Professional Development

Stage Directions

By Lani Harac — November 01, 2003 20 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
When drama teachers gather once a year in New York City, they’re reminded that theater isn’t fluff; it’s quite possibly the center of the academic universe.

The fight unfolds like this: Woman slaps Man. Man punches Woman. Woman returns fire. Man loses.

First she sneaks a blow to his midsection that has him doubled over. Then she grabs the hair above his forehead, jerks upward, and flings the man, rolling him across the floor. He tries to get up, but she kicks him back to the ground, her razor-straight, shoulder-length black hair swinging forward and covering her profile.

Some of the teachers watching the battle gasp or cover their mouths, eyes wide. Others lean forward on the edges of their seats, gleefully taking in the scene. The man staggers to his feet, sweat staining his T-shirt, and speaks.

“Stage combat is acting, and the dialogue is physical.”

As real as this altercation looked, it was actually a choreographed performance executed by Michaela Murphy and David DeBesse, experts in physical dialogue. They feigned beating each other senseless for the Broadway Teaching Lab, a summertime workshop for theater educators taking place at New York University over three days in mid- July.

With DeBesse and Murphy’s presentation concluded, most of the 100 or so teachers participating in the program join the duo onstage to learn the combat techniques. The irony is not lost on these mostly high school drama teachers—a majority of them from the New York City region but several from states as far away as California: For years now, arts budgets have been shrinking in accordance with a stalled economy and an increased focus on standardization. This fall, when they return to their schools—armed, conceivably, with practical and theoretical tools gleaned from the workshop—many will be fighting for the integrity of their programs.

Arranged onstage in concentric circles, the teachers go through a variety of warm-ups, including lunges, arm and leg rotations, and side-to-side torso twists—"like you’re being followed,” explains DeBesse, who makes goofy faces with each movement. Then they get into three sets of paired lines, each teacher facing a partner, to practice the cardinal rule of safe stage combat: eye contact. Protecting your partner is a priority, Murphy stresses, and without eye contact, you won’t know when the next move is coming.

The choreographers demonstrate a three-beat punch, then ask the teachers to count out loud as they do the exercise. “Eye contact. One"—one teacher in each pair steps back with right foot and raises left arm straight out. “Two"—right fist is raised to shoulder. “Three"—fist is thrust at partner’s chin, angled toward right shoulder.

The final detail, or “punctuation,” is to insert a realistic thwap! with a strike to the chest or thigh at the moment of impact. DeBesse repeatedly shows how it’s done, and, without fail—as he “slaps” Murphy’s face with an accompanying slap to his torso—several observers recoil in shock. Then, a moment or two later, they remember it’s all an act.

Baltimore in the early 1960s is a hotbed of swirling psychedelic colors, beehive hairdos, and interracial tugs of war. All hefty teen heroine Tracy Turnblad wants is to see her favorite TV program, The Corny Collins Show, integrated—and to win the love of local hunk Link Larkin. Along the way, she manages to make a daring escape from prison and claim the Miss Hairspray crown, holding court in front of a gigantic can of Ultra Clutch Hairspray. This is the world of John Waters’ musical Hairspray, based on his film of the same title and seen at the Neil Simon Theater the first night of the workshop.

Drama teachers gather once a year in New York City; possibly the center of the academic universe?
—Photographs by Emile Wamsteker

Hairspray is one of four shows—two musicals and two dramas—the Teaching Lab participants will see over the next few days. “We always try to give the people coming in, especially the folks from out of town, an overview of New York theater—Broadway and off- Broadway,” Peter Royston, a Teaching Lab director, explains.

This first show is vintage Broadway, an over-the-top production that won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Musical and ably lives up to the term “camp.” It’s certainly hard to argue otherwise when, during the penultimate moment of the musical, the can of Ultra Clutch opens and Tracy’s mother (really a large male actor in a dress) steps regally down, her entrance followed by a chorus singing “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

But Hairspray‘s performers are remarkably down-to-earth. After the show, the teachers are treated to an exclusive question-and-answer session with some of the cast, including one of its stars—Harvey Fierstein, the aforementioned Mrs. Turnblad, probably best known to mainstream audiences as Robin Williams’ makeup artist brother in Mrs. Doubtfire. Fierstein is especially well-known among theater fans; almost immediately after he walks onstage, dressed in black cargo shorts and a baseball jersey with “HAR VEY” stitched across the front, hands are eagerly raised for questions. One teacher thanks the actor for writing a letter to his students after they had sent him a class picture.

