One of the main goals for our Theatre Education Community is to help theatre students and professionals from all over connect and identify with each other in order to build resources and support the theatre education field. We shine a spotlight on a different member every other week by conducting a simple interview.
Our next Spotlight is Nancy Gibson, theatre teacher and troupe director at Case High School in Racine, Wisconsin. Nancy uses her training in non-theatre related areas to provide unique and powerful learning experiences for her students.
Tell us about the best day of your career.
A highlight of my career happened in November 2019, at the Wisconsin High School Theatre Festival at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. We were presenting an interactive workshop where students developed and led team-building activities, as well as one of our original musicals. The show dealt with issues of racism, privilege, and relationships.
When the show was over, I invited student audience members to insert themselves into a scene of their choice in order to influence the outcome. Then, they re-enacted various scenes with the original actors, in character, to see what develops. The original actors worked with the offers that the guest actors gave and improved the results while remaining in character. The students created instant connections and we felt an overwhelming sense of compassion as they transformed very difficult situations. What made this powerful was how we created a space for this group to make the world the way they wanted it to be. It was like they plunged into the rough waters of society and they dove deep, deep down to touch the pure truth of who they could be. My students were profoundly moved. They saw and felt the power of their work, something rarely experienced after a performance.
Ten minutes after the workshop ended and all the students left, I was cleaning up. Another whole group of students showed up and asked if we could run another workshop. I texted my students and they came running back, to do it again! It reaffirmed how when we give our students the tools to lead, they can, and how theatre at its core is a medium for transformation. Most importantly, they are filling a need that young people are hungry for.
Nancy Gibson coaches the Eagle Theater students before their performance, “Stand Up” for Martin Luther King Day celebration at Gateway Technical College.
What is unique about your program?
My professional background is in outdoor education and leadership, counseling, English, art, alternative and special education AND theatre. I teach a combination of all of those elements in our programs. Students take their original shows to diverse communities and lead “Break the Hate Habit” workshops that use theatre and leadership to transform group culture. Once, we traveled to Germany to teach and present to four different groups in three cities there because one of our former international students requested we come and help him do a BTHH workshop. We have worked in juvenile detention centers in Illinois, with elementary and middle schools, at State Counselor Conferences and worked with teachers during staff development. Our crew has presented their workshops a number of times at the state festival and the International Thespian Festival. Student leadership is key to the program, not just in the theatre, but in the world outside of it.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
For thirty-five years, my father was a professor at a small college who taught Outdoor Education, leadership, and coached cross-country skiing. Our home was always filled with young leaders, athletes and college students. We were at the vortex of all the big college events. When I was in grade eight, he took me on a wilderness canoe trip with his class. I watched him in awe. Here was a different man than the one I experienced at home. I was struck by the intense connection and transformations that occurred in the dynamic of groups working through a challenge. In university, I took theatre as a minor, but after my experiences on stage, I realized it was the best way to incorporate MY talents and I made it my major.
Do you have any tips for new theatre teachers?
- Don’t let your own limitations dictate how you teach. Keep pushing yourself and you will find ways to pull your students into new experiences based on what you have discovered.
- Listen to your students’ ideas and find ways to give them ownership in the work you do together.
- Form a partnership with a high school in another community and make commitments to attend each other’s shows and attend festivals together. Build inter-school support and cooperation, not competition.
- Find alternate stages for the students; opportunities for them to perform for audiences outside the school. Take them into the community to work with others; middle schools, elementary, community centers, etc. and present and teach workshops to those people.
- Take students to competitions so they can compete and push their limits.
- Take students to see professional theatre in your community and in other communities - just take them.
- Engage the parents. Hold sneak peeks of your shows before performance dates and have the parents weigh in. Kids want to be witnessed by their parents more than anything else. Don’t be afraid of losing the money by having them come see it in advance, the parents will show up when they feel they are part of the process.
- Expand your students’ worlds. That can be anything from serving them tea at rehearsal, bringing in guest artists, to traveling to different places in the community, state, nation, or world.
- Teach students how to take care of their bodies, their hearts, and their dreams by taking care of your own.
Nancy and some of her students on a tour of Neuschwanstein Castle on their Germany Tour.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
My proudest accomplishment occurred at the Wisconsin State Theatre Festival at the end of our original performance of #DarkSideOfTheRainbow, a student-written musical about a young transgender woman who struggles after her transgender friend commits suicide. As the kids left the stage, the audience of 500 students and teachers, spontaneously erupted in applause, some screaming and crying. Kids were hugging each other and mobbing the actors. I was in the audience, recording the performance, and started recording interviews with students. The overwhelming response was that the show had addressed a number of issues regarding the deaths of their friends and family members, the challenges and intolerance of being LGBTQ, and the relief that someone had finally talked about it. They were so appreciative and grateful. It felt like a community catharsis for all they had endured, and for some of them, it was finally released because the pain and invisible struggle they face was acknowledged. Suddenly, our students were in the center of this moment, they were superstars.
