I had been teaching theater to middle school, high school and college students for almost 10 years when I took a job starting a theater program at a brand new high school for students with learning disabilities. The Mary McDowell Friends School is a Quaker school for kids with learning disabilities. The mission statement describes the school’s values, “MMFS believes that every student with learning disabilities can learn with the support of a community dedicated to specialized teaching, cooperation, and respect. MMFS’s approach is grounded in the Quaker values of respect for individuals, personal and social responsibility, peaceful resolution of conflict, the importance of diversity, and the value of service.” MMFS is a very unique school, as unique as every student that attends. I have never taught at or experienced a school that not only says that they value the arts in its mission statement, but that deeply understands on a fundamental level how invaluable the arts are to a students learning and development. At MMFS the arts are a place for our students who struggle so much with their general academic course work, to be successful, creative, and to have fun.
When I began designing my program I had a lot of questions and was very nervous about my ability to modify what I wanted to teach in a way that would be easily accessible to all of my students. Additionally, I have to direct two shows annually and I didn’t know where to begin. I really struggled to find a show that I could do with a group of students whose disabilities were predominantly language based processing disorders. Most importantly, I wanted whatever I chose to be something that highlighted their talents and that they felt really confident performing. How do you make a show with kids who can’t memorize lines? Or whose dyslexia makes stage directions feel completely impossible? How could I find something that could showcase all of my students who learn and perform at so many different levels, in a way that allows everyone involved to feel proud of their work. Then, I remembered that the best teaching and directing theater with young people I have ever done has involved a big learning curve and making a lot of mistakes. I have also made a lot of discoveries, particularly about this group of high school students that I have been teaching for the last three years. The main thing I have learned is that there is so much more that they can do, way more than what they can’t do. They are also one of the most uninhibited groups of performers I have ever had the pleasure of working with. The disabilities that my students have, some of which are substantial speech delays, have not stopped them from being willing and excited about getting up on stage to perform in front of their peers, families and strangers. These kids are brave and willing in a way that was so unexpected that it floored me and continues to inspire me. The honest answer is that they can do everything and just like their mainstream teenage counter parts, they really want to.
The first show I directed with my students was a collection of radio plays, a great success and a show I learned a great deal from. I decided on radio plays so that students who could memorize lines did, and those who couldn’t would have their lines in front of them in a binder on stage, utilizing the convention of being in a radio station in the 1930’s where the actors were performing live on the air. It worked great and I was thrilled. Students did all of the foley, sang commercial jingles and played all of the live music. Next up, the kids wanted a musical and I felt completely daunted by their request. I decided to do a devised musical, to find a way to both honor their talents and interests which were varied. It went really well but was incredibly hard.
The result was a show we called La Cage Aux Gaga, comprised of the student’s favorite Broadway and pop tunes. Following that, I hired seven professional playwrights to write original one act plays specifically for my students and it was fantastic! As a theater teacher who makes work with young people, I am constantly confronted with the dearth of good plays out there for high school students. The plays were written with each kid in mind, including their personalities, strengths and learning disabilities and the result was a truly lovely evening at the theater that show cased everyone in the best possible way.
Next up was Charlie Brown and I felt like I really started to hit my stride with these kids. We learned enough about each other to know that we could tackle a musical, a real deal musical and it was stupendous.
As with any students, it takes time to build trust and to find a way in together. I have the great fortune of living in New York City. I feel like it is my duty as an artist and an educator in this city to not only make work with young people that is good, but to be a part of creating new work that is accessible to everyone. I am now in the middle of my second one act play festival, which will premiere six new works written specifically for my kids. Through working with my students I have fallen in love with theater all over again. I have realized that theater is limitless and inclusive. It does not discriminate. Theater is for anybody who wants to be a part of it and I am so grateful to have the chance to work with my incredibly talented students at the Mary McDowell Friends School. I can only hope they are learning as much from me as they are teaching me.