age 9 and up and want to write a blog about your experience with BACT, email


     Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is the current show being put on by BACT. It is a play adapted from the book by Bernard Waber. The play was well done and I really liked it. The story and the scenery both stayed true to the book. Lyle did many tricks and he was a very entertaining gymnast. I liked how Ms. Primm was very prim. I liked Mr. Grumps, who really seemed evil. I loved the way thunder boomed and lightning flashed whenever he came into the room. He did a really funny glare that always made me laugh. Ms. Nitpicker was a good actor and I really liked it when she gossiped, “And then she said what I said that they said that she said…” I liked ALL the characters, but if I list them all, it would take up my whole page, and I don’t think that would be so good. I enjoyed the production because it was funny and it was a really sweet story.
     After the show, I interviewed Anna Smith; the actor who played Ms. Nitpicker, a chatty character who goes back and forth between the evil side and the nice side. Anna Smith lives in the Bay Area and started dancing around the age of three years old. She later started singing and then began acting at 10 years old. She has been in a LOT of plays, but between college and now, she has been in about fifteen. She played Mrs. Pinkerton, Pinkalicious’ mother, in last season’s production of Pinkalicious.
     Anna has been rehearsing for Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile since August, so it has been about five weeks. She didn’t know the story of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, though many other of the actors in the play did. But as soon as she looked through the script she knew it would be super fun to put on, and she says it was! Anna felt very happy about getting the part of Ms. Nitpicker. She loves the way the character goes back and forth from Lyle’s side to Mr. Grumps’ side. Anna thinks that Ms. Nitpicker has a gossipy streak, and she’s really fond of her.
     If Anna could be in any play, she says it would be Into the Woods. That’s because she is co-directing it now. She watches the actors working, and it makes her want to act in the play. Coming up next, Anna will be taking on Mrs. Pinkerton in Pinkalicious again.
     I am really grateful to Anna Smith (or Ms. Nitpicker) for spending time with me. I’m also thankful for the wonderful people who put the whole play together and brought these fun characters to life.

Ms. Nitpicker (Anna Smith, right) dishes out the gossip with Mrs. Primm (Jessica Chisum, left)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

BACT Spotlight On - Stage Manager

Stage Managers are rarely seen in the spotlight. So, we thought we would give our resident Stage Manager the opportunity to share with you exactly what her job is all about! Meet Christina Larson, the extraordinary woman who keeps our shows running like clockwork. She took a moment out of her busy schedule to respond to our interview questions.
BACT: Can you tell us a little bit about what you do as a stage manager for BACT?

Christina: Much of my job is being the connector for all of the different people involved in a production.  During the rehearsal process I am in charge of setting up the room every day, and keeping track of any changes that happen during the rehearsal regarding any of the different departments that help make up the production: props, costumes, set, lights, sound.  It is my job to make sure that all of the different departments and designers are on the same page throughout the rehearsal process, so that the show can come together in a cohesive way.  I also write down blocking, and make sure all of the props are set in the right places for the actors to use them.  I help make sure that all of the creative minds in the room during rehearsal are able to do their work, and not worry about anything else!

Once a show opens, it is my job to "run" and "call" the show.  Since a director's job is done once a show is open, it is my responsibility to make sure that the production runs just the same way that the director wanted it to when they left.  I will set up the stage, props and costumes (and usually if I'm lucky I'll get help doing that), make sure the actors are ready and warmed up for the show, and then I am charge of making sure that all of the light and sound cues happen.  Pressing the buttons (or telling someone else to) for the lights and sound is "calling" a show, and that is one of the biggest parts of my job once a show is open.  And if anything goes wrong, or anything breaks during the run of the show, it is my job to make sure that it is fixed (this is true at any point in the process, but especially once we open).  All in all, I'm trying to make sure the actors are doing their best work and feeling great, so the audience has a fantastic time watching them.

BACT: What’s your favorite part of the process? (rehearsals, tech, calling the show, etc)

Christina: I'm not sure that I could pick a favorite part of the process.  I do really love seeing all of the different pieces of the show come together during tech week.  "Tech" is when every aspect of the show is finally put together in one place.  Before tech, actors may not have been working with all of their costume pieces, or final props, but during tech, we get up onto the stage with the final set pieces, lights, and sounds and get to see how it all fits together.  As you might imagine, there are often some pieces of the puzzle that don't quite fit, and one of the most interesting parts of my job is getting to figure out how to fix the problems that we find during tech.  It is a very exciting (and understandably stressful!) time for the show.

BACT: You are one of the two recipients of the Eric Landisman Fellowship, can you tell us a little bit about the award and what you will be doing for BACT?

Christina: The Eric Landisman Fellowship is for local technical theater professionals who have a contract with a local company for a series of projects, to supplement their work for the company.  I will be BACT's Resident Stage Manager for their current season - which means I will stage manage all shows starting with Tales of Olympus - and received the Fellowship because of this contract.  I am honored to be working so much with BACT, and this award means that I will be able to focus more on my work here.  It is really a wonderful opportunity that I am so excited and honored to receive.

BACT: And we're so excited to have you working with us! What draws you to children's theatre?

Christina: I am drawn to children's theatre because it is so rewarding.  Children's theatre often draws a special kind of actor, which makes for particularly energetic and fun processes in the rehearsal hall. It is also wonderful to see kids watching theatre for the first time, and it is even better to see them inspired as they walk out of a show.  Getting to see how children's theatre affects entire families is one of my favorite things.  It is a different experience than watching with an audience consisting entirely of adults.  When all of those adults are accompanied by a child, their perspective changes, and seeing that change and the joy that it can bring is one-of-a-kind.

BACT: Are there any challenges that are unique to these types of shows?

Christina: Children's theatre, apart from its audiences is very much like any other piece of theatre.  It has challenges that any other production might have regarding moving set pieces, or quick changes - but these awesome puzzles are ones that all shows have, which is why I like it.

BACT: What are some of your favorite memories at BACT?

Christina: Some of my favorite memories at BACT are from the San Ramon run of Pinkalicious. There were days during our run when we would do three shows in one day.  These would be long days, and especially tiring for the actors.  What I ended up loving were the moments when we would all gather together to find the energy for the next show.  We would yell funny words at each other or jump around to get the blood pumping.  Those times when we all thought we were too tired to do much, but then came together to put on a great show were some of my favorites.

BACT: What are you looking forward to in the coming 2012-2013 season?

Christina: I am really looking forward to all of the shows, but in particular the new ones -Tales of Olympus, and Ivy and Bean - since I have had the luxury of seeing them from (close to) the very start of their processes, when they were workshopped this summer.  I think that these new works are wonderful, and I can't wait for our audiences to see them.

BACT: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions Christina! We are so grateful to have you in our BACT family, and we look forward to what this upcoming season will bring for us!

Monday, October 1, 2012

BACT Spotlight On - Performer

As we prepare for the exciting opening of Lyle the Crocodile, we thought we just had to hear it from the crocodile himself - the amazingly talented Calvin Kai Ku! Calvin is a multi-faceted performer, as you will read about below, who will utilize his dynamic abilities to bring the imaginative character of Lyle to life on stage.
BACT: You are a bit of an acrobat, and you show off your skills in your role as Lyle; what other skills do you have? Which of them are you planning on bringing to the show?

Calvin: I'm also a magician and physical comedian. Lyle will be performing a little bit of magic in the show. As for Lyle's character, he has more of an elegant personality and is well put together, which limits the "clowning" portion of my talents to only small, subtle moments in the show. 
BACT: Where/how did you develop such an awesome arsenal of acrobatic achievements? Could you give a little description of your training? How old were you when you started?

Calvin: I studied gymnastics at a very young age. However, I didn't quite stick with it after a few years. I got back into training after college, but everything was a lot harder, which just meant I had to train harder and longer.

BACT: You are playing Lyle in Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile: can you describe your process in taking a character from the pages of a story book/script and making him come to life as a very physical, acrobatic character?

Calvin: When reading the book and studying the pictures and character of Lyle, I got a sense of his personality. From there, it was a matter of finding that same sort of pizzazz that Lyle holds within my own character. I find it more effective and realistic to create a version of a character based on your own repertoire. During our rehearsals, I practice mostly only my relationship to everyone else in the cast as well as my "communication" since Lyle is mute. 

BACT: What are you looking forward to most for Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile?

Calvin: There is a lot of comedy throughout the show. The setup for each of these bits requires so much practice with the ensemble for each joke to work. With that, I definitely look forward to working with everyone to make each and every moment of our show punch.

BACT: What has been your favorite part of the rehearsal process so far for the show?

Calvin: Creating the solo performance that Lyle does in the first couple of scenes of the show. It's a bit of a small medley of my skills, and I hope to be as charming as Lyle's character should be.

BACT: What part of Lyle's character do you relate to the most?

Calvin: Being green. I'm just a bit of a different shade of green. But most of all, the amount of different skills that Lyle holds is very similar to what I strive to possess. Many believe I'm a jack of all trades, but I just like trying everything.

BACT: You’ve taught circus camp for BACT before. Can you tell us how circus arts have related to your life? How have they related to your students lives?

Calvin: Circus Arts requires a lot of risk. Although it's calculated risk, it's risk nonetheless. I find with the lack of funding for the arts in America, we circus artists, especially, take a huge risk in leaping into this business. And, I hope the students that I teach take with them the courage that Circus requires, and use it throughout their lives.
BACT: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Calvin.  We are so lucky to have someone who is so passionate about the performing arts working with our company.  Best wishes on the opening of Lyle the Crocodile!