2000-2004 Season Line-Up
“Art,” January 10—February 3. A Tony Award Winner by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton. Geared towards an older audience but appropriate for high school students. A man pays a small fortune for a painting of white stripes on a white background. His friends give him no end of grief. This show explores the nature of art and the relationships between three old friends.
“Moon Over Buffalo,” February 28-March 24. A farcical comedy by Ken Ludwig. This show deals with vaudeville and the old ways of theatre. Carol Burnett and Phillip Bosco had tremendous success with it in New York.
“Fair and Tender Ladies,” April 18-May 12. Based on the novel by Virginia author, Lee Smith. Adapted for stage by Eric Schmeidl. Music and lyrics by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House and Kaaren Pell. A heartwarming musical that taps the soul and sound of Virginia’s mountain country. Ms. Smith will attend the preview before opening night. Student groups will have the opportunity to meet with this nationally known author and then to see this musical created around her work.
In the New Economy we are supposed do more in less time, handle the barrage of things vying for attention, keep up with changing technologies—in essence, do and learn all the things we must in order to be successful now. But, what is this now-focused New Economy doing to our artistic culture? Funding for the arts has diminished and schools must focus more on academics, less on arts. In Virginia and around the nation there is a huge push for standardized testing to ensure all school children receive a thorough education. Schools lose certification and funding if enough students don’t pass. And, guess what? These tests rarely touch the arts. This results in a drastic decrease in education’s promotion of the arts.
How will an education, minus the arts, affect our children and nation? How are artistic communities dealing with the threat posed by the New Economy? What can they offer to entice the interest and support of education? Can the arts team with technology (arts and technology—a very odd couple) to promote the spirit within our country’s cultural diversity?
In search of insight to these issues, I interviewed Daniel Stackhouse, the Director of Education & Outreach for TheatreVirginia. Located in Richmond, Virginia, TheatreVirginia is one of the leading performance arts institutions in the Southeast. Dan’s mission and passion is to promote the arts in education.
Emory: The tests for educational standards seem to focus solely on “academic” areas. How does this impact arts in education?
Stackhouse: Thankfully, Virginia has begun to add some new standards and test items for theatre, music, and visual arts. They won’t hold the same weight as the academic subjects, but at least they will exist.
Nevertheless, our educational outreach programs at TheatreVirginia have suffered a substantial backlash. When the tests were first introduced, they only covered the core subjects—history, English, science, and math. Many administrators and teachers shut down field trips and other extra curricular programs. In our theatre, we saw a decrease in workshop and student matinee attendance. Teachers were reluctant to spend time with us because they felt pressure to teach to the tests. But, now, the pendulum is beginning to swing back. Some teachers realize that they don’t need to panic. A committee was formed within the board of education and the arts communities to initiate ways to integrate arts into the curriculum. Fascinating things are being done in Richmond and around the country.
Emory: Can you give an example of what’s being done to integrate arts into the curriculum?
Stackhouse: Yes. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has instructors who teach teachers to integrate arts into core curricula. They might teach a science teacher to use a skit for students to act out a science event. Integrating theatre, music and dance often provides the key to help a student learn.
Many students don’t learn well with traditional methods, but with a dramatic outlet, they open up and begin to learn. When they find this open door, it’s very exciting. They find a motivation. Often these students seem to be goofing off—they move around and touch everything. In a class, that’s not always welcome. When they get on stage, they’re moving and touching and using that energy to help them learn.
Emory: Have teachers and school administrators been receptive to your efforts?
Stackhouse: Yes. Many teachers are embracing the arts again. Some are still hesitant because they feel they don’t have time for the arts. But, recent efforts from the Board of Education, arts organizations, and teachers are beginning to show results.
TheatreVirginia offers onsite workshops to schools. We have adapted our workshops to support specific standardized test areas and we list them on the brochures. Teachers can easily see how a workshop supports the tests.
Emory: Do you offer workshops for the teachers as well as students?
Stackhouse: Once or twice a year we have a teacher workshop called Educator’s Day. Teachers come from all over the state. They spend the day learning about a variety of topics from set painting to grant writing. We offer workshops on other areas like Shakespeare and playwriting. We mainly focus on the students, but we know that educating the teachers will help to educate the students.
Emory: You mentioned a backlash due to the tests. How has that affected you financially?
Stackhouse: It affected us initially, but not as much now. Teachers are booking more workshops, but not like before. Our challenge is to find new ways to market. Adding the standards to our brochure has helped, but that’s only a start.
In addition to workshops, we have matinee programs. When a group books a student matinee, we send an education guide with activities and background information. Right now, we’re working on the guide for “A Wonderful Life.” Frank Capra, who directed the movie, created an allegory about the Great Depression and overcoming obstacles. Our education guide includes a lesson on the Great Depression. This show can support a history lesson or an English lesson.
We have student matinees on Thursday mornings. Afterwards, the students are invited to stay for a “talk-back” session with the actors and the cast and crew. This offers them a chance to learn more about not only the production, but also the people who made it happen.
Emory: Although the testing backlash is not as dramatic as two years ago, it seems that the schools view the arts as a support element for the core curricula. Is this an accurate statement?
Stackhouse: Unfortunately, yes. For some students arts are always a priority. They are the ones who motivate themselves to learn more about the arts. For the average student, however, the arts continue to play a support role. Studies show that students who sing in choir, play instruments, or act in shows do better in their academic subjects, and they are better rounded in general. So, yes, arts have taken a supportive role and unfortunately, over the last few decades, music and theatre departments have been cut. These cuts are a terrible shame because the arts are so vitally important to a well-rounded student and to finding keys to learning.
