February 10th, 2014

Creative Listening | Elise May

In many classrooms sitting still and being quiet is the expectation but, to me, it is the death of a class. Certainly, there are times when I need my students to engage in listening behavior, but the key word here is ‘engage’.  Hearing is easy – listening takes engagement and practice.

Recently, I was teaching a storytelling unit to a class of third grade students.  Each student had to retell a folktale in a minute.  I needed to hear all their stories as a baseline.  To try to keep them engaged as listeners, I gave them each a simple rubric to fill out; they were to tally how many storytellers they could hear, understand, smiled, etc. It quickly became apparent that these adorable children weren’t listening to each other.

Some would randomly check boxes on the rubric, while others creatively doodled.  Some started off with good intentions but, after the third or fourth storyteller, would start drifting off.  And there were over 25 storytellers in each class!  As it became increasingly apparent that these children had no idea how to engage a live audience, I shortened the time each child had for their initial presentation.  I was there to teach these students the art of oral storytelling. I realized I couldn’t do this without first working on listening skills.

I needed a plan. I had to get the students invested in each other’s stories.  I separated the class into groups of four or five.  Each group had to learn all of their stories.  The narrator for each story had to direct a set of three tableaux illustrating the beginning, middle and end of their folktale.  All of the students in the group had to be involved in all the tableaux, even if they were part of the scenery.


All of a sudden, creative juices were flowing.

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January 7th, 2014

Making New Ideas | Jeff Redman

Our second January series here on ALT/space was inspired by an interesting confluence of December submissions from our contributors. Completely independent of each other, four of our writers sent in a story relating a can’t, not, or aren’t in relation to art making. This is truly the beauty of ALT/space for me — how our stories of teaching practice are at once unique and related at the same time! Enjoy! —Malke Rosenfeld, ALT/space Editor


There is a point in any drama workshop, no matter if it is a single session or nine weeks long where I hear a familiar phrase. I hear it from adults and children alike, middle to high school.  It is uttered when we are doing improv, when we are brainstorming, when we are developing a story or a character or a movement sequence. It can surface when the only instruction I have given is, “you can do anything in the world you want, but you must do something”.

“I can’t think of anything.”

I love this phrase! I used to hate it, thinking it was the death of the energy in the room, but now I look at it as a challenge because I know this is when my job really begins.  After all, generating ideas is essential to creation and students will never be able to move forward if they “can’t think of anything”.

A while ago I had a new group of eighth graders starting their drama exploration.  It didn’t take long for someone to say it.  It came out during an exercise where they were each to take the lead at some point in creating a simple movement that the rest of the ensemble was to support by matching the leader.  It was a simple beginning ensemble exercise that came to a screeching halt when the action froze and the next student in sequence said, “I don’t know what to do.”

Creativity doesn’t magically happen.  John Cleese of Monty Python fame delivered a lecture on the process of creativity in 1991 that has recently resurfaced on the Internet in which he says that creativity “is not a talent, it is a way of operating.”

In the drama classroom it is all about a way of operating. Giving students the tools with which to invent and develop  ideas.  Making time, giving space, and encouraging a willingness to be open to anything.  I encourage them to try different approaches because I know without a doubt that they absolutely can think of something to do. The drama room is a laboratory with the space and time for ideas to be born.


One way I create space and time for ideas is with an exercise that goes by many names— creative visualization, guided imagery, dramatic imagination—but I just call it “play time”.  As children this kind of activity was just part of the way we operated when we had free time, but as we got older it became more difficult to squeeze it into our busy schedules.  In the drama room, the exercise is rekindled.

Guiding the students into relaxation and breathing, they center themselves and open their minds.  Focusing inward on their body sensations and breathing patterns takes away stress and enables them to think beyond their own personal insecurities.  Once we have spent time getting into the proper operating mindset the imagination takes over and they are open to possibility.


I name a location for them—a field, a sandy beach, under a canopy of trees—and let them determine the specifics using their own mental paintbrush. With a relaxed and open mind, they begin to invent a world that they can inhabit.  A setting that they have invented.

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October 9th, 2013

Now You’re Really Speaking My Language | Victoria Row-Traster

After a year off to take care of my new baby daughter (thank you United Kingdom and your awesome maternity policies!) and I was excited to get back into the classroom.

