I invited a new colleague to write a guest entry on the Big Sky Arts Ed blog, Barbara (Bobbi) McKean. Below she writes about her experience with one of MAC’s Artists in Schools and Communities Arts Learning Partners, Montana Shakespeare in the Schools, a program of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks. Bobbi has had a long relationship with the company, and recently took some time on her sabbatical from the University of Arizona to help the company train their actor-teachers to work with students in the many schools where they tour.
Starting in 2004, I have had the opportunity to work as educational consultant with the Montana Shakespeare in the Schools program The statewide tour of Montana Shakespeare in the Schools is now in its 22nd year. The program is the recipient of the Montana Arts Council’s Artists in Schools and Communities grant program and the Shakespeare for a New Generation grant program from the National Endowment for the Arts. It reaches one middle or high school each day with an 80-minute performance of a Shakespearean play, a post performance talk back, and related workshops for smaller groups held in students’ classrooms. This year, thanks to a sabbatical from my University, I spent three full weeks working with the actor-teachers in preparation for their current tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As a teaching artist and an associate professor of theatre education, working with MSIP exemplifies what I believe is critical to arts organizations in the schools: We consider each day as both an artistic and an educational day. From the time the van arrives, the company members are actor-teachers. The entire day is viewed as our opportunity to excite students and teachers to the world of theatre and Shakespeare.
It isn’t about doing a performance for students and teachers. It is about creating opportunities for the company to interact with students and teachers. It is about playing and investigating together what actors do and what Shakespeare has to tell us about life, about theatre and about our current situations. In our current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the characters sit in the audience at times; the music is modern, sometimes silly and global; the text is clear; and the action is intense and non-stop. At the end of the play when Bottom asks Theseus: “Would it please you to see epilogue?” often the audience will shout “Yes! Epilogue! Epilogue!” (Shakespeare however has Theseus decline). As one of the actor-teachers put it “this has been one of the greatest interactions…we’ve taken them from ‘we have to watch this play’ to ‘we want to see MORE of this play!’
During the post-performance talk back, the actor-teachers take questions, often discussing the play and the process of putting the performance together. One student noted that the play within the play reminded him of Romeo and Juliet (one of the plays MSIP performed this past summer). The actor-teachers were then able to talk about how Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream right after Romeo and Juliet and perhaps he wanted to poke some fun at his own tragedy.
At lunchtime, the actor-teachers spend time talking with the students. Some ask them about the life of an actor and where they learned their craft. This provides an opportunity to talk about college (all of our actor-teachers have college degrees). Students are genuinely comforted and thrilled the actor-teachers take time to listen to their stories. A student sitting alone allowed a couple of actor-teachers to sit with him. “At first few words were exchanged but as soon as we started asking him questions he perked right up telling us all about things he was interested in and things he was learning about. We got a crash course in astronomy and the medieval chivalry code. You could tell this student is bright and just wanted someone to fan the flame and listen.”
A key component of the day is the workshops. Each workshop is structured around the play and is designed to encourage students to actively engage with some aspect of Shakespeare’s text. The language workshop asks students to explore Shakespeare’s metaphors in the text. As one actor-teacher wrote: “I was thrilled with the ideas they were coming up with for why the weather was happening and the characters they were creating.” In the production workshop, students create their own version of the play within the play. This year the actor-teachers are trying to involve the classroom teachers either as partner teachers or as participants. In one workshop, the teacher jumped in and the students really were enthusiastic about him being a part of the workshop. New this year is a music workshop where students are asked to create sounds and Shakespeare’s rhythms using their voices and bodies to see what happens. While the workshop is exciting, many students find it difficult at first. “Making a collective challenge to the group about making strong vocal / percussive choices at the beginning, and establishing a safe space where no choice will be deemed “stupid” I’ve found is the MOST important step in the workshop.” The stage combat workshop is a regular option for students. “The nature of the work requires students to be fully in or just out altogether. And the payoff is huge when it clicks. They take ownership of the moves and gain a respect for the discipline.”
When each day is finished, the actor-teachers know they have given their all. But they also come away “knowing at least a tiny bit more about more than I did before” and that they are “paying it forward” by instilling in others their love for theatre and Shakespeare that will continue long after the van leaves the parking lot.
Bobbi McKean is an associate professor in the School of Theatre, Film and Television at the University of Arizona. She first saw Montana Shakespeare in the Parks perform in 1984. In 1985, she was an actor in the summer company. And every summer since then, she makes sure she spends at least some time under the big Montana skies!