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"Turner" Classes Many great plays have educational value, surely, but the best of them “trick” us into learning by engaging our emotions, tickling our funny bones, and raising up goosebumps of fear and anticipation.
That’s certainly the case with August Wilson’s intimate epic of a play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, now in a brilliant Lincoln Center-produced revival at the Belasco Theatre. As 800 New York City public high school students discovered at a recent matinee performance of Joe Turner (as part of TDF's Stage Doors program), the intertwining stories around a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911 don’t just dramatize a crucial piece of African-American history, they also weave a compelling spell as only the best theatre can.

“We were concerned that maybe the play would be too talky for them,” confessed Dale Lally, theatre and English teacher at the Beacon School, a New York high school, who took his freshman drama class to the matinee. “But they were engaged with the emotions; they got it and were totally into it.”

It didn’t hurt that Lally’s students had read and even enacted a few scenes from the play before attending. This gave them some investment and familiarity with the play’s large cast of characters. Lally also had students look at a monologue by the impish old healer Bynum, who in the play talks about the need for each of us to find our “song”—some authentic and personal expression of ourselves and our unique destinies. In turn, Lally had his students write about their own “songs,” their unique wishes and desires.

In a discussion afterwards, led by TDF teaching artist Stephen DiMenna, Beacon students commented on the play’s dense language, and one young woman voiced a craving for more action. But most of the post-show talk revealed an attention to detail and a level kind of critical thinking you'd expect to find among adult theatre audiences. When one young man, referring to a show-ending special effect director Bartlett Sher employs to illustrate Bynum’s concept of a “shiny man,” said, “I thought it was all good until the glitter came down,” he was immediately contradicted by another young woman, who gasped enthusiastically, “But that was my favorite part!” She elaborated, clearly thrilled by the recollection: “The special effects, the sound and the lighting, scared me, so I was really paying attention.”

The class’s one blind student, who said he had been listening closely to the dialogue, volunteered that he struggled a bit to keep up with the density of the language. But another young woman, who had read the play’s ending before seeing it, voiced a crucial nugget of wisdom known by theatregoers far more seasoned than her: “Because I knew what was going to happen, it made me see it in a much different way.”

Helping students find their own ways into a given play was a key concept for DiMenna and Lally.

“Our interest isn’t in saying, 'August Wilson wrote this incredible play, let’s worship it on the altar,' ” explained Lally. “We want to find out what we can draw from it. The idea is to build bridges to the work, rather than saying, ‘Theatre is just for old white people.’ ”

To that end, Lally and DiMenna led the Beacon students in an exercise to demonstrate a key element of the dramatist’s craft: creating onstage conflict. Students paired off into groups, chose one or the other’s “song” monologues to work with and then cast each other as protagonist and antagonist. Though the aspirations expressed in the six-line student scenes tended to be on the lighter side, students got hands-on practice in the approach that Wilson used to generate sparks between characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

DiMenna was sufficiently impressed that he offered this plaudit to the Beacon freshman who had seen Joe Turner and had clearly absorbed its influence: “What I liked about all your plays is that you got right into the conflict, and the relationships between your characters were immediately apparent with just a line or two.” Then he broadened the compliment to get the students thinking about how theatre applies to their daily lives: “We all write plays when we talk to our friends,” DiMenna said. “We’re all natural playwrights.”

It follows, then, that when we’re not doing the storytelling ourselves, we’re all natural theatregoers, sitting back and taking it all in. That’s a lesson that audiences of all ages can stand to relearn.