Recently I had the honor of interviewing Julia Magnasco,Education Director at First Stage Children’s Theater in Milwaukee, and learning about her career and getting advice on working in our field.
-Why and when did you decide to go into theatre as a career?
When I was in grade school and high school I did a lot of work at First Stage and I was also a Young Performer for them. We utilize age-appropriate casting at First Stage, so I did a number of productions when I was younger here and at Milwaukee Rep. I was in the theatre and I loved it and when it was time for me to go to college, I wanted to go into a theatre conservatory training program. I went to the University of Miami in Florida and got my BFA Theatre Performance and it was great. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I did a regional tour down south and then I headed back to Miami and I was doing a lot of film and commercial work down there and I was not loving my craft. I was terrified because I didn’t know what else to do. I had devoted my life up until then to being a professional actor and I was having a really hard time and was losing my passion. At about that same time, I was offered a position teaching drama at a middle school in the Miami School District. And I thought, “well, it’ll be a steady paycheck”, and I had taught a lot at First Stage and the Theater Academy and I really liked doing it. So I took the job and I fell in love again with my craft, and I thought, “This is what I need to be doing. This is how I need to be engaging with my art: as a teacher.” I loved teaching at the middle school, but I missed professional theater, so I talked to the education director at First Stage at the time, and asked what path I needed to take to get that position. He guided me towards grad school, and Arizona State seemed to be the perfect place for me. I applied and was fortunate enough to get in, and then after grad school this position at First Stage opened up.
-What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I do a lot of professional development with classroom teachers in the metropolitan Milwaukee area, and teach some courses for some universities in the area. And I love working with teachers, and having them get these “aha!” moments. But seeing from their students’ perspective and seeing how they engage with these creative learning styles and what arts integration means and know that they’re taking that and really impacting their classroom. I absolutely love that. And when they come back and they want more and they want to learn how to engage in this new methodology on a deeper level, because they see that it is moving the needle forward. And they see that it does have a very important place in the classroom.
-It’s really great to hear that, because I think sometimes teachers forget that they should be learning all the time too.
Yeah, and I understand that it’s hard and time gets tight, but I think when they do it’s almost like getting rejuvenated. I think that’s what happens for classroom teachers when they engage in this professional development, whether it’s a workshop or a course, and they’re looking at how they can transform their classrooms and students even more so, or in a different way.
-What is something that you wish you had known when you first started teaching?
That there are many different styles of teaching and one is not better or worse, and we can learn a lot from other colleagues and teaching artists that have different styles from us. There are things to be gained from that, even if it is very different from what we do. I wish I had known to be more open to those different styles and recognizing where they have a place. And I think too really learning how to listen in many ways. Sometimes students aren’t telling us something in very clear words, but it’s important just to listen. Also, everybody is going to have “those days”, and you’re not a bad teacher. And then you have those certain classes that make you feel like a rock star. It’s nice to have that balance. And don’t be afraid to try new things and take those risks in your teaching style and curriculum.
-How has a TYA membership helped your career?
The connections, the collaborations… I think that’s absolutely huge in what we do. We really are a community, and we want to try to achieve our very best and succeed and we need that support from our community. And we have a community that wants to give that support. So just being able to collaborate and being able to have on-going dialogues knowing that if I see something going on in another theatre company in the education department and I want to learn more, that door of communication is open and accessible, and in fact, there’s an invitation for that. Ultimately communication is what it’s all about and that’s how we all get better.
Julia Magnasco is the Education Director at First Stage, one of the leading professional theaters for young audiences in the nation. Julia is in her eighth season as Education Director, and in her tenure the outreach programs at First Stage have more than doubled in size and scope, serving 20,000 students annually with programs such as The Bully Ban and the Early Literacy Residency. Julia is an active member with the American Alliance for Theater and Education, is involved in the Partners in Education program through the Kennedy Center, and is on the adjunct staff at Alverno College and Carroll University. Julia received her BFA in Theatre Performance from the University of Miami, Florida, and her MFA in Theatre for Youth from Arizona State University.