“Ethel Merman, who is my personal god and muse,” Fierstein says in his distinctive gravelly voice, “answered every letter and fan mail personally.”

Another teacher directs a question to all of the cast members: “What would be some of the messages we could bring back to our students?” She receives a few inspirational, if predictable, answers in return. But Jennifer Gambatese, who plays Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s skinny, geeky, round- shouldered best friend, offers this: “Your work as an actor comes from everything in your life. So don’t think that just because you want to be an actor, that’s all you’re gonna focus on. The more well-rounded you are, the more it fills you up, and you bring that to an audition.”

Words of inspiration are just some of the perks the Broadway Teaching Lab offers these drama educators, who can use the break from the stresses of the real world. Budget cutbacks coupled with increased curricular demands in reading, math, and science have jeopardized many subject areas not considered essential to academic achievement. As far back as 1995, when the American economy was still robust, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that student enrollment in arts courses had increased in 62 percent of public middle and high schools over the previous five years; yet only 28 percent of the schools had upped the size of their arts teaching staffs. During that same period, nearly 40 percent had decided not to increase the number of arts classes.

While many people indicated that they feel the arts are academically relevant, “other data obtained from the surveys suggest that arts education may not be receiving the kind of emphasis that would reflect” that view, the NCES study concluded.

Arts budgets have been shrinking in accordance with a stalled economy and an increased focus on standardization.

And among arts programs, theater is significantly shortchanged. A survey conducted by the NCES during the 1999-2000 academic year found that roughly 90 percent of schools offered instruction in music and visual arts, while only 48 percent offered drama or theater courses (with just 14 percent including dance in the curriculum). South High School in Omaha, Nebraska, is in that minority. Jim Eisenhardt, director of the school’s theater arts program and a workshop participant, wonders how much longer it has to be that way. “We’re fighting that all the time—the perception that theater, art, music are add-ons that do not exist to the academic benefit of the school,” he says.

In an effort to change that perception, the Broadway Teaching Lab was founded three summers ago at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The program is run by Theatre Direct International, a ticketing and marketing agency that handles a number of popular Broadway shows, including Hairspray and the other musical the drama teachers will be seeing, Gypsy. As curious as this kind of arrangement sounds, TDI has a vested interest in making its workshop as worthwhile for teachers as possible: Without theater programs in schools, there’s little to no theater appreciation among students; and without theater appreciation, no one goes to shows.

Several years ago, TDI held focus groups with teachers in the New York City region to find out how to get more school groups to visit Broadway. The most frequent responses were: Lower your ticket prices, and help us come up with ways to integrate theater study into the curriculum. We need to prove to our administrators, the teachers added, that these trips are educational, not just entertaining. So in 1999, TDI created Broadway Classroom, which offers discount tickets, student workshops, and study guides for many of its shows. High school English and social studies classes make up most of the participants—totaling almost 10,000 students in 2003 alone— and French classes came out in force to see Les Miserables, the musical based on Victor Hugo’s eponymous novel of the French Revolution, until its run ended this past May.

But not every school can afford to send classes to Broadway, especially those as far away as the Midwest and California. So in 2000, TDI partnered with a theatrical licensing agency and the Tisch school to develop the summer program for drama teachers, who, theoretically, can then bring the Broadway and off-Broadway experiences back to their districts. But it’s not cheap: This year’s fee is about $500, which includes theater tickets, but not travel expenses or accommodations. Some teachers are paying out of their own pockets, while others have tapped into their schools’ professional development funds. What’s telling is that about 30 of the teachers are return customers.

Tisch’s dance school is an old building with an ancient elevator manually operated by an attendant. Right now, about 9:30 a.m. on the first day of the Teaching Lab, he’s taking some of the participants to the 5th floor.

The cab lurches to a stop a few inches above the ground before it bounces back down. The attendant pulls open the accordian like grate, allowing the passengers access to the foyer. The floor is covered in black and white tiles flecked with gold, and near the ceiling, flowers and leaves in bronze, gold, and black are carved into the moldings. Flanking the foyer are changing rooms complete with red velvet curtains.

