Advice for Aspiring Drama Teachers | My Interview with Professional Actors & Instructors
I was a Theatre/Speech Education major for part of my college education (I took about 14 credits). In 2012, I had the opportunity to volunteer as an intern for a few months at The School of Dramatic Arts in Carmel, CA—also known as SoDA. The program is through Pacific Repertory Theatre Company. Various classes are held for kids of all ages, at an indoor theatre, underneath the “Outdoor Forest Theatre” stage.
I was able to observe and learn from various theatre instructors who each had their own individual method of teaching. This helped me begin to develop my own philosophy of teaching, as well as give me ideas about possible curriculum (which I have used for the past 4 years as an elementary school music teacher). I gained insight on the pros and cons of being a drama teacher--and what it takes to teach theatre, accompanied by music and dance. I did this by writing up a questionnaire for a couple of the instructors, who both have degrees in theatre. Check out some advice from the pros!
Lyla Englehorn- "BA Theatre Arts, Vocal Pedagogy, Masters Public Policy (Panetta Institute); experience includes: touring actor & director with Missoula Children's Theatre Residency, Musical Director Western Stage Young Company, Director and Instructor MCT Performing Arts Camp, Movement Instructor YMCA Creative Movement Class, Musical Director Salinas High School, Assistant Director and Choreographer Missoula Community Theatre, vocal coach and dance captain for a variety of theatre companies. Favorite roles: 'Carrie Pipperidge' in Carousel (MPC), 'Betty Blake' in Will Rogers Follies (TWS), 'Peggy' in A Tafetta Christmas' (MPC), and 'Stella' in A Streetcar Named Desire (PRT)" (http://www.schoolofdramaticarts.org/saved.html).
Fun fact: I had the neat opportunity of singing the national anthem as a duet with Lyla at The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.
Gracie Moore Poletti- "...first appeared on stage in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at age 8 and has been hooked on performing ever since. Before moving to Carmel, Gracie enjoyed a long career as an actress in Los Angeles. Her extensive voice over resume includes over 1,000 performances on television shows, feature films and cartoons. Formerly a stand-up comic, Gracie was a regular at the world famous Comedy Store on Sunset Blvd. Since moving to the Carmel area, Gracie has appeared in lead roles in Brigadoon, Sound of Music, King and I, Full Monty, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Chapter Two, Anything Goes, Funny Girl, and Peter Pan, to name a few" (http://www.montereyart.org/event/special-musical-event-can-this-be-love/).
Fun fact: Gracie was the program director at SoDA, and at the end of the 12-week session of classes I attended through the internship, she offered me a paid position to work at the theatre. I did a little bit of clerical work for her, but shortly thereafter found out I was moving. I was especially bummed because Gracie had just told me that I'd make a great "Belle" in the community's production of Beauty and the Beast (one of my dream roles!)--and that she could still get me an audition slot, even though auditions had already passed. But unfortunately, my time in Monterey had come to a close.
1) What is your favorite aspect of theatre (performance- acting, singing, dancing; technical theatre; or teaching)?
Lyla: Wow. This first question is too hard for me to answer. I have been involved in ALL aspects of theatre, and I think that helps me appreciate that everyone's "role" is important in the final production. The only thing I have stayed away from is set design/construction. I really like lighting design, and miss it because I haven't had a design job for awhile.
Gracie: My favorite aspect of theater is performance (acting with singing), although I have to admit I really love teaching on the days I have students who are truly passionate about theatre. There is a certain joy I get when I see a student who really "gets" the lesson or progresses noticeably in his/her studies.
2) What has been your favorite job in theatre thus far, and why?
Lyla: My favorite "job" in the theatre was my time as a working actor. I didn't have to have a "day job" to make ends meet. I was just able to focus on the production I was in, the show I was rehearsing, and was able to pay rent and buy food with my weekly stipend. Unfortunately, that time was too short (just less than a year) and I had to go "back to work."
Gracie: In some ways, doing stand-up comedy was my favorite theatre-type job. I wrote and performed my own material. I love comedy, and learning to manipulate an audience was so fascinating and rewarding--to get them to laugh when I wanted them to. It was a combination of skill and instinct. Constructing a routine was so much fun and so very challenging. It is definitely the most challenging kind of performing I have ever done.
3) What would be the best advice you would give a college student aspiring to teach high school theatre?
Lyla: Be involved in as many productions, and in as many capacities (stage manager, crew, tech, design) as possible while you have the time and opportunity. Theatre is a craft you learn through apprenticeship (by "doing") rather than just in studio classes or from traditional lecture classes.
Gracie: Get live performance experience. Go be a professional performer for a while, then teach. And don't underestimate what your students are capable of.
4) What are the pros and cons to being a theatre teacher?
