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Posts Tagged ‘theater in education’

Poster outside SCERA

A poster advertising our musical in front of the SCERA Center for the Performing Arts in Orem, Utah

I told the story in my last post of how being laid off led to some interesting silver linings, including starting my Trinum Magicum book series. In this post I will tell the story of another silver lining: becoming involved in community theater, and how storytelling and theater are forms of education that are often overlooked in science classes.

SCERA and marquee

The marquee in front of the SCERA theater advertising our musical. We were competing with the premiere of Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi. Despite the stiff competition, we had large audiences except for one private showing where the theater was only half full.

Two weeks before being laid off at American Academy of Innovation (as described in a previous post), I signed up for an LDS Self Reliance Services class on how to start my own business, which I was attending every week. Through this and other venues, friends in my community knew of my situation and that I was looking for work but also had some unexpected time on my hands. One of these friends was Arden Hopkin, the retired director of vocal performance instruction at Brigham Young University. He had been cast in the part of Kris Kringle in our local community production of the musical Miracle on 34th Street by Meredith Willson (the same guy who created The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown). The production was short on male cast members, and Arden approached me about trying out for a part in the musical. I’ve always wanted to do community theater but had judged myself to be too busy to commit to the practices and performances. Now I had the time. So I showed up to the second rehearsal and they gave me four parts – as a community member (the general chorus), as the governor of New York, as Tamany O’Halloran (the Judge’s political advisor), and even as the drunken Santa Claus.

Drunken Santa Claus

I had four parts in the musical, including as the drunken Santa Claus. Here, Arden Hopkin as Kris Kringle is shocked at my sorry state. I even had a little song that I sang to myself, which I called “Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.”

The second rehearsal I attended was to learn choreography on a large production number called “Big Ca-lown Balloons” at the start of the play. It was very challenging for me, since I didn’t receive my script or music until right at the start of this practice, so I was trying to sight read the music while learning dance steps. It made me wish I had taken some MDT (Music, Dance, Theater) classes in college beyond a few ballroom dance classes. There was this one little step in this number that I never did get completely right, but could at least move with the other players enough that my lack of footwork finesse wasn’t obvious to the audience (although it undoubtedly was to my fellow performers).

Makeup time

Doing stage makeup in the mirror next to the Green Room underneath the stage.

Gradually, over many practices in October and November, my parts in all this came together. The most difficult number for me was “My State, My Kansas” where Tamany O’Halloran, Mr. Macy, Doris, and Shelhammer try to convince the judge to throw Kris Kringle’s case out of court or his constituents in Kansas might get upset and vote him out in the coming election. The words are ridiculous but it was a lot of fun to do. The choreographer had us do a jump with a heel click at one part, and I never could do the heel click (I don’t trust my weak legs enough) but could at least do a bit of a side hop. Although I managed to mess up on this on our final performance (because I was standing on the wrong leg going into the hop), I did reasonably well on all the other performances. I even had a nice solo singing line at the start of the number and a high sustained E to sing at the end. The other performers were kind enough to work with me to practice (and practice and practice) these dance routines so that I would at least blend in.

How to do makeup

Why do your own makeup when you can have three assistants do it for you? I didn’t trust myself at first, so my wife helped me out putting on makeup and slicking back my hair before I left for call at 6:00. Eventually I was able to do it myself.

We held our practices in the basement of the SCERA Theater in Orem. As we neared the end of November, we moved up to the stage where the sets were being built for our performances. We got fitted for costumes – I had four costumes, including a quick change in the wings to go from my townsperson’s outfit (for “Big Ca-lown Balloons”) to my Santa Claus outfit. I had to take off my overcoat and hat, swing into my Santa coat and hat, grab my brandy bottles, and hoof it out to the lamppost all during a very short transitional scene. My other changes could be done more leisurely as I put on my fancy Governor’s outfit, then changed into my Tamany O’Halloran outfit during Intermission.

Hamming it up for video

Natalie Merrill (far left) recorded us all lip-synching to “All I Want for Christmas.” It was a fun cast and despite my amateur status, they were kind and supportive and willing to teach me the ropes.

