On Wednesday, January 23, I had the opportunity to be a guest instructor at Matthews Hall in London for their Conference Day program, “60 Seconds of Fame.” According to the description on their website, the program was envisioned to be “A creative integrated arts workshop for Middle School enrichment. Cross grade teams will work with staff and guest directors to develop 60 second routines for performance.”
First, I’ll give you some background. One of the directors at OKTC, Jim Schaefer, is also head of the drama department at Matthews Hall, which is an independent school in London Ontario. The facility is impressive, class sizes are small, and in addition to the standard Ontario school curriculum, students also receive lessons in chess, participate in a huge number of extracurricular activities and sports, and begin musical training and French at a young age.
Jim coordinates the Conference Days, which are for the students to participate in enrichment activities on a variety of topics. (Next week, the middle school students get to go skiing and snowboarding and the lower school students get to go skating! Fun!) So for this Conference Day, Jim invited me, along with Richelle Hirlehey, Rod Keith, Martha Zimmerman and Dale Hirlehey, to be guest instructors for this program. Our task was thus: lead 60+ students in grades 6, 7, and 8 to create 60-second long performance pieces, inspired by a variety of items from a “box of mystery.”
The students were divided into 10 groups of six to seven students, and each one was given a cardboard box containing a variety of items, including a musical instrument (such as a shaker, a tambourine or a cowbell), a famous quote, a piece of poetry, a piece of fabric, an item of sports equipment, a copy of a famous piece of art, a portion of a famous song from a movie (played by the school’s music teacher on a grand piano), one of the school’s values, a graduated cylinder, a magnifying glass, and the box itself. The actors had to use at least one item per person. The students would have to work together to create a performance piece that was sixty seconds long, and then perform it in front of each other.
Our morning was spent first assembling the boxes, discussing how the project would be presented to the students, and creating parameters for the assignment. How many of the items must be used? Can the items be used literally, or should they be used as inspiration? How many parameters are too limiting, or not limiting enough? It was really interesting to develop the project from the ground up, and see how others interpreted the assignment. Would the kids get it? What would they come up with?
The next task was for us theatre professionals to do the assignment ourselves and see what we came up with. We had the same parameters the kids had: 30 minutes to plan/prepare/practice the one-minute long performance piece. Everyone had to really check their egos at the door and work together as a team, especially since all 6 of us are directors and used to being in charge. Yet everyone was really receptive to everyone else’s ideas, and we managed to create a piece that incorporated a bunch of different ideas.
The first thing we did was try to find connections between the items we had. Our school value was “personal growth” and the poem was something about a journey, so we created a sort of concept piece about the growth and movement and development of art throughout time. (I think it went over the kids’ heads when we performed it, but it worked!) We also worked to our strengths: Richelle is a choreographer, so she incorporated movement and dance to her portion of the performance, and I immediately went for the recorder, as the fingering pattern is basically the same as the saxophone, so I was able to add some interesting music and sounds to the piece.
Before we met up with the kids, we were treated to a delicious lunch — beef barley soup, a variety of sandwiches, and chocolates for dessert — perfect for the bitter cold day!
After lunch, we met up with the kids in the gymatorium. (That’s not what MH calls it… I just love how schools often combine their gym and auditorium.) The kids were really energized and seemed excited to get started!
I worked with Group 5 and Group 10. They all wanted to break into their boxes immediately, but I had them do a warm-up exercise first to help get them into a creative mindset. The game we played was called “Props,” where you are given a random item (in this case, a large ruler) and have to make it into anything other than the item it is. Some of the kids seemed resistant at first, and some seemed almost afraid of doing something “wrong.” Once I did a few examples, most of the kids seemed to get into it, and made the ruler into a bunch of different things, such as a canoe paddle, a hairbrush, a magic wand, a spoon stirring a cauldron, and a fishing pole.
Finally I let them dive into their boxes. It was fascinating to see the differences between the two groups, and how the kids in each group worked together. Group 10 was full of crazy energetic students! They all had a million ideas, but needed to be reined in and needed help actually shaping the ideas into a concrete storyline. They also needed to be reminded that if they were all talking at once, nobody would be able to hear anyone else’s ideas! They came up with an adventurous piece entitled “The Epic Tale of the Uni-Snake and the Bored Prince,” where a half-unicorn/half-snake creature attacked people until it was subdued by the prince.
Group 5 was quieter, but they really got the concept that a good story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and figured out a storyline really quickly. They were up on their feet and working out details nearly immediately. Group 5’s piece was called “Growing Up,” where five of the students arranged themselves from shortest to tallest and portrayed a young girl growing from a toddler to going off to university and interacting with the sixth student, who played her father. Their performance elicited a whole bunch of “AWWWWW”s from the audience, and it was definitely a touching and memorable piece!
This entire experience was a great one for me — not only did it give me the opportunity to teach something I love, but I also learned a ton from my colleagues and the students themselves. First, it was a great opportunity to work in a new environment with new people, which is always good for some new inspiration and shaking things up. Second, I enjoyed the process of creating a new work with other theatre professionals, and seeing how the different items inspired them in different ways. I think this project would be a great way to inspire lots of different theatre people (actors, directors, playwrights), especially if they’re feeling stuck for ideas. Collaboration is fun!
Third, it was interesting to work with new students — and particularly the ones that “had” to be there versus the ones who wanted to be there. At OKTC, I tend to forget that it’s a very different teaching environment than teaching in a school — these kids want to be there (in fact, they pay to be there!) and they lovelovelove theatre and performing. Working at Matthews Hall, which, despite the variety of enrichment activities, is still a school — therefore everyone participates in everything — you’re guaranteed to work with some kids who don’t like what you’re teaching and don’t want to do it. My task, then, was to figure out ways present the project so that these kids would buy into it. It really forced me to consider different methods of teaching and instructing, and reflect on how this will influence my future teaching methods.
Overall, I’m so thankful to Jim Schaefer and Matthews Hall for this fun and educational opportunity. I’d do it again in a second!