Reflections on My First Semester Teaching High School Stagecraft
Technical theatre is what really hooked me when I was in high school. Of course, I was first led to the theatre department by the allure of the stage, but it was being a part of the set crew that kept me coming to the school until the wee hours of the night. And so when I came upon the opportunity to teach stagecraft at a high school in Phoenix, I jumped at the opportunity. Before this year, I had done Stagecraft with young people, but this was the first time that I was doing it as part of a class. In those past experiences, I was the set designer and the young people were my assistants, but now I had to mix pedagogy with artistry. How do I balance teaching with “the show must go on?”
As an educator, I use a critical pedagogy where students see the world and knowledge as something constructed. I want my students to discover knowledge rather than passively receive it from me. But when working with electricity, power saws, and fly rails I couldn’t let students discover and construct their knowledge of safety, and so I had to start off with lectures and written safety exams in order to give my students the base they need to explore Stagecraft and end with the same number of fingers that they started with.
The next question I struggled with in designing the class with my co-teacher was how to balance teaching technical theatre and teaching design. We found the answer in looking at the larger needs of the drama department: we had the High School play (Almost, Maine by John Cariani) in late October and the middle school play (Wiley and the Hairy Man by Suzan Zeder) in early December. We looked at Stagecraft knowledge as a pyramid: at the bottom is safety, midway up is technical theatre, and at the top is design. Success in the upper part of the pyramid depended on competence in the lowers parts. So the overall plan was to start with safety, use Almost, Maine to teach technical theatre, and use Wiley and the Hairy Man to teach design.
The consequence of this structure was that as the focus of the class moved up this pyramid, our pedagogy became more and more critical with more opportunity for our students to set their own inquiry, ask questions, and discover answers. When teaching safety, all knowledge was imparted by me and my co-teacher: how to pre-drill a hole, how to use a table saw, and the importance of wearing goggles. When teaching technical theatre, I acted as the designer and the students were the technical directors and carpenters. I decided on the look for the house we would build, but the students had to figure out how we would build it. All the while I was showing them my design process to get them ready for their own designs.
The final assignment of the semester was for the students to design costumes and sets for Wiley and the Hairy Man in small groups. They had to create a model or renderings and costume sketches for every character. Their grade was based on a written self-reflection in which they also evaluated their group members. They were evaluated both on the quality and detail of their design and their reflection. Once they submitted their designs, my co-teacher and I selected elements from each group to be part of the production. The last weeks of the class were spent building the sets and costumes the student had designed.
In looking back, I noticed a stark difference between how the students worked on my design for Almost, Maine and how they worked on their own designs for Wiley and the Hairy Man. During the former, it was very difficult to keep students on task and they would second-guess themselves, unable to see the big picture of what they were doing. But when they were creating from their own designs, they had made the big picture. They were more focused, more confident, and more creative. They would “yes, and…” their designs and imagine how to make what they were working on even better. There was very little need for me to give notes. When they wanted to know how to do something, they would find a tutorial on Youtube or try to figure out their own way to make it. They were seeking and constructing their own knowledge
This has only been my first year formally teaching Stagecraft to young people and there are a lot of things I still have to figure out. How can I incorporate lighting and sound design into my curriculum? What kind of assessments can I use to track student progress? How do I honor students’ individual interests while still holding them to a breadth of knowledge and experiences? If there are other Stagecraft teachers reading this, then send me a message and let’s talk shop. There are very few Stagecraft teachers working in schools, and I hope that this post will be useful to those few who are lucky enough to give students the opportunity to create worlds.