Overall everyone was great to work with, and I learned so many things about theater and had some deep conversations in the Green Room as we were waiting to go on. Arden was the master thespian we all looked up to, and many of the secondary parts (Shelhammer, Macy, etc.) were cast with people in their thirties and forties who had been doing community theater for years and had some amazing experiences to share.

Big Ca-lown Balloon dancing

The opening scene featured a large production number called “Big Ca-Lown Balloons.” Despite my lack of choreography experience, I managed to stay mostly in sync with the other cast members on this one. I am at far right in the tan coat.

My favorite scenes were the “My State, My Kansas” scene (although that was also my hardest to do) and the courtroom scenes, with Garrett Smit (Mr. Macy) singing “That Man Over There” with great enthusiasm. It brought down the house every night. I learned that most of acting as a bit player is really reacting to what the leads are doing and saying, projecting your emotions through exaggerated expression and body language. The more fun we had, the more fun the audience had.

Waiting in line for Santa

Here I am playing a grandfather waiting in line for Santa Claus at Macy’s.

Evan Allred played Judge Martin Group, and he is the grandfather of Lydia Oakeson, who played the part of Susan, the same part played by Natalie Wood in the movie version. It was great to see a grandfather and granddaughter in the same play. I worked a lot with Evan, helping him get his lines down. He was taking medication for Parkinson’s Disease, which helped control his shaking but made memorization extremely difficult. Each night during Intermission, after I had changed, I would sit down with Evan and help run through his lines, since I was one of the people in the scene. We worked out using his script as the commitment papers he was supposed to sign, so that he could look down for his lines if he needed to. On a couple of occasions we had to ad lib, but we made it work and people I knew in the audience said they couldn’t really tell – they just thought the judge was pausing because he was being thoughtful. He has been in many plays, even directing musicals, and this was to be his last performance. I learned so much from him.

Governor of New York

Mr. Macey introduces Kris Kringle to the Governor of New York (me) and the Mayor of New York City along with Mr. Shelhammer. Although the original story is set in the early 1950s, our production was set in the 1960s. I think the governor was Nelson Rockefeller at the time, since he is referred to as Nelson.

About a week before performances began, we held a sweetening session to just record all of the group songs so that they can be played back behind us to make the sound fuller. We then practiced with the sweetener to make sure our timing was perfect.

Dont take this case

After intermission, the musical focuses on the courtroom scenes. Here, Tamany O’Halloran (me), the political adviser for Judge Martin Grohe (Evan Allred), is trying to convince the judge not to take the Kringle case but instead go on vacation. Meanwhile, Fred Gailey is hiding under the judge’s robes.

Our first official performance was Dec. 1, 2017 and we continued for two weeks, with Tuesdays and Sundays off, for 12 regular performances with our closing night on Dec. 16. My best night was on Wednesday, Dec. 13 in terms of getting all my dance moves, singing, and lines in sync. We had our occasional glitches, but the show went well and was well reviewed and had good audiences. I learned what it felt like to have this intimate bond with the audience – as we performed well, the audience responded and that fueled our enthusiasm. I can see why live theater is the best form of acting and why TV and movie stars will go back to their theater roots from time to time, just to get back that rapport with a live audience.

There were some funny things that happened, as happens in all theater productions. There is a scene were Doris has to slap Fred, and the other actors would wait in the wings to hold up judging cards on how well the slap went. Shellhammer (played by Logan Beaux) made up different lines each night about the plastic alligators he was handing out to store clerks, like “Oh, this one is my favorite!” The “She Hadda Go Back” scene was very reminiscent of the train scene at the beginning of The Music Man, with difficult rhythmic chanting that had to be timed perfectly, with Fred Gailey (played by TJ Thomas) pretending he knew women only to be surprised by a girl selling Girl Scout Cookies. They always got the best laughs for that scene.

Removing the robe

At the end of the scene, I quickly grab the judge’s robes without noticing Fred hiding underneath.

