I’m a teaching artist. That’s a blanket term that covers diverse definitions as well as diverse tax statements. In any given week, I will teach classes at up to seven different locations for a wide array of students. It ranges from teaching Shakespeare to middle school students, leading story drama for three-year-olds in South Dallas, leading a playwriting class for college students, leading an improvisation workshop with fourth graders in Highland Park, teaching commercial audition technique to 6-11 year olds, to exploring fairy tale drama with second graders.
It gets a bit complicated.
On top of that, teaching artists are… artists. I have my own artistic work in development at the same time. Dallas/Fort Worth has strong arts community with many other teaching artists like myself working for a number of different programs. Arts education has been an important part of my life, particularly when I was a child. Piano lessons gave me a sense of discipline and order, painting allowed me to explore more abstract freedom, and theatre allowed me to develop social skills I lacked. Even though I was not aware of it at the time, teaching artists have been a major part of development as a human being.
I started this column as a way to highlight the diverse array of youth programs in theater—how they work, what methods they use, why they focus on performing arts for youth and children. The first group I immediately thought of was Capers for Kids, a company I have been working for since September, owned by Sherry “Boo” Capers. I teach programs at two Dallas locations each week with Capers, for young children. This company has been quietly changing the lives of children and adults through creative dramatics and art since 1978.
Boo can be summed up as a raspy-voiced, fly fishing enthusiast, born and raised in Dallas, with a penchant for sharing stories and laughs. She has spent her adult life developing this program that utilizes story drama to help children fully develop in to collaborative and communicative human beings, something that is not necessarily fostered in our individualized and media-centric educational system. Basic skills like concentration and sensory awareness are strengthened through the vessel of drama.
In a world where we are constantly seeing new programs flare up and flame out almost as quickly as they started, I think it helps to take a look at those who have stayed the course for decades. I think all teaching artists could take a lesson or two from Boo. Here’s some excerpts from an interview I conducted with her.
How did you start implementing drama into education for children?
I started teaching for DISD [in 1973] and I fell in love with teaching school. Love the kids. Then, they implemented the busing program [to bring children together from different socio-economic areas]. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I realize now that it was a failed social experiment, but it was beautiful.
So, I proposed a drama program to DISD, and I had these kids from two completely different worlds. I mean the kids who were in the projects had never been across the Trinity River. The kids from North Dallas knew nothing about these [other] kids. Interestingly enough there were not a bunch of fights. These kids were fascinated with each other in drama. You know I had kids who were so insecure, and when you had them around these other children with cute clothes, but it didn’t matter in drama. We put our costumes on and we were all equal. The principal, he would bring people in just to see this drama class just to see it working. I just fell in love with teaching drama for kids. I just realized that I had children who could not read, but they could do drama.
When did Capers for Kids start?
1978. I was still teaching public school, and I started teaching classes at the Y’s and rec centers. At the time, no one [in DFW] taught creative drama. I thought: “I just think this is what I’m supposed to do. I’m good at it. I absolutely love it.” So I quit my job and I started Capers for Kids. Everyone around me said: “You’ve lost your mind!” ’Cause nobody knew what creative drama was, even though it was started in 1920 up at Northwestern [University]. It just took off. I cannot tell you the passion I felt, that I feel to this day. It changes kids lives. It really does.
For many years you also had a school or building for most of your programs. When did you move into these permanent spaces?
In 1983, I moved into Kramer Elementary School; it had been closed due to low enrollment. It turned into an arts center. This was the coolest thing ever. It was just all incredibly arty people. DISD needed their building back in 1989, so I moved the school by the Galleria, in an office building/warehouse space. I remember taking my sister to see this space and it was a dump. I remember telling her, “This is going to be a theatre.” She said, “Oh Boo…I just don’t see it.” But it did turn into a theatre and it was wonderful, we were there for a long time. Then that building got hit by a tornado, it just wasn’t the same. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do until a guy I had done business with called me and said “Boo, I’ve got this building next door to me that has never been finished, would you like to finish the design and move in?” I was supposed to talk to my current landlord for the warehouse that day about moving or staying. So, I said yes to finishing the new building in 1997. I designed an art room, drama room, a 2000sq ft. theatre with light and sound equipment that the kids could operate. We were there nine years until the property was sold. I got out at a great time, right before the economy fell apart. We have kept the outreach programs after that.
Some of the other programs I know of can be literacy-based, meaning, putting the script in a child’s hand and memorizing it over a span of weeks. It always seems to deaden the imagination at times, working in that process. You are taking a different approach, Creative Dramatics. Can you help us understand how this approach works?
