By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Recently, TDF made clowns out of local teachers and teaching artists, but in the best possible way. They were gathered for a workshop with a professional clown, who had everyone pretending mittens were puppies and rain was falling indoors.
There was a method to this playfulness. The teachers and artists were participating in Stage Doors, a part of Theatre Development Fund's Education Program, and as they played, they enacted some of the crucial elements of live theatre.
In one game everyone stood in a circle and tossed a series of balls back and forth. Each ball came with its own rules, and when they threw it, players had to do or say something specific. Keeping those balls in the air became a metaphor for what it's like to be on stage. Success required listening, cooperation, and generous improvisation when another person made a mistake.
And as teachers know, those skills are helpful outside the theatre, too. "I want my kids to try the activity with all the different balls flying around," said Kelly Roberts, a teacher at William McKinley Junior High School in Brooklyn. "I want to see how organized they can keep themselves, because the easiest thing is for them to slip into chaos."
That idea---that a theatre activity can reflect another aspect of our lives---is at the core of TDF's Education department. Through a series of interlinked programs, the department hopes to empower both students and teachers with the tools to create and appreciate theatre and then apply the results to the rest of the world.
Stage Doors is the first step on the journey. It's a program specifically designed to show New York-area students that the theatre belongs to them and can be relevant to their experiences.
The program is anchored by a trip to a professional New York production. This semester, students will see everything from Broadway musicals Pippin and Once to Bill Irwin's new clown piece Old Hats.
Crucially, the productions are buttressed by eight in-school workshops. Working with a professional teaching artist, the classroom teachers develop curricula to help their students master the concepts, themes, and mechanics of what they've seen. They also let the students respond to the work with writing, debate, and art of their own.
For Daniel Renner, TDF's Director of Education, these workshops are essential to the Stage Doors experience. "Just to see something out of context makes no sense," he says. "School by school, workshop by workshop, we're trying to say, 'Discover it yourself in a concentrated form. Then see the best professionals do it. Then appreciate not only the skill level and the difficulty, but also how it connects to your life.'"
This year alone, Stage Doors is working with over 120 teachers and 5000 students at 75 schools across the five boroughs, and Renner stresses that TDF's education programs are meant to impact these participants long after the official activities have ended. A teacher in a clowning workshop, for instance, might learn a technique that she uses with her students for years. A student in a Stage Doors workshop might express himself in a way that unlocks his talent.
If Stage Doors leaves that echo, then it's working. "Theatre isn't just entertainment," says Renner. "It's one of the few places where we experience something collectively. It's a great forum for us to reflect. 'Is that true? Is that what we think now?' And if we can get students to do that questioning, then the play is not the thing. The play is a catalyst for everything that happens afterwards."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of the Stage Doors clowning workshop by Patrick Berger