By Matt Webster
I was working with my Beginning Theatre class when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find Ann Lake, one of the Exceptional Children (EC) teachers standing there with an anxious look on her face. She said, “We are working on presenting a play, and I was hoping you could help us.” “Sure” I said, “What are you working on”? “Hamlet”.
I thought, ‘Hamlet? HAMLET?! MY students aren’t even working on Hamlet yet…!’
That was the beginning of an incredibly successful ongoing collaboration between the Theatre and EC programs at Rocky River High School in Mint Hill, North Carolina. Rocky River High School opened in 2010 and Ms. Lake had included Drama into the EC curriculum from the beginning. She had a vision of her students performing the plays they had studied in class. When she came to me for help that first time, Ms. Lake showed me the process of how her students had prepared up to this point: Her students had read a script that was an “adapted” version of Hamlet. This adapted version would follow the basic plot of the story, but would be a shorter, encapsulated version of the original, and would include small pictures over words that would help her less reading-capable students follow along. After they had studied the script, she cast students into the roles and had attempted to do some simple blocking. They had acquired some simple props and costumes and she had reached a point where she needed some “expert” advice on how to proceed, and that is where the collaboration began.
As this was the first year of the school, all of my classes were beginning level classes and were quite small, usually 10-15 students. I chose a class that had some of the more mature students enrolled and teamed them up with the EC student actors. I would act as the director of the play and my students would use the skills they had learned in theatre class to assist the EC actors. Our mission was to assist the actors in their performance as experts and buddies. On a fundamental level, their job was to shadow the actors: They helped the actors with their blocking by guiding them to the proper location on stage and making sure they faced the audience. Then they would stand just behind the actors, dressed in black, ready to help them with whatever they may need. That was the buddy part. The expertise provided by the theatre students came in the form of line readings and physical performance cues. The theatre students followed along in the script and made sure the actors said their lines on cue. In rehearsal they would also model how the character might say the line– “She sounds really angry here. Can you sound angry? Let’s both be angry and see how that sounds.” In some cases, the EC actor was not verbal, or would suddenly become shy during a rehearsal or performance, and the Theatre buddy would stand on stage beside them and say the line with them, or even for them. Sometimes, this would be enough to embolden the actor who would then say their next lines without a hitch. The theatre students would also model the physical movements of a character by perhaps making a face, or folding their arms or stamping their feet and the EC actors would mimic the actions of their buddy. However, the theatre students knew that this was not their show. Their job was to give the EC actors the stage, give them all the tools they need to succeed, and be there if and when they were needed for support.
The original production of Hamlet was a huge success. It was performed on our main stage in front of an invited audience of actor’s family member, and both the actors and their buddies gained a lot from the experience. As soon as that first show was completed, Ms. Lake and I began to plan for the following year, when we would perform A Christmas Carol. We followed the same rehearsal structure and that production was seen by a slightly larger audience, including a handful of EC students from neighboring high schools and district level EC administrators who were ecstatic over the level of inclusion. That experience emboldened us to expand the invitation to more schools around the district, and last year we presented to an audience of over 350 EC students, teachers and caregivers, three culturally specific stories: The Boy Who Drew Cats, The Boy Who Wasn’t Afraid, and Talk – stories from Japan, Mexico and Africa, respectively. I am very proud to say that our collaborative work was recognized when Rocky River was presented with the district wide Special Olympics “Project Unify” award last spring. Even more gratifying was the fact that both theatre and EC students attended the awards celebration together in a continuation of the collaborative spirit.
We have just started rehearsal on this years’ production, Sadako and the Thousand Cranes. In order to up the ante this year, we will be working with the Allegro Foundation who has agreed to choreograph portions of the play. Students from both programs are excited to include dance in this years’ show because it provides additional opportunities for inclusion by less verbal students.
When I started at Rocky River, I never intended to create “inclusive” theatre. Truth be known, we would consider it more collaborative than inclusive. And if you want to be honest, it is really just… Theatre.
Matt Webster is a recovering tenured Associate Professor of Theatre Education/Theatre for youth. In 2010 he stepped away from teaching how to teach high school theatre in theory, and instead took the opportunity to actually teach high school theatre. He is a much happier person for it. Matt is currently the Fine Arts Chair and Theatre teacher at Rocky River High School in Mint Hill, NC. He holds an MA in Theatre Education and an MFA in Theatre for Youth. In addition to being a teacher, Matt is an actor, director and playwright. His first published play, The Myths at the Edge of the World will be available later this year through Theatrefolk.