The thing about Creative Dramatics is you’re not working from a script. You know, it’s not theatre. It’s age-appropriate. It’s intentionally designed for kids.
Many of the Creative Dramatics lesson plans you created involve a story, one that the artist tells the children, and then we explore the story using our physicality, voices, and collaboration with our peers. What do the children walk away with through this experience?
We teach sensory awareness, emotional awareness, we want to teach some kind of characterization. We don’t force anybody to perform. I don’t care that they become actors and actresses.
What I care about it that they build some self-esteem and some confidence. They learn to work with other kids. They learn to speak comfortably and fluently. And sequencing, particularly with children of impoverishment—any kind of impoverishment, not just financial.
There was a woman named Ruby Payne that was in a school district in East Texas and she wrote this book called A Framework for Understanding Poverty. She said: “If a child can plan, then they can predict, if they can predict, then they can understand cause and effect, if they can understand cause and effect then they can comprehend consequence. Once a child comprehends consequence, they can control impulse.” Now, it’s a theory and there are times I’ve thought: “I’m not sure that’s right.” But there are times I’ve thought maybe it is. Because it’s sequencing. One thing comes before the other. You learn to wait, instant gratification is not necessary when you know the end is coming.
And that is something so vital to understand in our culture of instantaneous everything. Can you discuss how Creative Dramatics stimulates the imagination of a child?
We are bombarded with images so we have very few opportunities to create our own. Imagination, everyone confuses with creativity. Imagination is the ability to get images of things you’ve seen and not seen, and never experienced. That’s the fun. It’s kind of like: “I see myself with a 24-inch trout on the end my line.”
That goes back to the whole predicting issue, if you can imagine yourself, you can change yourself. That seems to be such a simple idea, but our ability to imagine and plan is consistently deadened in our culture of “instant access.” You also implement very tactile and collaborative elements to your curriculum and offer a wealth of resources to your teaching artists. For example, we each get a full teaching bag of costumes, simple props that can be used in infinite ways, and Drama Deck cards. These cards are a great example of how you engage the children in Creative Dramatics.
They are cards that are used to stimulate ideas to act out a scene. So you don’t need skill, you don’t need a bunch of practice. But, you pick up a card and it says Rapunzel got her hair stuck in a fan or Pinocchio is selling used cars. “Oh, yes the mileage is correct! [Makes gesture of nose growing.]” And so, you’ve got to take this scenario as a springboard.
And they really take to those cards so well, like my Highland Park kids. They really enjoy imagining possibilities for creating the story from the few words on the card. No matter what the card says, they almost instantly verbalize and play ideas in their groups.
I’ve got to throw a story here. I’m working with visually impaired children; I love these kids. They have very little vision so they still need a cane to get around. And I always picked stories of kings and queens so we could work on physicalization. It taught them to “walk like a king or a queen.” Because typically they would be walking with their head facing the ground and hunched over. You’d talk to them, but they don’t talk back because they are facing the floor. So then you never have an open person, always closed and looking down. But you give them the idea and say “Walk like a king,” suddenly they are standing with their head up, shoulders back and barely using the cane at all. It’s like that shy child gets to be something powerful and get to know what it feels like. They may never be powerful in their whole life, but they’ve had the experience once.
It does have to work from the imagination of each person.
I think kids are so intuitive and we shut that down. And they don’t trust themselves to make decisions, but usually they are right in the first instance. In Creative Dramatics, they’re so engaged. And it’s not like the teacher is standing in front of them saying “ok, fill out this form. Do this exercise sheet.” They are really engaged and they are learning.
Of all the places I work for, I feel the most connection working for Capers, simply because we meet face to face once a month. That may seem very strange to people with a conventional job, were you work with colleagues in the same space on a regular basis. For teaching artists, we are primarily contract workers out in the field, constantly traveling to multiple schools every week, sometimes every day. It’s really rare to meet with my other peers. Tell us about the community you’ve created with your teaching artists.
It’s like a parlor. We get to visit and share ideas and when someone gets stuck, and as I run across things, I will give them out during out meeting. (Boo stops the interview and hands me a new story she came across.) I like for us to get together and share ideas, and if someone is having trouble, you have all of these talented people.
I’m a teacher at heart. I’m not an actress, I’m not a director. I’m a teacher. I want y’all to know that I respect you and that you respect yourselves. Because what y’all are doing is changing people’s lives.
Drama, it gives us a chance to learn life skills. It’s like what I say to my little bitty students “Drama is learning about life one tale at a time.” And we do.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director and performer. She is currently the director of The Echo Room Presents: Her Song for Echo Theatre. Each month in TheaterJones, she'll write about a different North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages.