Sunday, September 26, 2021

School Residency Program: Twenty Years On

This fall marks twenty years since I began my work with the Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program. This work has become my life, and as with any endeavor you engage in for an extended period of time might ask yourself, why do I continue? Do I continue to execute my responsibilities to the best of my ability? Would the program benefit from a new instructor? Do I still enjoy this work, is my accumulated knowledge and understanding of value? Or am I merely repeating myself? 

Murder Arc with Alicia Kahn (2003)
Every September, we rise early to attend rehearsal. Long days of instruction and review, culminating in a week of classes, all eight actor teachers together at one school, a tryout in which the actor-teachers get to succeed or fail gloriously with the support of their peers and supervisors before they are sent out as partnerships of two to schools across the region.

This month can be very exhausting for me, especially as I have aged, from my early thirties to my early forties. The actor-teachers I have worked with have gone from people not much younger than myself to Millennials and now, Gen Z. Some of these folks are not even five years older than my eldest living child.

The same lesson plans, the same scene work, the same discussion questions. The actors bring something new, to be sure. But it is a well-established machine, this program. It works. And it doesn’t change.

Until March 2020, when this program, like everything else, was put in stasis. Schools were closed. Education went online. We had to let our actor-teachers go, and go they did, to graduate schools and other work, sometimes relocating as necessary.

This time last year our team was in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, creating performance videos for schools to provide to Cleveland city schools, and any other schools who thought they would be useful. A skeleton crew of staff conducted online residencies for schools who just couldn’t do without the program.

With the creation and production of successful vaccines, which resulted in a significant drop in infection and death, this past spring we began to discuss the possibility of returning to in-person instruction. Even then, there were a host of considerations, not only in creation of safety protocols in the classroom, but how we could even rehearse new teams of actor-teachers in a responsible and safe manner.

Avery & Noelle in rehearsal (2021)
Wipes were purchased in bulk to keep the rehearsal rooms disinfected, we knew we would be rehearsing with masks. Windows were open as often as possible, fans kept the air circulating. Four actors contracted, instead of eight. We would only be working in high schools, as children have not yet been vaccinated.

Even so, there was no guarantee the teenage students we would be working with were vaccinated, because freedom. We instituted our own protocols. If you want the program, students must be masked. All props handled by students must be wiped down after every class.

And how would that go? Without actors' mouths covered, how would scene work be received? We weren’t even providing costumes for the students. Would that be a bummer?

Two teams conducted classes in Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and The Crucible at Berea-Midpark High School. It has been two years since we have done so, and like some kind of unusual anniversary gift we were presented with their brand new school building, which comes complete with a vast auditorium space where we were able to conduct our work with a great deal of space. Students who were not masked were provided one (GLT has purchased a metric ton of masks for this purpose) no one complained about having to wear one, perhaps because they were grateful to be receiving special instruction.

And it all went very well. Our folks were able to perform their scenes wearing masks, and having adjusted to them in so many arenas of contemporary life they did not seem strange at all. In rehearsal one of our performers took a sip from a chalice (which was empty) during a scene, absentmindedly “drinking” through their mask. I suggested we accept that our characters not ignore the reality of their wearing a mask, that a mask should be lowered to drink and that was agreed upon.

Our final day I recommended the final day for Macbeth be conducted outside. It was a beautiful fall afternoon, the temperature in the mid-sixties. From time to time we conduct class outside but usually not until spring, as new actor-teachers are processing a great deal of material, and outside instruction can be taxing on the voice.

Berea-Midpark High School
But as a society we have been doing so much more outdoors, dining and performing and celebrating. It’s just safer. If nice weather continues, I wanted them to feel comfortable suggesting a class or two outdoors — because it meant they could remove their masks. For a brief moment, our people could be seen. And it was a glorious battle.

There were moments this week, when I was about to cry. If I thought too hard about it, I would have. Remembering what it was like to see my own children, attending school from home. The deadening effect it had on them. They were more stoic than I. 

I fear how this generation will be affected by this experience. Reality is a joke to them, a vicious moron can become president, our forests are burning, every rainstorm brings catastrophe, and when struck with a global pandemic, legions of citizens would rather deny, harrass and argue than band together and literally take their medicine.

But for now, we are back, working with students, one our feet, performing scenes, playing games, and having lively, engaged discussions. It was a horrific and unnecessary kick in the pants, but I am grateful to have been reminded of exactly why this is the path I have chosen.

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