Dallas — The next few columns for Teacher/Artist will explore youth engagement programs in Fort Worth. First, let’s take a look at Amphibian Stage Productions’ Tad Poles program, a catchy name for their outreach Stilt Walking troupe. When I first heard about the program, I had some skepticism. What can Stilt Walking provide for youth? Do they create plays on stilts? What is the purpose of it? To acquire some answers and gain a stronger contextual background, I talked with Vanessa Rohrer from Amphibian.
The history of the Tad Poles started when Kathleen Culebro, Artistic Director of Amphibian, saw the Brooklyn Jumbies perform in New York. Culebro’s sister works for this Afro-Caribbean stilt walkers outfit, and Culebro felt inspired to bring this kind of performance to North Texas. Introducing Stilt Walking techniques to the staff of Amphibian, the Jumbies traveled to Fort Worth for workshops. In 2008, the Tad Poles were formed to present this mode of performance to Ft. Worth and engage the community in the kinesthetic and cultural experience of walking on stilts up to three feet tall. Their current touring troupe meets on Saturdays to play, rehearse, and provide classes for anyone with an interest.
The outreach program is two-fold, as the Tad Poles provide classes for the greater community and travel to schools within Ft. Worth. The experience of walking on stilts provides a kinesthetically engaging approach to conquering obstacles, namely the mental obstacle of “I can’t.” Overcoming this tall hurdle is physically represented as children and adults walk tall. As Rohrer notes, “It’s scary getting up there.” The stilts are custom made in Oregon, and the children’s sizes range from 18 to 24 inches. For adults, the tallest sizes are three feet, and the Jumbies sometimes use stilts around five feet. By using new muscles and a sense of balance, the children master new motor skills while experiencing what the world is like at adult (or above) height. It’s not soccer or football or dance, it’s a totally different set of coordination skills. You don’t even have to be a certain body type to walk on stilts well. If you’re not the most coordinated dancer or mover, you can still be amazing at stilts. The traveling troupe bringing stilts to children appears to be the heart of the mission of the Tad Poles.
The school outreach programs include yearlong residencies that integrate core class subjects, cultural awareness, and physical experience. Last year, the Tad Poles presented a series of classes on French Stilt Walking culture to their elementary students. Their investigation circled around a historical figure, Sylvain Dornon. He was a baker who climbed the Eiffel Tower in his stilts at the World’s Fair in 1889, when the Tower was unveiled to the city Paris. Afterwards, he also walked from Paris to Moscow in 58 days completely on stilts. The Tad Poles brought this story to life and toured it to schools across Fort Worth. Rohrer emphasized that this program aims to invite children into these subjects through a new lens. Each play has a comprehensive study guide that informs the teacher how the stories and exploration of culture reinforce ideas that students are learning in other classes. While students are learning how to walk tall, their learning extends across subject lines.
While exploring Sylvain’s life, students also learned about science, measurements, and French cooking. They are also exposed to a significant amount of history and French language, since this actual event took place in the late nineteenth century France. By reaching children through a new sensorial experience, the knowledge is cemented in their memory in a different way. Each year, the Tad Poles choose a new culture and story to examine through the lens of stilts. In the past, they have explored Mexican and African Stilt Walking practices along with ritualistic and historical connections. So they don’t just focus on stilt walking, but also the cultural identity attached to it. They are bridging the gaps between art, geography, language, science, and social studies through an activity that on the surface may not appear to be intellectually stimulating.
When the Tad Poles work with children through the full school year, they like to make a connection between the intellectual and physical growth of the child. At the beginning of the residency, they will measure the child on their stilts. After a full year of growth spurts and possibly taller stilts, the children can see how tall they can walk in this world. Rohrer notes that most of the children are shocked at the end that they can confident they can be in themselves. That’s why Amphibian provides these programs free of charge to schools. They aim to cut through the red tape and budget cuts because they believe in the program so strongly. They also want the teachers and administrators of Fort Worth to know that they are a resource to their community and aim to supplement the core class work through a different path.
Rohrer asked me to share that Amphibian will host a public Tad Poles class on Oct. 17 at their theatre space for adults and children (from ages 8 and up). Anyone is welcome to attend, as long as you RSVP via email to Vanessa. Hopefully some of you who read this column will take a chance to walk tall. Find out more at http://www.amphibianstage.com.
» 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)
- March 2015 "Parental Guidance Suggested" (WaterTower Theatre)
- April 2015 "DaVersify Your Life" (DaVerse Lounge)
- May 2015 "The Work in Art" (Tax time for an independent artist)
- June 2015 "Learning to Say YES" (Cara Mía Theatre)
- July 2015 "Exploring Language" (Dallas Children's Theater and Junior Players)
- August 2015 "Transforming Through Dance" (Junior Players)