My wife helped me put on my makeup and slick back my hair each night – some rouge for my cheeks, eyeliner for my eyelashes, lipstick, etc. We each had a section for our own costumes in the men’s dressing room, and things got a bit crowded and crazy each night. At the end of Intermission I would take the judge’s robes up and drape them on the bench set, and there was a scene were Doris (played by Natalie Merrill) had to leave the stage from an interior set, then re-enter in the next scene with her coat on. I volunteered to get her coat ready and help her into it quickly, which Natalie appreciated. I had to carefully set up my Santa coat and hat and my brandy bottles on a prop table each evening before the opening scene. I was in the first scene as a grandfather, and so I was on stage as the curtain opened each time. On one night, I made it all the way through “My State, My Kansas” before realizing that my fly was unzipped. Yikes!

Convincing the judge

Shellhammer and O’Halloran try to convince the judge that his Kansas constituents won’t like him putting away Kris Kringle.

We also got miked each night, and they had to test our microphone’s channels by having us speak a part and sing a bit, so I started singing through my old song “Fred the Policeman” just for fun. I traded off my mike with one of the children for the first act then kept it for the second. During downtime when I wasn’t on stage I read the book Most Likely to Succeed and wrote a long poem for my Golden Apple book that I was writing at the same time. The kids in the show would get a bit noisy, and I was afraid the audience might hear them all the way through the Green Room ceiling.

My state my Kansas

Singing “My State, My Kansas” with Shelhammer and Macey. The song has nonsensical lyrics meant to stir up patriotic feelings of mom, apple pie, and Kansas corn fields in the judge.

We reported to the theater at 6:00 each evening and got dressed, ready, and miked, with opening curtain at 7:30. The performances lasted until 9:30 or so each night, then we would return our mikes and walk out into the lobby for a meet and greet as the audience filed out of the theater. Since there were three people from my immediate neighborhood in the show, quite a few of our neighbors came to see us (it was Arden, not me, that they were coming to see). All of my immediate and some extended family came, and my two boys loved the show.

Almost airborn

This was the most difficult moment for me in the whole musical, where I’m supposed to be doing a side heel click like Shellhammer and Macey are doing, but with unsteady legs, I didn’t dare try to jump. I’m just lucky I was on the correct foot when this photo was taken.

We held a cast party on the second to last night, with a white elephant gift exchange (my ugly garden gnome mushroom head got the most laughs) and some fun activities such as an ugly Christmas sweater contest. My home dyed sweater did not win, so that tells you just how ugly some of these sweaters were. Natalie recorded the cast lip-synching several songs and her videos are a lot of fun to watch. Here’s a link to all of us singing “All I Want for Christmas”: https://youtu.be/JnuXY5x0mv8 .

High E

We finished off the song with me hitting a sustained High E on the words “and ME!” Not for the faint of heart, and I was always afraid I would go flat. Which is why I have my eyebrows raised so high. We did get good applause each night, so I’m happy about it.

On Friday nights the cast would get together to have a late dinner at Denny’s. Being short on money, I only was able to join them once for frozen yogurt. We got to be quite close as a cast and it felt like family. Many of these people go from one performance to another, and I felt that they were all much more talented than I am, but it was a great experience overall. I went with my son to see Bye, Bye, Birdie the next summer and several of the people from my cast were in that musical as well. Given how much talent there is in this community with two large universities, I was fortunate to be in this production and may never get the chance again. I’m glad I did it.

 

Community Theater as Storytelling:

So what does theater have to do with education? Why would I want to tell you about all of this in a science education blog site?

In the green room

Cast members in the Green Room under the stage waiting to go on. Nate Allen, playing the District Attorney, is center. We had some interesting conversations about cosmology and helped Evan run through his lines as the judge.

Education is partly theater. Every day, every period, teachers must entertain as well as teach. We now compete with all kinds of devices that didn’t exist when I started teaching almost 30 years ago. It’s hard for any teacher to be more entertaining than YouTube kitten videos or Internet memes, or more relevant to our students’ everyday lives than texting their friends. We could turn our classes into three ring circuses and still not be as entertaining as iPhone game apps. So we have to learn ways to engage our students and make our course content meaningful. We can try to regulate cell phone usage as much as we please, but we’re not going to reach our students unless we can provide more for them than the devices can.