We come from a district that does not put any of the performing arts in a place of honor or value. Often, our students feel ignored, and even though they have experiences like this one, in their own schools, they feel invisible and ignored. But there, in that moment, it became clear to them that their work had value and power. THEY had power and worth. Seeing how that revelation impacted my students gave me the courage and conviction to keep pushing for them, regardless of all the challenges. It gave me clarity and fire to keep fighting.
Nancy re-choreographing, Know Your Rights, with the students at the Voces Gala.
What has been your most difficult challenge?
In summer 2019, we were approached by Voces de la Frontera, an organization advocating for immigrant and worker rights. A number of years ago, I worked with their youth group (Youth Empowered in the Struggle (Y.E.S.) to create a performance piece in support of the Dream Act at a march they were holding at the state capitol in Madison.
Several high-profile families in our city had just recently seen a parent deported in 2019, including a Lutheran minister and a prominent community leader. We were asked to create a public presentation about deportation for their upcoming community party, Fiesta Patria, to be held at a high school on the other side of town (and our main high school sports rival).
I asked my kids and they were all in. Together, we researched the struggles facing undocumented families and youth. We met with students in a local Y.E.S. chapter and interviewed them. We were given a clear directive: create a piece that helps undocumented families understand what to do when ICE comes to their door - heavy stakes!
Together with a few of my youth leaders, we wrote the piece, Know Your Rights. We had three weeks to pull it all together, researching, writing, rehearsing, until we presented on September 19. We had students from three separate classes, members from the community, and the Y.E.S. group working on it, and we had only five rehearsals to get it ready.
On the day of the performance, we were all together and on a new stage for the first time. It was so intense. The piece was short, but set up the goals of the main presentation and the entire festival.
We had students playing ICE agents chasing “undocumented” families through the audience, big drums pounding, a movement piece synced with writing about what it feels like to be living under the fear of deportation. Finally, our actors impersonated ICE agents appearing at the door and people in the audience calling out the ways, in Spanish and English, for people to maintain their rights in this kind of situation.
It was awesome and terrifying. Then BOOM. A right-wing radio personality in Milwaukee talked about us the next day; and the day after that, we were on the cover of the local newspaper with a very unflattering and politically biased article, slamming us and using anonymous comments from social media. I was concerned, but my Technical Director said, "If you're not catching flak, you're not over the target." Our school district administration publicly stood up against the onslaught and backed the kids and me one hundred percent.
We were asked us to perform our piece again a month later at the Voces Gala, an annual black-tie fundraiser in Milwaukee. I didn’t know how I was going to get our kids to this event, but we figured it out. When we arrived, the staging was totally different than what we had planned for. One hour before the entire event started, the kids and I re-blocked the event around a 10-foot square stage hemmed in by tables. All of our choreography had to be adapted to the new space and two levels. Two of our actors had not yet arrived because they were late picking up a Y.E.S. student from another school and they got lost. Waiters were walking around the 750 seat ballroom with platters of filled water glasses as we rehearsed running through the room. I was wondering how on earth the kids were going to run through this space when it is filled with people without tripping or knocking over an unsuspecting patron.
I could barely hear the kids because of the three massive fans blowing. Guests started entering, and the final straw, the Mariachi band started to play full blast. It was crazy!
Then the wonder started to unfold. The kids were wearing a custom t-shirt we designed, using a graphic from an amazing Milwaukee teacher and artist: John Fleissner. He was at the event, and they gathered around him while he admired their shirts. I convinced the house manager to turn off the fans. I sent the kids out to greet all the guests at the tables and inform them that they would be running through the audience and not to be afraid.
The Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers arrived. He was scheduled to speak right before we were to go on. The students were able to meet and talk with him backstage. Despite his tight timeline to speak and leave immediately for another event, the kids asked him to stay and watch them perform. The audacity of youth!
They hit the stage with a powerhouse of emotion and conviction. Their un-mic’d voices rang out clear and true in the huge space. The drums gave me the chills. It was all documented by a professional photographer, who got the best photos anyone has taken in my career! The kids were so supercharged they were vibrating. “We got to meet the Governor! He stayed to watch us! John loved our shirts! The audience really felt us! I saw a lady crying!” I felt like the driver of a 12-horse carriage that had just raced over a dangerous pass in the mountains. It was exhilarating and exhausting. The kids still talk about it today. Verdict: totally worth it!
Eagle Theater students performing, Know Your Rights, at the Voces Gala.
Why is theatre important?
Because it records our human history in ways that can impact generations. Because it is an agent for change, for action, for reflection and response. Because it is life-giving and inspiring and fills people with much-needed food for thought and inspiration. Because it is real and empowering and engaging. Because it is fun and challenging and horrible and messy and wonderful. Why is it important? Because when we build a space for self-expression, our kids grow inside of it and their audiences grow as a result of it. It is still our best means of transforming ourselves and our communities.
If you enjoyed Nancy’s interview as much as we did, add her as a contact in the Community.
Do you know someone who deserves a moment in the Spotlight? Tell me their name and why at email@example.com. Want to read more Community Spotlights? You can find them here.