Theater: Onstage at Calhoun
The word itself evokes images of fun and games. But theater education is more than just game-playing. Calhoun’s theater program weaves together all of the arts and reaches out to almost all academic disciplines; it is truly experiential and interdisciplinary.
The theater program celebrates each child's talent and, ultimately, to create a rich learning experience that nurtures creativity, communication and collaboration (the 3 C's!). The final joy comes when the curtain falls, and each actor, musician, singer, dancer, technician, director and artist knows that he or she contributed to the production's success.
How does the theater program advance and reflect Calhoun's progressive approach to education?
Through the writing of a play or the performance of a book adaptation, a child grows as a reader and deepens his or her understanding of the literature. By Middle School, theater further encourages critical thinking, reinforcing the curriculum going on in the classroom and enhancing and broadening our students' learning. In the Upper School, there are even more theater class electives. The opportunities that the program offers--the skill sets and creativity it engenders--translates across disciplines. Throughout the grades, though at different developmental levels, the strategies and goals remain surprisingly similar.
Lower School theater begins with a lot of improvisation. We want the children to play, to feel comfortable with self-expression, to really let go in class. When you're asking kids to improvise their own show and take responsibility for writing the scenes, you're empowering them in a way that's nontraditional and you're also celebrating their strengths as writers and performers.
The Middle School theater program is interlaced to varying extents with the curriculum of the humanities, English and social studies classes. This is certainly true in the fifth and sixth grades, where theater is a required class and class "curriculum plays" are entirely tied to the world cultures studied in their humanities classes. And while the seventh and eighth grade theater classes (acting, playwriting, tech theater, improvisation) are electives, we choose performance texts that are relevant and challenging to students' intellectual and social development: 12 Angry Men was a fantastic piece of theater, but also an education in the American legal system—as simultaneously studied by eighth graders in their social studies class. The production also inspired a five-week series of workshops for the entire Middle School community (developed with the Director of Diversity) on bullying and "ally" behavior.
Upper School courses are about handing over the stages of work to the students. Little by little, each year, we have carved out the psychic space for the theater students to not just perform but to become the center of the creation—to become the writers and lyricists and directors of the actual pieces we present. The Upper School program is as collaborative and ensemble-based as possible. You can't sit around waiting for someone else to start a project. Start it, write it, direct it, make the dance, compose it, perform -- just do it!
What would you tell those who think that theater is just "play"?
Theater is hard work. Theater is self-examination and striving. Theater is time. There's nothing easy about making good theater. Luckily, the kids think it is fun, and it is – fun work. The kids who do the after-school shows will tell you that it is one of the most consuming things they do each semester on all levels. But "play" is a crucial aspect of all theater work, especially in an educational setting.
Theater is a realm that consistently frustrates those earnest folk who believe that the only subjects worthy of study in school are those whose results can be assessed with a test, calibrated for consistent results or plotted on a bell curve. A major part of the Middle School theater program is directly designed to challenge and inspire the "character" of the children in our care: Can you commit to a semester-long collaborative process and see it through to the end? Will you be there to support your fellow students during a grueling production week? Can you rise to the creative challenges inherent in developing a performance role?
Personal courage, an engaged imagination and a developing character--how do you grade these traits in "normative" systems of educational assessment? You can't; therefore, theater "work" tends to be dismissed as inconsequential "play." To such thinking we say (with apologies to the bard): "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your [educational] philosophy."