Before I could start the in-school residency, however, there was a one-week training program where myself and other teaching artists from the National worked in partnership with the performers, directors and production to develop a six-week residency package to teach pre and post show workshops.  We designed the workshops to support the production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which would be touring into partner schools throughout the Spring Term. I was happy to be back doing what I love: teaching and collaborating with the fellow artists.  At the end, I felt we had created exciting, fast paced and creative lesson plans that would enhance students’ experience of the play, its characters, and the language of William Shakespeare.

On my first morning back in the classroom I was introduced to each group of ten and eleven year olds, and, sadly but not surprisingly, was asked by several of the students (who incidentally were exhausted by weeks of national mandatory testing of which this was final project before leaving for high school) “why Shakespeare?” This was the first time many of them had been introduced to Shakespeare’s work and not one of the students were familiar with the plot of Romeo and Juliet – not even the ending!  After hearing them describe Shakespeare’s language as boring, weird and old I asked them to trust me on this journey and implored them to wait and see before making their minds up.

Fast forward to the second week and we had been working intensely on the balcony scene, breaking down the text and having comical discussions about the phenomenon that is love at first sight (they didn’t buy it!). I felt that they were now prepared and ready to see the play.

After a break, the production truck had moved in and set up the stage in their main school hall. In a mere two hours the space had been transformed into a magical expanse in the round. Using poles, netting and lighting, the hall was unrecognizable and I watched the student’s faces fill with amazement and wonder as they entered this once familiar space. There is no better reminder of why I do my job than when I see first-hand how live theatre can transcend a young audience member.

As the actors began, my eyes were firmly on the audience, children on the brink of becoming young adults, where every day they are consumed with trying to figure out who they are, what they like or dislike, where their place is in every single room they enter. Despite all of that, I knew in an instant they would be lost in the words, rhythms and gestures of Juliet and her Romeo.  

At the risk of sounding cheesy, I live for those moments. The instances when I can physically see the change in their demeanor, even the way they hold themselves – they are being transported. It is done. And then something strange and unexpected happened…

I had seen this production many times during its development and was busy making notes about how I would shape the next lesson plan depending on what they responded to and what excited them during the show. It was during the balcony scene when, spontaneously, the audience began speaking the lines out loud with the actors! It began with one student, who was literally so engrossed with what he was watching, began to speak, and then others joined in. By the time Romeo uttered the line:  “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks…” almost every one of my students was speaking the words with him in unison! I was absolutely speechless! Obviously my first thought was “wow – they really feel ownership over this scene (and I silently gave myself a pat on the back) but then I had a thought – the actors may not be as happy as I am about this as I am… Whoops!

After the play had come to an end and the actors had taken their final bow, I approached Romeo and congratulated him on his performance. I also gingerly remarked on the students’ enthusiasm, especially during the balcony scene, and a huge smile beamed across his face. He said that he had felt the “electricity” from the audience right from his first line and then Tybalt joined us exclaiming her excitement (in this production Tybalt was a female). She had also heard one or two audience members speak her lines during some of her speeches. They both were noticeably moved by the experience.

This was an incredible teaching moment and one that I will not forget. In my next article, I will talk about the work and challenges that followed during the post-show workshops. 

Victoria Row-Traster, Teaching Artist, Royal National Theatre, London, is part of the Primary and Early Years Program developing and delivering arts curriculum that aims to introduce students to theatre through top-quality productions. Prior to this, Victoria worked for five seasons at The New Victory Theater, New York, as Curriculum and Publications Manager, leading the development and creation of the New Vic School Tool™ resource guides. Her teaching experience ranges from early years through to university level, and her focus as a teaching artist is mainly on assisting schools and teachers to bridge the gap between the academic aspects of a piece of theatre and art form it is exploring. Victoria received a Master’s Degree in Educational Theatre from New York University and a Post Graduate Certification in Education, Drama and English from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England.  

Also by Victoria Row-Traster in ALT/space:
Alone We Can Do So Little
Taking Away the Chairs
Teaching Artist to Actor Teacher: UK to US and Back Again

October 1st, 2013

The Delicious Math of Comedy | Holly Adams

She enters, pauses, then turns and walks stage right, and Inspector Dreyfus leaps out. She stops. “Why didn’t that work?”

