Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Education for the Littlest Theatergoers

As The New Victory Associate Director of Education, one of my main responsibilities is to carve out time and space for the Education Team of staff and teaching artists to build curriculum for the New Vic in the Classroom pre- and post-performance workshop program. In June of this year, a group of four teaching artists and I spent a week collaborating to develop a pre-performance lesson plan for Egg & Spoon, a show for the littlest theatregoers. This gentle production, by Lyngo Theatre Company, explores what happens in the world while an egg incubates. As we explored the work, the group kept coming to the same question: How do we introduce and prepare the littlest theatergoers, many of whom would have their first experience at the theater, to see this production without replicating the show exactly?

Sensory and imagination abound in My House, 2009.
This production is highly sensory and engages the littlest ones immediately by offering the audience “gifts of nature,” called “spring rolls,” to interact with on stage at different times during the show. Students this young learn by playing and doing, so we will do just that. The teaching artist team decided to create a pre-show workshop for Egg & Spoon using the same tone, atmosphere and sense of play, in order to ignite the students’ imaginations and their senses simultaneously.

The program’s team-teaching model will mirror the show’s two performers. One member of the pair will use clear, simple language like Percy, played by Patrick Lynch, and the other will deliver instructions through non-verbal, physical communication similar to his stage partner, April. There are opportunities for the teaching artists to build on students’ own personal knowledge by asking, “What is a nest made of?” At the top of the show, “Egg” gets presented in its nest, so students and classroom teachers will build a nest for Egg together. It will be constructed with props of soft fabrics and different textures that will be distributed in the same manner as the performers hand out the spring rolls. Each student will have a strip of fabric to explore how it looks, feels and sounds. They will make choices to manipulate the fabric any way they like, in order to contribute to the nest for Egg. After the nest is complete, Egg will be placed gently in the center and there will be verbal and non-verbal reflection throughout the thirty minute workshop. All the students will whisper their wish to Egg during the closing.

Like theater productions being workshopped or previewed by audiences, the draft of the lesson plan was tested with teaching artists and staff slated to implement the curriculum (about fifteen people). We have learned that it is crucial to put the lesson plan on its feet and get critical feedback. This run-through provides an opportunity to discuss the strengths and challenges of the work, and time to clarify aspects in a “safe” laboratory-type space. We made a few tweaks to give the teaching team and the classroom teacher clearer ways to communicate with each other and the students during the workshop.

Amy Susman-Stillman, Director of Applied Research and Training at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development states in American Theatre, “We’re finding that the best practices in early childhood development and the best practices in theatre arts overlap a lot.” As a theater educator, I believe that this is a no-brainer. It is important to be aware of the research, to document the work that we do and talk about it intelligently. Theater and theatrical learning are so important and effective in the early grades.

As The New Vic Education team begins to implement these workshops in late October and November, I wonder about how we can continue to take into account the developmental stages of preschool and kindergarten students and the delicate tenor of this show to create an interactive experience of theater learning. How do other cultural organizations work with this young age group in the theater arts? What do they take into account as they build curriculum? Overall, what does quality early childhood learning look like across the arts disciplines? Please share what experiences you have had in this interesting and challenging area of our field.

Read more about The New Victory’s leadership role in Theater for the Very Young! Check out American Theatre September 2010 for Rob Weinert-Kendt’s article or Ellen Gamerman’s article online in The Wall Street Journal.

Courtney J. Boddie is the Associate Director of Education at The New Victory Theater. She holds a Masters in Educational Theatre from New York University. She is on the adjunct faculty for the Educational Theatre Graduate Programs at both New York University and City College of New York, CUNY. She is currently a member of the NYC Arts-in-Education Roundtable TA Affairs Committee and Face-to-Face Conference Committee. She has also served as facilitating partner with the New York City Department of Education Office of Arts on Special Programs to design arts education professional development for NYC Public School Teachers. @courtneyjboddie

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