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A Band Of Thespians

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Since 1987, the Dodge Foundation Theatre Program for Teachers and Playwrights has been linking New Jersey high school teachers who have more than a passing interest in drama with peers in the state's regional theater culture. Through intensive workshops and meetings, the teachers study acting, directing, and play writing and share teaching techniques.

"This program's purpose is twofold,'' says John Pietrowski, the project's coordinator, "to weave a close creative relationship between teachers and theater artists and to promote the importance of play writing and new play development as an integral part of theater education.''

Unlike many professional or curricular development projects, this one doesn't begin and end with a few workshops. Participation is more like joining a club; once selected through an extensive application process, teachers continue for as long as they want. The group is capped at 50.

Several times a year, the participating teachers attend plays and one-day workshops at regional theaters. They also get together throughout the year to read original plays and works-inprogress. Every two years, they convene for a week-long intensive conference at Princeton University. And when the teachers aren't meeting, they keep in touch through a newsletter.

Collaborations, partnerships, and friendships are inevitable. "Before this program, I never would have known the artistic directors of the regional theaters,'' says Trenton Central High School drama teacher Jane Reed. "But we meet them at the workshops and develop a mutual respect.''

The contacts made through the Dodge network open all sorts of doors. For example, when Reed heard that one of the theater companies needed a short piece for an evening of plays, she and a colleague wrote and submitted a winner. When the crew at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick heard that a Dodge teacher, Scott Jacoby, was doing a production of Brighton Beach Memoirs-- the same show they were doing-- they invited the high school students to stage their show at the playhouse one night. And when South Jersey Regional Theatre heard that one of the Dodge teachers was doing the musical, Carnival, the theater loaned the high school its entire set.

Of course, the benefits don't just go to the teachers. When Newark teacher Wayne Slappy learned that an area school was looking for a part-time drama teacher, Slappy remembered a talented actress he had met through a Dodge workshop. The actress got the job.

Another local director was so impressed by the talent of the teachers she observed at one of the Dodge conferences that she used them in one of her theater's productions.

"I don't even know all the things that happen,'' says project coordinator Pietrowski, happy that the group has taken on a spirit all its own. "That's the ultimate goal. There were basically two parallel theater cultures: the regional theater culture and the high school drama culture. When we built a bridge between them, it was a joyous discovery on each part.''

For the teachers, the support of the larger theater community is particularly important. "The high school drama teacher works in isolation,'' Pietrowski explains. "Very few people understand how difficult it is to mount a production and carry five classes. So what happens is these people are overworked and in a real sense misunderstood.''

The network gives teachers both tangible and intangible assistance. Explains Slappy: "It allows us to draw on one another for strength, support, and insight.''

The increased knowledge and personal support that teachers receive through the program ultimately benefits the students. For one thing, the Dodge teachers encourage their students to write plays. And Pietrowski has noticed that the teachers are staging more new work at their schools, are taking their students to see more new plays, and are increasingly sharing their own works-in-progress with their classes. One teacher has even developed an annual festival of new plays.

Says Spector, "If you grow as an artist, you obviously learn more about how to teach.''
--Mary Koepke

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