Why I Didn't Want My Students to Do Summer Theater
My classroom career started and ended at a school in Orlando. I taught there twice, in the mid 90’s and then again from ‘08-‘14. In the early years, I grew the position from part time to full time and throughout both of my teaching stints worked to develop the strongest program possible. My other classroom teaching gigs had similar results. For better or worse, I took a lot of pride in everything the students and I had accomplished, often within the context of schools that had little respect, resources, or reverence for all that theater, or the Arts in general, afforded these kids, the school, and the world.
Theater teachers know well the hours upon hours their role entails to provide robust classroom experiences, complete all the required documentation and meet all the “flavor of the day” school, district and state requirements. In addition, they invest exorbitant amounts of personal time to create experiences for students in the form of productions, improv clubs, Thespian troupe activities, trips and more. It’s a labor of love, especially since an assistant coach for one of the school’s JV teams that play for a total of six weeks likely receives a higher stipend for their extracurricular time than a full-year theater director ever will.
I share this to say, these folks, rightly, have a level of stoicism, pioneering spirit, grit and self-reliance. They can do anything. If they don’t know how to do something, they’ll learn…and then pass those findings on to their students. To add insult to injury, they often have very little support and happily stay out of the limelight to keep their students in it.
The climate and this mentality fed into one of the main reasons I was hesitant to send my students to do theater somewhere else over the summer. I was fearful of a lot of things. Fearful that what I’d been providing wasn’t good enough. Fearful that my students might connect better with another theater mentor. Fearful it would make things harder when things were already pretty hard.
During the second stint at that school in Orlando I had the distinct pleasure of directing a young lady, Gabriella Scoleri, throughout her middle and high school years. She’s gracious, generous of sprit, kind, enthusiastic and a refreshingly strong performer. She became one of those kids I eventually “picked shows” for. By her senior year, she was my Thespian Troupe President. Based on the afore-mentioned attitude I’d cultivated within myself, you can imagine my reaction when she announced she’d auditioned and been accepted to perform in a summer production intensive at the Orlando REP. I knew the head of their Education Department, Gary Cadwallader. He and I performed together at Seaside Music Theater in Daytona back in the day. I had a great deal of respect for him, and knew his artistic team would be stellar. My inner monologue turned to, “What if she likes them better than me?”, “What if she doesn’t want to do my shows anymore?”, “What if my lack of training in this or that area is exposed, and she realizes I don’t know everything about...everything!?!?”. (Yes, teachers and directors struggle with insecurity too!)
Gabby went on to spend a chunk of her summer at the REP and was smart enough to not just invite me to her performance, but—high school students, take note—
asked which performance I might attend and provided tickets for me. Their production of “State Fair” was glorious. It was wonderfully high quality and as I sat enjoying it, I realized, “Gabby learned this summer”. She learned things my program and I simply couldn’t teach. A few of these lessons included:
“The best” is relative
With the increasing competitiveness of musical theater, we genuinely do a disservice to our students if we only encourage them to succeed within our school bubble. They MUST see how they fit in the world of musical theater in a larger context, in order to make wise decisions about entering training programs and pursuing professional careers. Programs such as these provide critical feedback and information to these kids.
Working with other strong performers can be life-changing
As much as we’d like to have strong performers across the board in our high school programs, that can be a rare scenario. Auditioned summer programs provide an opportunity for strong performers to work alongside other strong performers. Any who’ve performed know what it’s like to have someone consistently, “give back” onstage. It’s a life-changing experience. We also know how it pushes us when the person next to us kicks higher, has a wider vocal range or acts engagingly and truthfully scene after scene. It’s a great way to be challenged, and difficult to replicate within many high school programs.
It takes a team
So often, the limitations of most high school theater programs force high school teachers to be a one-person show. Many summer programs have the resources and budget to engage a full artistic and/or production staff…that often work well together. It can be an enlightening moment for students to work with a group of people who make their living collaborating through the performing arts. It opens up a world of career possibilities that they witness first-hand. Gabby returned with questions and ideas on how our program could better use the students within our troupe to get the work done and saw a career path that went far beyond performance.
Remember my fear that she might not like me? Well, quite the opposite occurred. She LOVED her experience at the REP and it validated much of what I was able to give her. She realized we had something good going at our little school, and returned investing twice as much time, energy and enthusiasm in our Thespian troupe. While I enjoyed a much needed summer break, she learned how to better lead and how to become another voice in our program pushing toward a higher level of excellence.
Theater friends = lifelong friends
Gabby made new connections and developed networks through these experiences. She developed friends and contacts who she’d connect with again when attending district meetings, festivals, college auditions, college and work as a performer. She supported her new friends by attending their high school productions, and brought along her school friends to their shows. It was during these summers that she began to learn the value of networking, which for theater folk, is the lifeline to a robust career and support base.
As an added chapter to this story, Gabriella went on to earn her B.F.A. in Musical Theater from Florida Southern College and was also a summer intern at the Straz Center and Patel Conservatory in 2016. After graduating from college, she was hired by my former school as their Theater Director. I was delighted to hang out with her incredibly talented current students at the Florida State Thespian Festival this year. I know for a fact that she’ll raise the program to a level higher than I could have ever imagined.
Suzanne Messenger Livesay serves as the Vice President of Education at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Florida.
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