Drama in the Classroom

In drama class a student learns to speak up, act, entertain, socialize, write, debate, collaborate, and create. I love enlivening curriculum with drama because students don’t have to sit still. They can get up, run around, and embody whatever literature they are reading. They can play. And I believe learning is playing. At the online MIT Learning Creative Learning class, the leaders often discussed learning in connection with tinkering — using tools to mess around as they sought to solve problems.

I’ve noticed that in many traditional classrooms students are required to sit at their seats for a long period of time. And I wonder if we do this because we assume that is the physical posture in which children will be expected to work as adults in their own professional lives. Do teachers do this because we want students to be pliable? Do we believe school is simply a preparation for work? Isn’t school also a preparation to live a creative life? Isn’t learning for the sake of learning one of life’s greatest joys? And isn’t the nature of work — the way we work — changing?

By asking students to sit for long stretches of time, aren’t we training them to be sedentary? I know students have gym class in which they can move freely, but all of us need to incorporate healthy and purposeful movement, beyond organized sports, into our lives.

Look, for many years as a professional writer, I could not write without sitting, plugging in my headphones, and tuning out the world around me. In high school art classes, students wear their headphones to get into the zone. But periods of restlessness ensue and built-in stretch breaks and walking breaks always sparked new ideas.

When I headed up a Christmas Party committee in my old office, I insisted that we have stand-up meetings. This kept our meetings short in duration and high energy in spirit.

Moving and standing while writing and working increases productivity. It may be apocyrphal but I’ve heard Thomas Wolfe wrote while standing and using his fridge as a desk. One day in the Village, I ran into my old dramatic literature teacher and author Una Chaudhuri. What was she doing? She was walking and thinking, she said. This was the best way for her to process her own writing work.

The infusion of any course of study with drama makes it more engaging. I have always loved reading out loud to my children and my students. It’s strangely calming for children (and adults too?) to be read to. Honestly, a read-aloud book is kind of like a drug. More effective than a sleeping pill, my husband and I used to read short stories to each other before bed. Cheever was our favorite.

Besides the calming and energizing qualities to a drama class, there is also the sheer entertainment value of it. I remember laughing so hard in my high school drama class when we did improv. Theater is a collaborative art. The guiding principle of improv — of saying ‘Yes! And’ to your given circumstances — is so needed right now. We need to build each other up and not tear one another down.  There is so much good to teaching drama in schools.

When I covered a maternity leave for the drama program at Riverdale, I loved helping the students write and perform their own plays. (See the press release) Students create such amazing work when given the chance to perform major drama in schools. (See for yourself at St. David’s drama/music program.)

It is our belief that people learn best when they are actively constructing knowledge by working on problems that are particularly meaningful to them, in a playful way. – Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) Research Group at MIT

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Speaking of drama and playfulness, isn’t Winona Ryder great? (This tweet got so many likes!)
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Violent Images

Last night Chris and I saw the play Tamburlaine. At the 30-minute intermission, I told Chris, "This is the best production of Tamburlaine that I will ever see. And the worst." I said that about Cymbeline too. Glad I saw it. Don't need to see it again. 

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John Douglas Thompson (photo courtesy of Nigel Parry and NYMag)

It has my favorite actor, the Marlon Brando of our time, John Douglas Thompson, in it. Tamburlaine reveled in his own psychosis and had such a lusty love of blood-letting.

Thompson, in fact, is a gentle man, a bit of a friend. He played MacBeth when Chris played the porter in the Scottish play. Chris says of him, “He doesn’t shy away from the big parts.” (Othello, Emperor Jones, Julius Caesar). He is all in. So good. Exciting to see such commitment. And the whole stage rocks with turmoil.

But to what end? The play is loaded with buckets of blood and plenty of gore, including a scene where a tongue is cut out. Eeeeew! The play by Christopher Marlowe was first staged in 1587.

I overheard an audience member say, “This hasn’t been done since 1957 on Broadway.” And with good reason. It’s just an endless parade of marauding death.

On the way to the beautiful Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, Chris realized he forgot his medicine.

“Do we go back home?” I asked.

“No.”

“I will just be slow.” Chris’s Parkinson’s medicine helps him move. Without it, he freezes. After the play, I put a hand on his back. On the way home, I pushed him along.

He was extremely slow walking to the subway, heading back to the Upper West Side. Then we got home and I had to tell Catherine she could not watch Django Unchained.

“It’s not a problem,” H. said. “She looks away during the violent parts.” He loves having a companion with whom to watch movies.

“I’m sorry. No,” I said.

“You’re too protective.”

“Yes,” I said. Believing that they secretly like that. Even thinking maybe Catherine wanted to be told not to watch that.

“Why? Why can’t she watch it?”

“I don’t want her to have those images in her head — of such violence.” I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve heard. And yet, Tamburlaine filled my head with violence too. I don’t think I’m worse for it. Maybe it would’ve been okay. I don’t know. We live vicariously. But plays are different. The cast comes out for a curtain call.

We know it’s fake. We love the artifice.

We go slowly home.

A Night With Janis

I don’t really remember Janis Joplin. She was a little before my time.

I was more of a Carly Simon girl. But I love girl rock – like Pink, Joan Jett, Adele. Janis was the first, a trail-blazer, a Texan, a woman who told it like it was.

I felt like I made a friend at the Lyceum Theatre the other night.

Mary Bridget Davies played Janis with an uncanny likeness. She has an extraordinary voice. I did worry about her. How can she do that gravely rocker girl scream and not lose her voice?

As a performer, Davies held nothing back. She gave it all. And this is the beauty of Janis, I learned. She had an unbridled passion.

Almost every other number featured one of the amazing performers who were also the back up singers — Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell and Nikki Kimbrough. They were divas in their own rights. In that order, they played Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Etta James.

This is the second musical I’ve seen in a few months that has featured Nina Simone as a kind of guardian angel character. I’m getting to think she deserves her own musical. The other musical with Simone was Soul Doctor, the story of Rebbe Schlomo Carlebach, a Jewish recording artist, from the 1960s, who professed and lived a life devoted to love and God. That musical, like this one, was about a ’60s cult figure. But that musical had a narrative arc; this musical was a straight up rock concert.

And like a concert, the audience was key. The artists totally communicated.

So many songs brought the crowd to their feet. My favorite was Piece of My Heart. God, that song is brutal. Janis truly seemed to give a piece of herself. You do wonder if that is healthy, especially given the rocker’s early death. Such a loss. Because I bet Janis would’ve loved to see the evolution of girl rock into woman rock.

And selfishly, I wish Janis Joplin didn’t die, because I made a friend that night, and I’d like to see her again sometime.

Disclaimer: Thanks to A Night With Janis and Serino/Coyne for the tickets. The opinions on this blog are always my own.

Thanks to Joan Marcus for the pics of the performance. That picture of the curtain? Yup, that first one is mine!

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