Registration officially starts at 10:30; but the elevator is already working overtime, and the foyer is full of teachers chattering with each other. “I’m so excited. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do this!” says one. “It’s out of my pocket, but I’ll live,” another responds. Teaching Lab organizer Pam Pariseau sidles over and says that the first year, when she and her co-workers arrived just half an hour early, 30 people were already outside the doors, waiting for them.

The enthusiasm is easy to understand; many of the teachers here this morning know exactly what they’ll face when they return home—skepticism from administrators, colleagues, and parents alike. “They think I play with children,” Linda Baker will say later, after she’s returned to Salem, Oregon, where she teaches at McNary High School. “We’re ranked right above PE teachers. In fact, they’re given more respect because they’re coaches. I think the general consensus is that we’re still a fluffy elective. We get respect for our productions, but not for our classes.”

After the show, several members of Hairspray’s cast, including Harvey Fierstein (right), met with the Broadway Teaching Lab participants to discuss acting techniques.
—Photograph Courtesy Theatre District International

Baker is tall, with a pale-blond pixie haircut and elfin facial features. She moves and speaks quickly, as though there is too much to say and not enough time to say it. At McNary High, she is the theater department: The 54-year-old teaches six classes each semester, from dialects to directing to dramatic styles; oversees four performances per year; and manages the auditorium staff.

She began her career 30 years ago as a middle school remedial reading teacher. After the drama teacher left, school administrators forced her to take over—because she has a BA in acting and directing, she was the only one they thought was qualified. “I actually went kicking and screaming,” Baker recalls. “I loved teaching reading. I thought it was really, really important.”

At her next school, where she taught year-round, she split her duties between reading and drama. “And then I realized, you can teach almost anything through theater,” she says. “In order for the kids to understand the literature that we were doing, I had to teach everything else. I had to teach history. I had to teach psychology. Sometimes even a little biology. The background work in theater involves all the other subjects.”

But Jim Eisenhardt, the theater arts director at South High in Omaha, may serve as the most explicit example among workshop attendees of how to link drama and mainstream academics. At South, everyone in the theater program must take both performance- and production-based courses. The latter include a unit on the physics of lighting, and Eisenhardt invites the school’s physics instructors to bring their own classes. He’s made similar forays into mathematics, asking teachers in that department about equations they’re working on and integrating them into hands-on lessons on set design.

“It’s a perception that you keep these kids from doing math, say, because they’re in your rehearsals,” he explains.” But we’ll turn around and bring in people from community arts programs to talk about chaos in music, which helps them grasp chaos theory in math.”

Eisenhardt has a bearded, dimpled face, a warm voice, and a ready laugh. He turns serious, however, when talking about how his colleagues view the theater program. “It’s always a battle to make sure that all the academic programs realize that we have the ability to affect what they teach,” he continues. “We’re always teaching kids how to measure lumber, how to figure square feet. You don’t sit down in the teachers’ lounge and talk about that. But [the theater students] do it.”

Scanning the foyer, it’s obvious that not every Teaching Lab participant is coming from the same place as Baker and Eisenhardt. Some look almost too young to be the department heads they claim to be; over the next few days, they’ll be the ones asking the questions, during feedback sessions, about how to deal with overinvolved administrators and dismissive colleagues. They’ve come to New York in part to gather valuable nuggets from their veteran counterparts. But both the vets and the neophytes share at least one thing—they’re here to learn new skills from the professionals.

Roxanne Carrasco believes she can teach anyone to dance. Currently performing on Broadway as one of the six merry murderesses in Chicago, the booze- and jazz-drenched musical about two aspiring 1920s showgirls, she’s sitting in a chair on the otherwise bare stage of the 5th floor Tisch auditorium. It’s the second day of the workshop, and Carrasco is a commanding presence. She has thick, curly black hair and envy-inspiring muscle tone. Her posture is regal, but she’s comfortable in her skin and expressive both physically and verbally. She is dressed in a sleeveless black top and low- waisted khaki cargo pants that don’t entirely hide the tattoo on her right hip. Carrasco also happens to be a former teacher; for years, she taught elementary school students, then high school Spanish.

