Our co-founder Nathan Hartswick wrote an article that was featured in the Pioneer Drama newsletter last week. Nathan has several plays for kids published through Pioneer, the largest publisher of children's drama in the country. We wanted to re-post the article here for you to enjoy!
Teaching Through Validation in Your Theatre Program
You're in the middle of rehearsals for your spring production. There are a thousand things to think about — there's all the normal show stuff like props, costumes, sets, lighting, posters, programs, etc., and then there are the concerns more specific to school theater: which boy won't be at tomorrow’s rehearsal because of basketball, what parent you’re going to find to chaperone dress rehearsal now that Bill dropped out, the gaggle of girls that always chit-chats with each other in Scene 2 because they think the audience can’t see them upstage — I mean, what are they thinking? Is there anything more distracting and unprofessional? Wait a minute, that's not fair, you tell yourself. It's not all of them; Kelsey is the ringleader. You should have a word with her about it, although she really should know better, and that seems like a waste of time when Scene 3 is completely falling apart and clearly needs an overhaul.
And, you know. More. Much, much more.
As this mayhem reaches a fever pitch, one of your younger actors, a shy boy with wide eyes, approaches you with some trepidation. He speaks low, and only in questions.
"Um, Mrs. So-and-So?" he asks. "I was thinking? You know the blue hat I wear in the beginning? What if I wore it when I came on at the end, too?"
Now, your first instinct is to snap at this poor kid. Doesn't he see you are in crisis mode here? That you are taking on more than any solitary human is capable of handling? That you cannot be bothered with such trivial things right now? That this is the worst possible time for a minor query like this?
Instinct two is to react negatively to his idea. It’s a lousy idea. No, of course he cannot wear the blue hat in the second act. He is playing an entirely different character in Act 2 than he was in Act 1. What quicker way to draw the audience’s attention to the doubling up of this actor than having him wear the same hat as the hobo that he did as the policeman? Do you know a lot of hobos who wear cop hats, wide-eyed young boy? Can't you see the bigger picture, here?
The answer is no. To this young kid who has next to no experience with performing, his world begins and ends with his two lines in this production ("Come with us, sir," and "Quarter for a cup of coffee, miss?"). This is a daunting world, and though some of the older kids seem pretty confident that they know how this whole scary process works, they are his peers, and they’ve steered him wrong before. There's only one person he trusts in the middle of all this craziness — only one person he is confident will have the right answers to things. That person is you.
And so what he has done in approaching you with his question, though it can be extremely difficult to see in the heat of a moment like this, is to give you a tremendous opportunity. If you give in to either of those first two instincts, you're telling this poor kid that his concerns don't matter; you are pushing him back into a frightening world with no means by which to understand and cope with it. But if you take a moment to validate his idea, to gently explain (in a fun, conspiratorial tone) the illusion you're going to create for the audience together with him playing two different characters, then he will learn a valuable lesson, and all the while his dignity remains intact.
The other benefit to this approach is that if you set the precedent of validating everyone's ideas, you will develop the habit of listening to everyone. And guess what? Not all the kids' ideas are going to be terrible. If you are approachable, if the kids know they can bring their ideas to you, they are going to present you with some great ones — stuff you may have never thought of. And that is really exciting — not only because it makes the show better, but also because it gives you a chance to praise a student, and to make them feel they contributed directly to the success of the production.
So what happens if a student offers a suggestion that's neither good nor bad? An idea that probably won’t impact things much either way? You're going to get input like this, and my advice is to take it whenever possible. Something that's small potatoes to you might be a big deal to a child. If the student wants to enter from stage right instead of stage left and it makes little to no difference to you, why not let the kid do it?
Listening to and validating students' ideas is the single biggest thing you can do to get them invested in the success of the show. If they feel that you are forcing something upon them and that their ideas don't matter, they will recoil, and suddenly it's them-against-you — the worst possible dynamic. But if you remain open, they will feel invested. As anyone who works in theater knows, We're doing something great together! beats Do what I say, or else! any day of the week. (Or any other industry, for that matter.)
When we get wrapped up in directing a show with kids, it can be easy to forget that we are also teachers. In fact, we are primarily teachers. As much as you want to present the audience with the best possible final product, what is most important is presenting the students with the most rewarding possible process. And luckily for you those two things aren't mutually exclusive — the more essential students feel, the more they get invested in the process. The more invested they are, the more they learn through doing. The more they learn, the better their performance.
So when you're overwhelmed by the captaining of this merry ship of fools and a dozen different kids approach you during tech week, each wanting to offer his or her own suggestion at seemingly the most inconvenient possible time, as long as their motives are pure (i.e., they legitimately want to help make the play better), take a moment to listen to and validate their input. It will make the students feel better. It will make the show better. But most important, it will make you a better teacher. And when all is said and done, that's what counts the most.
Nathan Hartswick is the bestselling author of Pioneer Drama Service’s Café Murder and The Ever After (available as both a non-musical and a musical). He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches workshops in theater, music and comedy at Spark Arts, the performing arts studio he founded with his wife Natalie.