“You have to count to three. A full count. That was just a bit too long, and I think ‘M’ (the boy playing Dreyfus) wasn’t sure when to jump out.”

“Yeah, I thought I was supposed to jump, but you were still there,” the boy adds.

“So, it goes ‘step-think -go, walk 2,3”, then the upstage-right one is the second set?” The girl (‘B’) playing Inspector Clouseau tilts her head, thinking.

“The first grab/miss should be just under three seconds, then three steps, the pause straighten turn go,” I reply.

“Because that’s a three, then there’s the middle one, with the lasso…which is the third one!”


“So,”chimes in M, “I have to go twice as fast to get to the other opening for the pounce.”

“That would be awesome,” I nod.

Image via chowdaheads.blogspot.ca

They go at it again, the above math-like jargon making complete sense to them, and this time, Dreyfus leaps just as Clouseau takes a step stage right, then a moment later, he leaps out again, just as Clouseau has turned toward center stage, then finally he and his lasso erupt out of the center stage…just as Clouseau miraculously had to tie her shoe, and another character is captured.

We are on the cusp of the perfect math, because comedy relies on math—the  number of builds/attempts have to be odd, the beats have to be perfectly shorter or longer than the timing of real life, and the rate of acceleration or deceleration has to be perfect. The length of pauses, of suspension, of delivery…there are often many comic options, but for each option, the pattern is rigid. It’s almost like revealing the flawless beauty of a gemstone—the math of the cut has to be perfect.

They have practiced the routine several times now, sensing the places to speed up, noticing the places where it is almost right. “Holly, this part—what could we do to make it funnier?”

“Well, it’s the second section, so start the third beat sooner—cut a teensy bit off that second moment— and stre-e-etch it out to the last possible second, but don’t have the TOTAL time be any longer.”

“Just beat three,” nods B.

“Yes, and inhale as much as you can on that beat-it creates suspense, because you are suspending the relaxing breath. Then the exhale is the ‘GO’.”

Both youth (they are in middle school) nod and reply, “Ahhhhhoh” in that arc-ing sound that shows that the pebble has landed, the combination worked, the light has clicked on. They happily run up to the stage, and begin it again. Unable to help themselves, the other cast members and assistants, all busy with their own tasks, turn to look…because this time it is perfect. The actors are fast and furious, but the characters are relaxed and nonchalant, seemingly completely unaware of anything but the now, the mathematics of timing so perfect you can’t see it. And..the lasso! The group bursts into laughter and a smattering of applause, and the sweating, panting M and B look at each other and grin. They run up to me, out of breath and flushed with happiness.

“Holly, can we put in more gags?”

imageArtistic Director of Shearwater Productions, Holly Adams is a long time mask maker, stage combat choreographer, and performer with a focus on physical theatre styles. Holly also loves being a teaching artist! Whether she is giving a master class in NYC or at a college, or creating arts-a-the-core inquiry based curricula for elementary and high schools, she is loving every minute of it. She is the recipient of ATA’s Teaching Artist Service to the Field award for 2009-2010,a member of APA, Ed Bloggers, and a board member for NYSTEA. An interview with Holly is here

Also in ALT/space by Holly Adams:
Take a Walk on the Wild Side
A Paradigm of Practice
On Teaching Intimacy
Working with Children on the Asperger-Autism Spectrum
Rigor and Joy
Don’t Stop Believing

August 6th, 2013

When Art Meets Life | Jeff Redman

Back in February, I was part of a unique experiment in collaboration with the students in my drama class.  Partnering with the eighth grade humanities classes, under the direction of their teacher, Fady Tabbara, we attempted to create an original theater piece that dealt with the heavy subject of Modern Day Slavery.

Fady and I shared the same students and the timing between our two classes was perfect; he had never used social action theater as an assessment tool, however, and the process of theater creation was new to the students.  We would be asking them to put themselves out there in a way they were not accustomed. They were hesitant:

How will I know what my character is?
Are we going to remember what to say?
We’re going to perform this in front of the entire middle school?