She is about to give her charges eight counts of the “Cool” routine from West Side Story—a show known in theater circles for its difficult songs and dance combinations. When she asks for volunteers, only a few of the 75 teachers in the audience remain in their seats; the others flood the stage, eager to see whether Carrasco’s claim is true.

“Now I’m going to pretend this is a class. This is the first time I’m seeing these people,” she tells the folks still in the audience. “We’re gonna start to the right, and we’re gonna push. Stepping out off the right foot, you’re gonna PUSH! to the right, and then change and push to the left. PUSH!” Carrasco instructs.

Both the vets and the neophytes share at least one thing—they’re here to learn new skills from the professionals.

She demonstrates the move again: Chin held high, she steps with her right foot as she spreads her arms, then sweeps them behind her, shoulders back and chest thrust forward. Then she does the same leading with the left foot. “You’re looking in those directions,” she says. The volunteers, most of them obviously non-dancers, gamely echo her moves.

“‘Kay, from here we’re gonna go to the wrap position. Right leg cross in front, wrap, and you’re looking downstage. Yes?” The “wrap” is complicated— it involves crossing the arms all the way around the torso, then spinning around so that the foot that was in front is now in back. Carrasco checks to make sure the group is with her. It looks like they are. She adds a step with the left foot, the left arm swinging up to a 45-degree angle from the body, the right straight out at 90 degrees.

The Broadway Teaching Lab’s creators— Pariseau, Royston, and their colleague, Gordon Greenberg—wanted the lab to provide a mix of the practical and the motivational: instructional techniques that could be used in class or onstage, as well as opportunities to interact with professionals like Carrasco. Some of the former is actually supplied by the participants themselves, who sent in lesson plans and exercise ideas, collected for a thumb-thick booklet distributed to everyone.

As for the interaction part of the workshop, Carrasco runs the teachers through the “Cool” routine twice before adding the music, an instrumental interlude during which the melody is repeated. Many of the dancers giggle in embarrassment after they finish, but Carrasco is encouraging. “Not flawless, right?” she says. “BUT—I would’ve bought it, in the audience.”

Earlier, during a Q&A session, she hinted at how to motivate younger, more skeptical students: “When I have a boy or boys in my class, that, you know, ‘I don’t want to be a sissy,’ or ‘Dancing is gay,’ all of that stuff, I immediately pull out the knowledge that I have, which is, Baryshnikov, best dancer in the world, extremely straight, married how many times? I pull out cultural cards. ‘Hey, are you Puerto Rican? Are you Spanish? Are you Irish? Don’t you dance at home? And at your parties?’ Culturally in Spain, for example, the better dancer you are, the more desirable you areas a mate. Everybody dances in Spain. I always pull that one out, and they’re always fascinated by that.”

The same auditorium has a markedly different atmosphere when, during another lesson, the participants witness tense exchanges between fathers and their children. “What am I going to say the next time at show-and-tell? What am I going to say? Where are you?” one bitter high schooler asks her dad. Another, a younger girl, twists her fingers together and giggles as she says to hers, “You bite your nails. Mom would hit you if she saw. And she’d put that funny stuff on your fingers. And—and you have a beard.”

These fathers and daughters are actually Teaching Lab participants performing without a great deal of preparation. Just minutes before presenting these improvised scenes, they read and discussed a recent New York Times article about a prison visitation program, headlined “Imprisoned Fathers Tell Their Children: Don’t Follow in Our Footsteps.”

Sarah Munday (above left) connects, literally and figuratively, with Jane Rising during a stage combat exercise as part of the Broadway Teaching Lab in July. Munday and Rising, along with about 100 colleagues, also saw four professional shows, including Gypsy and the Tony Award-winning Hairspray.
—Photographs by Emile Wamsteker

Using news items as the basis for dramatic drills is part of the Living Newspaper, one of the Teaching Lab’s most cross-curricular components. It’s a recurring exercise, culminating in brief performances by various groups of teachers who base their work on several newspaper articles. The idea is not original: The Living Newspaper was developed in the 1930s by actors and directors involved in the Federal Theater Project, one of many federally funded programs put into place during the Depression by the Roosevelt administration. The goal was to provide work for unemployed theater professionals and “thoughtful entertainment” for largely nonworking Americans, explains the tall, goateed, soft-spoken Royston, who acts as resident historian for Broadway Classroom. The Living Newspaper, he adds, allowed theater groups to create plays that addressed, in relevant ways, the social issues of the time.