Lyla: Pros are the satisfaction of watching your students succeed. Knowing that they so want to be able to perform, and giving them the tools to be successful...and watching them realize that success in front of an appreciative audience. Cons for me include discipline and classroom management during rehearsal. I want everyone to stay focused because I want them to reach their potential before they are in front of an audience, but the rehearsal process can sometimes be tedious if you are not fully cognizant of the "prize" at the end.
Gracie: The pros are the rewards you get from seeing children blossom and become more aware of who they are, and knowing that they will take incredible life skills with them from having taken theater classes, whether or not they go into performing as a career. I think the cons are that, if you become stale as a performer and a teacher, you will miss out on inspiring the creative spark in your students. This is why I think it is important for a teacher to always be acting or directing, or expanding theatrical knowledge.
5) What age bracket would you say is the most difficult to work with? Which age bracket do you prefer teaching and why?
Lyla: Most difficult (for me): 5-9 year olds because they are unfocused...which, however, is developmentally appropriate. Just harder for me to motivate and keep them on task. I get frustrated more easily with this age group than others. My preference: 10-12 year olds because they are focused, but not yet too overbooked and overwhelmed with activities like those in the 13-18 age bracket.
Gracie: For me, the most difficult is the very young students, say, younger than age 8. But that is because I tend to be verbal and I think they need more action in their lessons. I love middle school students! They are just finding out who they are, but don't usually hate authority yet!! Also, the high school age student may be going through a period of withdrawal which makes it hard to get them to take creative risks in front of others.
6) What is your teaching philosophy and how would you describe your method of teaching?
Lyla: For the theatre arts, my teaching philosophy/approach is from the apprenticeship perspective. I believe the most effective way to become a better performer is to perform! My role is to give students the tools to succeed (vocal technique, breathing, notes on performance choices), choose appropriate material to guarantee that success, guide them in the preparation of that material, and give them as many opportunities to perform that material for others as possible.
Gracie: I make out a plan for my classes, but I leave room to pursue any avenue that seems to inspire the kids. My goal in teaching them at the younger ages is to get them to love theater and literature. As they get older, I start more on the technique of acting and analysis (areas I LOVE!). My philosophy is to draw out what is unique in each student--to help them get to know what is important to them. Also to teach them to know when they are succeeding in attaining the goals they have set up for themselves, so they wont be reliant on someone else to tell them if their work is "good enough."
7) If you could give a word of caution concerning teaching drama, what would it be?
Lyla: Share the load! Often, the "drama teacher" is expected to put on a fully produced show...by themselves! That means not only choosing material, casting, and rehearsing--but also building the set, designing the lights and costumes, making the programs, selling the tickets, AND making the brownies to sell at intermission. Sometimes supplies (wood, paint, fabric, copying) come out of your own pocket, too! Administrators often don't appreciate all the work that goes into a successful production, and the accumulated costs as well. In the classroom/rehearsal hall it is important to set up rules and expectations immediately. Often students will take "drama class" as a playtime or time off from their school day. To nip this attitude in the bud, it is important you demonstrate how much work actually goes into producing good theatre.
Gracie: Keep it alive and personal for the kids. Don't get stuck in "standards" at the expense of inspiration.
8) What is the most difficult challenge you have faced teaching theatre to young kids?
Lyla: Classroom management. I don’t like to be the bad guy, but maintaining order and focusing energy to the task at hand is necessary to hold the class together.
Gracie: Convincing them to step out of their comfort zone -- especially kids who are taking the class because their parents say they have to!!
9) What has been the most rewarding experience thus far in your career?
1) Seeing former students performing years later,
2) parents commenting on their child's improvement during the course of a class, and
Gracie: In my teaching career? Watching the "aha" moments spread across the faces of students when they understand a concept.
I really enjoyed being able to teach theatre and work with children with this internship. And I learned a lot by simply observing all of the instructors. One particular teacher was very enthusiastic and personable. Another teacher was great at speaking to the kids at their level, while one teacher was more strict and intimidating. She used a more direct approach in her teaching and her methods were unique. One teacher was intimate and caring with the children and complimented them when they did well. When I teach, I believe that being enthusiastic and passionate about the subject matter you are teaching helps the students to be enthusiastic about learning it. I also believe in structure and order and standard curriculum--but also like to have fun being creative and using our imagination, with new ideas of my own. Overall, the internship was a very rewarding experience.
So, are you considering teaching theatre or music? (Psst....you totally should! It's so much fun). Or perhaps you'd like to get into performing? Here are some of my related posts you can check out!
- "Life as an Elementary School Music Teacher" (which includes some of my free theatre, music, and dance lesson plans!)
Best wishes on discovering your passion and chasing your dreams!
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