I built the Theatre program at my Middle School essentially ”from the ground up.” There was no legacy, and not even any real appreciation for Theatre. I had a pool of children with ability, but no skill; I had to teach them everything I expected them to know. At the time, my experience was as a performer and playwright. I had to learn many of the technical aspects of Theatre production while on the job. The Theatre Department has since grown, and has a pretty decent standing in the small community, but it's greatest impact is on the students who participate in the program. The Performing Arts Room, and the auditorium have become a home base for the students who perform, design and build sets, run lights, or do stage crew. In a low income community that is often unpredictable and inconsistent, the Theatre Department is a safe space where these students can express themselves, and take pride in that self-expression.
For those not familiar with the New York City Public School System, there aren't large High Schools that service all the students that live within a particular district. Instead there are hundreds of smaller High Schools throughout the five Boroughs. Students go through a matching selection process in order to gain entry into these High Schools. The division of schools results in a division of resources, so schools specialize in a variety of concentrations, to varying degrees of success. A few of my students matriculate to schools with strong Theatre programs, some go to high schools with weak Theatre programs, but the majority go on to schools where there are no Theatre programs at all.
I spend up to three years cultivating Theatre within these students, and they go off to schools where it is not nurtured and not valued. As my program has developed over the years, I noticed a trend. More and more graduates actually come back to visit regularly, and even sit through rehearsals. During production, I am always spread pretty thin. I often have to act as costumer, stage manager, prop manager, and house manager, in addition to directing the show. I have tried to build capacity by incorporating staff members, but my school has a high turnover rate, so finding and keeping people who are effective, and have a knowledge or understanding of the Theatre process is difficult. When former students began to volunteer at my school to fulfill their community service requirements, I realized that I had an untapped resource staring me in the face begging to be utilized. For the past few years, I have had former students not only working backstage, but performing onstage. They have been vital in strengthening the department and expanding my selection options.During the 2015-2016 school year, I had high school performers play lead roles in both main stage productions. The play Freak the Mighty required a student who was visibly large enough and physically strong enough to carry another on his shoulders for a significant portion of the show. I didn't have a current student in my program who could do that, and the student whom I originally cast for the role backed out. I asked a former student who was visiting to fill in for a rehearsal, and immediately saw the whole production come alive. He had an emotional depth and understanding that the previous student could not achieve. It clearly came from experience and maturity. For the musical, we did Peter Pan: a Musical Adventure. I knew when I selected the show that I needed an older actor to play Captain Hook. It was beyond the reach of any of my boys. The only options were to play Captain Hook, or get an older student to play Hook. I asked a High School Senior if he was interested and he enthusiastically said yes. He said he missed working with me and hadn't done a challenging role since he left Middle School even though he attended a High School that specialized in Musical Theatre. This year I had a High School student as my stage manager for Seussical, which freed me up to be the conductor, which was very necessary for this show. He also played the Grinch, and another former student was also in the cast.
While my former students have been an asset to my department, it could have easily been detrimental if I had not set up the parameters to make it successful.
- All Alumni are leaders. Your current students will look up to them. It's very important that any past students you have in your program are the kind who will model the right discipline and habits. If you have to manage the behavior of older students, it will become a management issue for all students. Make sure they are responsible and committed. If they feel like they are doing you a favor, they act that way. If you couldn't wait for that student to go to High School, don't bring them back, no matter how much they want to come back. If they were dedicated, hardworking, and disciplined as middle school students, chances are they will be positive role models in your program.
- It is still a Middle School program. The focus should still be on Middle School students and their development. They should still be the stars of the show. A role or job should not be given to a High School student if one of your Middle School students is capable of doing it, even if the High School student will do it better. Your High School students should enhance your program, not dominate. Your Middle School students should never take a back seat, or feel they are in competition with the High School students. Even though I had High School students playing principle roles, my current students saw them as guests, rather than stars.
- Make sure you establish a mutual respect and positive rapport among the High and Middle School students. No one should feel demeaned or elevated over the others. Everyone should be aware that each plays a vital role in the production and the department. High School students shouldn't be treated as an outsider, and Middle School students shouldn't be made to feel subordinate. If High School students assume managerial roles such, part of their responsibilities should be to adequately train students to take over those jobs in the future.
- Make sure you have clearance with your administration to have these students in the building and participating in your program. The school has to assume liability for these students for their protection and yours. Make sure that if you're asking your school to assume liability for a student, you're comfortable doing the same. Also, it's important that these students remain in good academic standing at their schools. The production should not be a distraction from their main responsibility as students.
If you train them right in Middle School, your students will have a lot to contribute to your program for years after they graduate. Having them continue to participate in your program is a good way to further deepen their Theatre Education, and they can add value to your program that you offer.