Teaching and watching plays with students

I had an ugly time at college figuring out a major. I started with chemistry and then mathematics but got hammered in even the most basic courses in both, which did not bode well for majoring in either. Overall, I was a pretty pathetic student – not very driven, easily distracted by the multitude of distractions that occur on any college campus. Nothing lit my academic fire.

Don Pease & his book on Dr. Seuss

That was until I took Don Pease’s course on modern American drama. I had heard great stuff about this wildly animated, entertaining English professor and decided to take his course on Albee, Williams, Miller, O’Neill, Kopit, and others. The course not only lit that fire, but it also ignited a love of theater that’s burned to this day. (OK, OK, I’ll put out the fire imagery.) Granted, we were just reading the plays in that course, not seeing them, but Don Pease and his focus on the language of each play – the sort of theatrical vocabulary that each text possessed – helped me understand that layer of the play, language as the play’s bedrock, on which a production can be built.

Thanks, Don, and other college professors, such as Peter Saccio and his Shakepeare courses, for when I taught high school, I made a habit of taking my students to the theater – to Providence’s Trinity Rep to see Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom, for example, or to DC’s Shakespeare Theatre to see The Taming of the Shrew. But those trips were extracurricular, not integrated into my class, and it was not until I had a summer internship in the education department at the local Round House Theatre that I began to hatch an idea, one that I hoped would provide for my students a deep dive into a play and its production.

Carter Lewis

The summer before school started, I scanned the seasons that DC area theaters were advertising, wanting to find a show that was fairly contemporary and appropriate for high school sophomores. Round House was putting on a relatively new play by Carter Lewis called An Asian Jockey in Our Midst – it’d been produce three other times – and my relationship with the education folks at that theater allowed me, as a part of my unit, to develop several great insider moments for my students: For example, we attended a rehearsal of the show and had the chance to talk with personnel involved with the production. We also tracked down Carter Lewis’ contact info and had some back and forth with him via email.

It was an exciting and multidimensional unit/experience – to study the play and its language, to see it in production when we went to that rehearsal, to get the inside scoop from Round House folks and the playwright himself, and finally to see the final production, with all of the back story that we’d already experienced. To approach the play from multiple viewpoints – the text, an interim version of the production, the final version of it – my students understood the iterative process that plays undergo, that the playwright’s text is not always what appears on stage. They understood the highly collaborative nature of theater, with its many voices, even theirs as audience members. And while we reveled in the language when we read and studied the play, that was just a precursor to the experience of seeing the play on stage, the true home of any play.

Maybe that’s what I’ll finish with: The thrill of live theater. All students need to have that chance, to see something on stage that takes their breath away. And it’s made doubly exciting when they can connect that breathlessness to something they’ve studied at school. Suddenly and wonderfully, their study leaps off the page. I remember the faces of my students on the day after we saw a production of something we were reading – great grins of realization, knit brows of contemplation – and then the hands started shooting up, with a frenzy of questions and comments. The thrill of live theater, yes – and the thrill of class the day after.

I got the image of Don Pease from here. The image of Carter Lewis came from here.

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