Addison — A significant portion of work as a teaching artist involves mentoring and working with students, so much that the relationship between the teaching artist and parents of the child can be overlooked. The idea for this article emerged after speaking with Janeth Farnsworth, Education and Community Services Manager at WaterTower Theatre in Addison. Initially, I thought this column would just discuss their education programs, specifically elementary afterschool programs. However, an interesting conversation on the role of the parent emerged.
WaterTower has held a strong partnership with Anne Frank Elementary for more than a decade and in recent years added a couple of programs in other local schools including George Bush Elementary and Spring Creek Elementary. Farnsworth states: “We emphasize life skills and theatre skills. A lot of them, especially lower socio-economic, haven’t ever really heard of theatre, done theatre, seen theatre before. And (we are) also helping them do other things like following directions, (gaining) self-confidence, using our imagination, and working with others.”
WaterTower offers once-a-week after school programming to these three schools “as a way to continue the education and engage children instead of going home to watch T.V. or going to their babysitter.” Some of these programs are free and some with a small fee for participants—paying $30 for an entire 10-week theatre program really is a steal if you compare to other programs that require heftier payments. Each after school program runs in the same way, regardless of cost to the student. However, there is something to be said about paying even a small amount for a theatre program: it makes the program appear to have actual value. The program where parents paid had more regular attendance and the parents gave more critical feedback after the performance. This issue of “value” became the crux of our discussion—How to make a theater program appear valuable to a parent. Is it about the experience or the product?
As a teaching artist for these programs in 2014, I assisted with the transition from a play-based program to one that is process-oriented. Keep in mind the specific constraints of the program: after school (the children have been sitting in desks all day), 18-22 children from ages seven to nine meeting only one hour a week for ten weeks. That’s it. Ten hours to cram as much theatre training, to prepare students for a presentation of something on week 10. So really, nine hours—because the last week is really a performance.
It was difficult to attempt a scripted play within these constraints, since you could not spend nearly enough time on simple elements of performance like confidence, trust, pronunciation, or physical choices. We had to start rehearsals early and hope that students would remember everything we accomplished a week later. Through the constraints given and the pressure to present a complete play, Farnsworth found that students “were over it by the third rehearsal week 3, so the idea that we’re going to rehearse a 10 minute play for 6 weeks is hard. The casting was also traumatic, it always put someone as a star and someone not as important. Those were not the skills that we wanted them to learn. We felt it would be most beneficial to change and develop something new, and it really seems to have paid off.”
“We restructured the program from doing actual plays to more skills-based and ensemble building,” Farnsworth notes. In the end of this new curriculum, students presented a variety show involving some the theatre activities the students excelled at, along with performances of short scenes that the students wrote. Other new goals for the program included emphasizing story structure, the language of the stage, speaking clearly with volume, communicating through body language, and keeping students engaged through the whole program.”
Immensely proud of the range of experiences we offered the children in the newer program and that the children appeared much more engaged in the process, I assumed that parents would be happy as well. Unfortunately, not all parents were content, particularly those who “pay to play.” Farnsworth explains that “in the end, while we’ve been having fun, a major concern is that parents see how valuable it is.”
The parents have been more unhappy with the switch than the kids,” Farnsworth notes. Parents are a variable, there’s no way to anticipate how they will respond, how involved they choose to be, or what knowledge they have of theatre. You may hear them on the phone, or the occasional email, or see them pick up their child (meaning the child runs to a car 15 feet away and you see a shadowy figure in the front seat give a half-hearted wave and you pray that is actually their parent as they drive away). I’ve found that unless parents have a background in the arts, they do not understand the developmental and social value of theatre training. Explaining this issue Farnsworth says, “Sometimes the parents want the kids to become actors, that’s not necessarily what we were aiming to do. We have also learned that we have to tell parents why we are playing certain games so they have a realization that they’re not just doing this for fun, but that they’re learning a specific life skill.”
There’s also no guarantee that throwing on costumes and giving lines to a child will make them a “star,” but cultivating experiences for the imagination will give the child better ways to prepare for their adolescence and adulthood. Theatre games that heighten focus, explore emotion, emphasize articulation, and play with physicality are all fundamentals to actor training and human development. Through our educational system, these skills are routinely deadened in the traditional environment. As a teaching artist in a variety of situations, there comes a point where you say: “Let’s rehearse the first half of the play again!” The response will be a unanimous groan from the vocal children, and you do not want that as a part of their overall experience. And the parents do not see this, they only view the end, and that’s how they base their value judgment.
Part of this emerges from our product-oriented culture, looking for a specific visual package that equates the money spent on the class with the expectations at their children’s performance. Farnsworth notes that some of the parents said “My kid wasn’t in a play, he wants to be a star.” Learning how to manage the expectations of the parents has been a learning curve. “I think a lot of it is educating parents about how important theatre is not only to those who want to be actors but those skills in life and I really hope that’s a conversation we’re having with them. We really learn a lot about ourselves and being a good citizen and talking and how to be productive.” At the end of the day, these programs should be designed for the benefit of the children and I applaud WaterTower for taking the steps necessary to design a better experience.
When the children are doing a fully scripted play, they know that the goal is to perform for their parents (this can be complicated when parents are not in the picture at all). There’s a list of things they must do right to get a positive response: move to the correct spot, say the right things, hold the prop correctly, wear the right costume, etc. All of these elements take up time that could be spent on verbal communication, creative development, problem solving and collaboration. So when parents believe that the value is diminished because “a real play” did not occur, think of the skills that have not been developed as a result of putting too much emphasis on a traditional play. As teachers, all we can really do is focus on the developmental needs of each individual child in the classroom moment. If we can stretch their creative strength for even a fraction, we have done great work that day, regardless of what parents see at the final presentation.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director and performer. 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. Below is a list of previous columns:
- February 2015 "Teacher/Artist" (Capers for Kids)