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!

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