LivingArts: Off Book

It’s that time of year again: back to school time. As I watch friends and friend’s children return to their various halls of learning I can’t help but wonder how students encounter theatre during their education.  What inspires a student to take the daring leap to apply to Theatre School? To satisfy my curiosity I spoke to two teachers who each encounter different types of students; the English Teacher and the Drama Teacher.

The English Teacher

In high school Drama is an elective. If a student doesn’t choose Drama, either because they don’t have any interest or because they have a stronger interest in another art elective, their only encounter with theatre during their high school education would be in an English class, reading Shakespeare.  I spoke to an English teacher from Dundas about the challenges of teaching the Bard to students who may have other interests. She tells me with obvious admiration that Shakespeare is still vital and that she believes that his impact stems from the breadth of his work -- comedy, tragedy, history, social commentary -- and that it is the duty of a passionate teacher to spread that passion to their students.  The secret, she tells me, to getting a modern teenage audience to connect is to properly contextualize a piece for a modern reader.

“That's why I start Macbeth by asking kids about loyalty: to parents, to a best friend, to Canada; and get them into Macbeth's mindset before we begin to read the play.” It is also essential, she says, to understand the structure of a play, so students study the format of script writing and, most importantly, are reminded that plays are not written to be read. “I like to start Shakespeare by saying that the Bard didn't sit down with his quill and say "How can I bore 30 kids in Dundas for a month - I think I'll write Merchant of Venice!" Whenever possible students are taken to a live performance or alternatively are shown a film version of the play under discussion.  Not surprisingly she finds that a live performance is more impactful. “I love the conversation in class the day after I have taken students to see and hear a play.”

The Drama Teacher

I connected with a Drama Teacher at Burlington Central High School to ask questions about teaching those students who have chosen Drama because of their interest; however, to my surprise, that does not describe all of his students. “Not all kids that take Drama want to actually study it. Some take it because it is the only thing that fits in their timetable or because their friend is in the class. That, combined with the nature of a Drama class not at all looking like a traditional class can make it challenging to teach something meaningful to the kids that want to be there versus just trying to keep the others interested enough to not be a disruption.”  It sounds like a fine balance.  He engages students by allowing them to create scenes about topics that they enjoy; the success of presenting something enjoyed by their classmates can be the best motivation.

Those students who return for senior level classes often demonstrate remarkable ingenuity. “One of the most remarkable differences is how incredible they are at problem solving. Many of my senior drama kids need very little direction when told to create a story or a scene.” But the most rewarding is the creativity let loose outside of the classroom with those students in their extra-curricular shows. “I do my best teaching when there is a clear goal that has nothing to do with grades. Watching a show come together at the high school level is a very cool experience and is easily the most satisfying part of what I do.”

One thing is clear from my discussions with these educators: there are many teachers out there pouring their hearts and their time into helping students to connect with