Mushroom head

We held a cast party the night before closing and exchanged white elephant gifts. I’ve been trying to give this ugly mushroom head away for years . . .

One of the requirements of our jobs that isn’t taught in a teacher preparation program is how to be a good storyteller, because much of what we teach are stories. When we talk about the discovery of the double DNA helix, or the development of the periodic table by Mendeleev, or Einstein’s theory of relativity we are essentially telling stories, and the more engaging and entertaining these stories are told, the more likely they are to be remembered. Storytelling is part content and part theater. We have the Timpanogas Storytelling Festival here in Utah Valley each September, and they have classes on how to become a master storyteller. My experience in this theater production has convinced me that I need to take some classes at the festival.

Ugly sweater winners

We also held an ugly sweater contest. These are the winning (?) sweaters.

I think many educators ignore how useful theatrics can be in any classroom. Holding mock trials, recreating famous debates or discoveries, and having students teach others through acting can be very effective and memorable teaching tools. My 6th grade son participated in a Wax Museum project where each student took the part of a famous revolutionary thinker, then created a poster explaining whom the person was and what they did. They dressed up like the person and brought props. He was Galileo, and I have a small telescope and my wife a Renaissance style hat purchased at a Shakespearean festival. His job was to create a tableau of Galileo: to stand still in place until people came around then act out a short script he prepared to represent Galileo’s life. I think this was a marvelous idea, and months later he still remembers everything about Galileo and the other revolutionaries that were acted out in the Wax Museum project.

Trial scene

A scene from the trial. I didn’t have any lines here, so my job was to react to what the leads were doing.

I grew up in a small town without many forms of excitement, so one of our main ways to keep ourselves entertained was to “visit” or basically to tell stories to each other. There were naturally good storytellers in our town, people who could make the most mundane events seem like grand adventures. I envied them, and I hope some day to emulate their skill at holding an audience enthralled. You can tell from the overly long, pedantic way I write that I have a long way to go.

I now work with Nathan Jones, who teaches English and is a film and fantasy writer, movie director, and voice actor. We’ve had interesting discussions about the role of storytelling and the hero’s journey in education and how all people see themselves as the central character of their own story, naïve at first and needing direction from a mentor until they make the journey, slay the dragon, and return changed and enlightened. What are the stories we tell about ourselves? Do we say of ourselves that we are capable or incompetent, bold or timid, mighty or weak? And as teachers, how can we act as the mentors in the self-told stories of our students?

That Man Over There

The population of students that I now teach come from all over the country and from many backgrounds and cultures. Some come with severe anxiety and exhibit self-harm, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, poor body image, depression, family trauma, and a host of other emotional issues. They’ve been listening to some very negative stories from themselves and others. How can I help to change these negative self-told tales, to show them that they can become the heroes of their own stories instead of the “villainous” roles they’ve fallen into? It is an avenue of education I haven’t considered before and something to pursue as I prepare for my upcoming doctoral adventure.

Enter the Marines with mail

In the climatic scene, the marines bring in the letters addressed to Kris Kringle.

Storytelling is hardwired into the human brain; it was the primary way we passed cultural and tribal knowledge before the advent of writing, and oral traditions still thrive in many parts of the world. Yet we’ve somehow gotten away from storytelling as educators. I’ve even been reprimanded for telling too many stories in my classes; my principals wanted me to focus more on content and improving test scores instead of helping students construct meaning from what they were learning or understanding the context and the history of science. I think this is a mistake, and part of my doctoral research will be to show how storytelling can be an effective tool, a part of STEAM education. When we talk about incorporating arts into STEM, we mean all arts and not just painting. We mean music, dance, and theater including storytelling. As I have mentioned before in this blog, I hope to always tell generative, positive, transformative stories. I hope that my students come to tell the same types of stories about themselves.

Curtain call

Curtain call at the end of the musical. It was the realization of a major bucket list item for me. I hope some day to have the time to do this again.

In my next post I will finally catch you up with where I am teaching now and what has been happening since.

Waiting for the parade to start

Education and theater have much in common. Both are based on ancient oral traditions of storytelling.

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