As a teaching artist, it was exciting to watch the students experience new exercises, connect the dots, play with symbolism, adapt, interpret and refine.  Listening to them dissect the choices they were making and giving each other direction took their learning in a direction that a PowerPoint presentation couldn’t.


First person accounts gave way to narrative pantomime.  The cycle of slavery became a symbolic Machine exercise. Facts and numbers turned into a living newspaper. Interpretive movements and choreography morphed into an image collage.

There is rarely enough rehearsal time on any theater piece and this was no exception. March 24th and we had to be ready for an audience. The students were nervous before the performance. The extra two hours we had in the theater before the show was barely enough to ease their tension.

Did we rehearse enough?
Will they understand what we are trying to say?
happens if one of our friends makes us laugh? Should I pick the pole back up if I drop it in the performance?


After the final image of the play, the line of students standing and repeating “Slavery is everywhere!” with their voices escalating from a simple, factual statement to a dire warning left an impression both on the performers and the audience. But what struck me as their teacher was that they created that moment.  It was theirs.

Maybe we could start shouting at the audience?
Or maybe we could make it seem like a horror movie, like they can’t escape it.
Can we run off the stage after our final line? And then a blackout?

After the applause, the students came to the edge of the stage to answer questions from the audience.  They had asked a thousand questions of Fady and me throughout the process and they were ready for a few from their peers. I could see the euphoria on their faces as they took their seats.  That expression of excitement mixed with relief and exhaustion.

How did you come up with your ideas?
When you guys were the slavery machine, was Riks someone buying all the products?
I like the statements you had projected on the back of the stage. 

None of us could have imagined how relevant the final piece would become.

On month later, on April 24, a multi-story garment factory in the Savar district of Bangladesh collapsed taking the lives of over 1,000 workers. 

While the garment workers in the tragedy did not technically qualify as Modern Day Slaves, their stories were familiar to the actors who had done their research: unsafe working conditions, long hours with no breaks, little pay, young girls and boys sacrificing education for work, no rights or protections, and few alternatives to finance their survival.

After the news of the collapse and the scope of it became clear, almost one month after their performance, I met with several of the students to make connections between their piece and the real world. They struggled to accept that their performance was greater than just an assignment, but once they began to make connections the ideas kept flowing.

What struck them most about the intersection of art and life was the eerie similarities between their fictional story of ‘Maria’, performed as a narrative pantomime in the final production, and the first person accounts coming from victims of the garment factory collapse.  Created months before the tragedy in Savar, the students had written an account of survival that would be echoed by hundreds of workers in Bangladesh.

“Should we do it again? “ one of them asked, “Since the building collapsed maybe it will mean more to the audience.”

Sadly, there wasn’t enough time in the schedule; they had all moved on to other classes since the performance. But the realization that something they made was connected to the real world will stay with them for a lifetime.

It will stay with me as well.

This coming school year there will be another group of students eager to create theater. Fady will do the research with them and I will help them interpret it for the stage. We’ll work together on that intersection between life and art, finding ways to help students understand that their art, their creations have meaning. And hopefully we will not have another tragedy to make the connection easy to find.


Jeff Redman is the middle school drama teacher at American International School Dhaka, Bangladesh. He founded the Ivey Award winning Workhouse Theatre Company in Minneapolis where he served as Artistic Director for six years. Jeff leads workshops for educators and was invited to present his workshop, Injecting Drama! at the NESA conference in Athens, Greece. He holds a B.S in Theater and M.A. in teaching.  Jeff is currently working on connecting ex-pat students to local Bangladeshi artists. jeffredman71@gmail.com 

Also by Jeff Redman in ALT/space:
Bamboo: Tools of Storytelling
Making Sense of Modern Day Slavery through Theater
What If? Making Way for Collaboration

In this space, Teaching Artist correspondents from around the U.S. and the world bring you stories of their work at the crossroads of art and learning. ALT/space is a project of the Teaching Artist Journal, a peer reviewed print and online quarterly that serves as a voice, forum and resource for teaching artists and all those working at the intersection of art and learning. Individual online subscriptions of the TAJ print journal gives you access to a very useful, easy to access, 55-issue archive--the only such archive of its kind.