Friday, May 20, 2011

When theater is an education

President Bill Clinton about to speak to New York University's commencement
Amidst New York University's 15,000 graduates yesterday at Yankee Stadium were several dozen candidates for bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in Educational Theater, a program of the university's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. I was one of them, now a newly-minted Master of Arts in Educational Theater.

A new master
The ceremony, held at a giant venue for the performance of baseball, featured as speaker a master of political theater - Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States. We wore special costumes: purple gowns of subtly varying styles, bearing different markings according to degree or honor; long Harry Potter-esque academic hoods with the color of our discipline (white for the arts), and the headgear: mortarboard and tassel.

This journalist, who has been writing about theater since the first college go-round at Barnard and Columbia, performed Shakespeare, directed actors, created wordless movement pieces and wrote scenes. But I also learned about theater as learning, both classic drama teaching (the kids put on a play) as well as something called process drama, an area completely new to me.

In process drama, the participants, through various exercises, create the story and move it along in dramatic terms. The teacher has a purpose in mind and guides the action. For instance, a class may become immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, each with a story to tell to the officials. At suggestions from the teacher, the characters may interact in various ways -- deciding whether to expose a poor stowaway, petitioning the ship captain for better treatment, choosing what few family treasures to take on the voyage to America. Living and breathing the story in this way gets it "into the bones," as I like to say, more emphatically than reading a text.

Educational theater transforms lives, as I wrote in an earlier blog post here about a theater project featuring seniors and children. In the course of my year and a-half at NYU, I witnessed one of many transformative experiences in a summer course in Ireland. A group of teenagers in Drogheda, north of Dublin, performed an original play about marauding British soldiers in the 18th century. They played it in and around a Martello tower, a stone fortification that was actually in use at the time the play's events took place. In a talkback afterward, the kids said that drama "was the best, innit?" because it "builds up your confidence." Ordinary kids, transformed.

I'm proud and excited to be working in this wonderful field.  

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