Of all the educational tools Jim Eisenhardt will bring home to Omaha, this one will immediately find its way into his curriculum. “I really felt, though I think it went on too long at the workshop, that the newspaper thing was really good,” he will say later, “because it gets the kids reading, making decisions, and then up on their feet performing.”

As part of their registration materials, Teaching Lab participants were sent one of 10 newspaper articles; those with the same articles are working on impromptu scenes together. Other thought- provoking situations covered by the articles include a child’s place in his family (“‘David is David': Growing With an Autistic Brother”); a military colonel’s habit of proposing marriage online (“An Officer and a Gentleman? 50 Women Would Disagree”); and the practice, on the part of certain Louisiana state attorneys, of bringing nooses and electric chairs to capital murder cases they are trying (“Prosecutors’ Morbid Neckties Stir Criticism”). The theme running through the articles is “blame and responsibility,” which ties into the final professional performance the participants will see: the off-Broadway drama The Exonerated.

The play is built around verbatim accounts, from court transcripts and personal interviews, of real-life people who spent time on Death Row, then were released because of new or reexamined evidence. It is unabashedly anti-capital punishment, but on whichever side of the issue a teacher falls, possibilities abound for using The Exonerated to teach students skills in researching and synthesizing information; to introduce them to the judicial process; and to encourage them to think critically.

It’s also a show that can be performed at little or no cost. Inside the Culture Project’s Bleecker Street theater, on a relatively small stage, the actors sit in 10 bar- stool-style chairs and face the same number of music stands, on which their scripts have been placed. The show is presented more as a reading than a choreographed performance because part of the cast—which has included Jill Clayburgh, Mia Farrow, Jeff Goldblum, and Anthony Michael Hall—rotates on a semi-weekly basis. Six actors portray the exonerated; the others play family members and people from the main characters’ pasts.

Tonight, William Jay Marshall is playing Delbert Tibbs, an African American who is the poet- philosopher of the group and a narrator of sorts. He was sentenced to death in the early 1970s for a rape and a murder in Florida, but he was a foot taller than the described attacker, with much lighter skin and much shorter hair.

Toward the end of the play, Tibbs tries to make sense of the legal system and of how supposedly well-educated judges and lawyers, taking on a case that is weak on evidence, can allow an innocent man to be found guilty. Listening to Tibbs’ frustration this last night of the Teaching Lab, it becomes apparent that theater is not only cross-curricular; it also gives voice to anyone who might be feeling judged unfairly—drama teachers, for instance.

“This is a weird country, man, it really is,” Tibbs says. “It always amazes me when I talk about this. I say, ‘How do you figure this, now: All these guys, they been to Vanderbilt and to Yale and to Princeton and Harvard and...they look at the same information and they come up with diametrically opposite conclusions. Figure that out.’ So it doesn’t have anything to do with one’s intelligence, it has to do with one’s preconceptions, with one’s tendencies, and how one looks at other human beings— you see, that’s what it’s about.”

Related Tags:


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Classroom Strategies for Building Equity and Student Confidence
Shape equity, confidence, and success for your middle school students. Join the discussion and Q&A for proven strategies.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Professional Development Webinar
Disrupting PD Day in Schools with Continuous Professional Learning Experiences
Hear how this NC School District achieved district-wide change by shifting from traditional PD days to year-long professional learning cycles
Content provided by BetterLesson
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Professional Development Accelerate Learning, in 5 Weeks
Education Week introduces its first email mini-course to help educators get up to speed on learning acceleration.
2 min read
Week 1  Intro to Learning Acceleration 600x300, email image
Adam Niklewicz for Education Week
Professional Development Opinion Revisiting Educator Collaboration: We Should Think Differently About How We Form Teams
Effective teams need to consider three essential elements, which are highlighted in this blog.
Ann Mausbach & Kim Morrison Kazmierczak
5 min read
Forming Teams
Professional Development Opinion Attending a Professional Learning Session? Many Educators Don't Know Why
It’s hard to develop a shared commitment when you don’t even know why you’re in the room.
6 min read
Untitled design