Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Educating the Outsiders- Giving Parents an Insider’s Pass to the Process

The pressure to please parent audiences is often at the core of our product-driven work. Parents can frequently be viewed as “clients” of our theatrical education practices. They might hear tales from the rehearsal room, receive a few emails about scheduling, but rarely do they see more than the final product, and therefore that is all they know and the only way they are to perceive and judge their child’s theatrical experience. In order for our audiences to look beyond merely what they see on stage, they must have an idea as to what else there is to see. In other words, in order to embrace a more process-driven work, you’ve got to build an audience that has some basic understanding of the process.

How do we build these knowledgeable audiences? Like in most good theatre, there is no definite answer. I can offer a few suggestions, discuss strategies that have worked for me in the past, but I can’t claim to have solutions for every practitioner. Our work environments and student populations are so diverse that there is no cookie-cutter approach to take. I should preface what I am about to say with the fact that I work in a small K-8 private school, a community in which parents are easy to get a hold of and quick to jump into action (for better or for worse). For many of you, this is not the case, and therefore what I present may be futile to your efforts, but I can only comfortably write what I know, and invite you to adapt these suggestions to your needs.

The idea of the “Sharing” is not new to most theatre educators, however, how often do these Sharings occur and what exactly do they look like? In any given class I aim for at least three Sharings over the course of the year, one at the beginning, the middle, and end of our time together. The first sharing session is more of a sneak peek into the workings of the classroom, exhibiting group activities and the skills they teach. The second sharing tends to take the shape of an informal demonstration, whether it be a reader’s theatre piece or a presentation of a story drama staged in the classroom. The idea is never to showcase the product, it is rather to showcase the skills students have been building in their class work. Our final sharing of the year is a more or less a formal presentation. It takes place on the stage, lines are memorized, and we almost always use some form of costumes and a simple set. However our intermittent Sharings throughout the school year allow parents the chance to see student growth and certain inner workings of the process as we ultimately reach towards our goal of a final product.

Sharings are fine and dandy within a class structure, but what about within the context of our production based work? The name itself implies that the focus lies on the product, a product which must be ready for audience consumption in a limited amount of time. I venture there are possibilities to educate parent audiences in these scenarios. Allow parents to take part in the process, in small ways. I understand the desire to give production ownership to the students. There is power in turning the reigns over to your cast and crew. It is, in fact, part of the beauty of the process, and I would be remiss should I impede on these possibilities. However, I must also look at the reality of my personal situation. There is some work, mostly technical, which my students and I cannot possibly finish by ourselves in the matter of time we’ve been given (do keep in mind that I work with younger students and am quite often dealing with small, inexperienced hands). I’ll invite parents to help us paint our sets and assist with costume creation, but they do so alongside the student cast and crew members. Parents do not take over, they simple assist. On weekends I arrange family work sessions in which all cast, crew, and their families are invited to help us paint, build, sew, hot glue, etc… I do my best to facilitate these sessions so parents are following the directions of our student leaders. This opportunity allows our parents to see for themselves what all goes into our process and ultimately gain a deeper understanding of the product they will see in a few weeks’ time.

Additionally, one may recruit student cast and crew members to blog their thoughts and experiences from the rehearsal room. This can be an excellent writing exercise for students, wonderful advertisement opportunity in your school community, and yet another way to bring parents (and even administration) into your process.

My last suggestion to educate our audiences is the simplest in theory, but might be the most challenging in practice, communication with parents. No, not just an email with the rehearsal calendar, or a “Please bring costumes tomorrow,” but rather an email that highlights a student’s areas of growth in rehearsals, perhaps even a question or two a parent may ask their cast or crew member while in the car to and from practice. Perhaps simply stopping a parent at pick up and initiating a short conversation can be beneficial. You may have just embedded in them a new set of eyes through which to watch the final product.

Our process is messy, but beautiful. And yet we are often too quick to cover up the mess because ourfinal product is expected to be neat, clean, a tidy package with a lovely bow. However I propose that we do not need to hide all of the clutter from the audience’s view. In fact, invite those who may be on the outside of what we do to jump directly into the fray of our process. For only those who walk through the dust of a construction site can truly understand the grace of what’s been built.

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