Theatre and all the arts hold a mirror up to society. They allow us to see society in a new way, and they expose us to new elements of society. A major theme of our recent production, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” deals with relations between assimilated southern Jewish families with recent Jewish immigrants. Many students would not typically see such a racial conflict and conflict of issues. For communities dealing with the more typical diversity issues, such as those between African American and Caucasian students, this show provides a neutral ground to cover problems related to race relations.
Emory: In addition to educational outreach involving your matinee programs and your workshops, what other programs do you offer?
Stackhouse: Our program “New Voices for the Theatre” is an annual student playwriting and acting competition and residency. Students in grades five through twelve from all over the state submit plays by February. We received close to 300 scripts last year and we hope to get the same high numbers next year. A reading committee reads all of the scripts. We select ten winners from middle schools and ten from high schools.
We invite high school winners to a three-week summer residency program. During the first two weeks, they take classes and work with mentors to revise their scripts. During the final week, we rehearse the plays with a professional director and produce them on our stage. Each student receives critiques from two professionals along with a written evaluation.
These students always bring extraordinary quality, depth, feeling and issues. Many come from areas that provide little support for their work—from their schools, homes, or peers. Here they live in an environment of support. Everything is geared to help these students find their voices.
For the student actors, we hold auditions for juniors and seniors around the state. Those selected stay in residence with and at the same time as the young playwrights. They take classes, some with the playwrights, and some on their own. As their culminating event, they act in the plays with a group of adult actors.
Emory: You also offer a playwriting workshop. Right?
Stackhouse: Yes. Teachers create a unit around the workshop and hopefully we get some New Voices submissions as a result. This workshop provides another way to help students express themselves. Students may write a lot of essays or poetry, but not usually plays. Playwriting is a whole different way of writing. They must show, not tell. They are challenged to think in new ways—to turn things around.
Emory: How can other academic areas support the arts?
Stackhouse: Hopefully, it becomes a two-way street. A playwright needs a topic. There have been plays about science, inventors, mathematicians, and about math itself. The core curriculum helps to blossom ideas in the arts.
We’ve been talking a lot about how the arts support core curricula. This is the way it is. This is not the way I would like it to be. I believe the arts should provide that support role as well as have a home within the core curricula.
The United States struggles with the National Endowment for the Arts and government funding for the arts. For many years, our funding was amongst the lowest per capita compared to Canada and the European countries. That is changing—our funding is not necessarily going up, rather their government funding is going down. For the past 20 years, Europe heavily funded the arts, but that trend is changing.
Society doesn’t immediately see effects in the decrease in arts in education—I don’t think you’ll see it for another twenty years. With, for example, algebra, you can learn it then take a test that evaluates your learning. The arts differ in that they affect something deeper inside that in turn affects our lives. We may see the effect within the next ten or twenty years. Hopefully, we’ll have the foresight to reverse the trend before the consequences hit.
Emory: At least the Department of Education is adding some arts-related tests indicating that they recognize, to some degree, the importance of the arts.
Stackhouse: This is a positive step, and hopefully that will continue.
As a society, we do see the arts as supporting the core curriculum. As much as I wish it were different, it is the trend. What arts organizations can do is to embrace that role and provide as much support as possible. That’s what theatres and other arts organizations across the country are doing. The educational programs at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts expose as many students to art as possible.
Emory: How do you get attention from the schools when they are focusing so strongly on the academic areas stressed in the tests?
Stackhouse: We create programs to help their students to succeed. When we select a student to participate in New Voices for the Theatre, for example, we make sure that the school knows it, the principal knows it, and the community newspaper knows it. We do a mailing; we use the Internet; and we use e-mail. We have a web site, http://www.theatreva.com/. Our online methods are behind where I’d like to be, but we’re growing. We are gradually getting funding to do more.
Emory: How do the learning opportunities vary from year to year?
Stackhouse: Our artistic director, George Black, picks the season. He keeps in mind that education is a prominent part of our mission statement. Our main goal is to provide high quality, challenging shows. We do a broad mixture—musicals, Shakespeare, classic theatre, and comedies. Obviously, some shows have a broader appeal than others. “A Wonderful Life” will have a huge appeal. It’s a challenge for the artistic director to pick a season that will support the theatre, be artistically challenging, and broaden the horizons for our audiences.
After producing a show like “A Wonderful Life”, we can then produce “Art” which is a phenomenally good and in-depth show, but it may not have quite the range of appeal. It balances out. Sometimes we’ll have a season with five shows that all appeal to kids and teachers. Some years we may have only three or four. We offer matinees across the board, but the popularity depends on the material. Some shows have strong language, because theatre portrays life. Teachers can’t bring students to a show with strong language. It’s always a balancing act.
Emory: Theatre is by nature event-driven—your activities revolve primarily around the season’s line-up, which offers focus yet causes limitations. Can your educational activities go beyond the current line-up to recapture lessons from past shows?
Stackhouse: Yes. About three years ago we did a production of “Arcadia,” a Tom Stoppard play. A teacher recently called to request our education guide for that show. We can reuse and redistribute these guides. Obviously, we can’t have the actors or recreate the production, but we can keep some essence of each show.
Also, we have a workshop called, “No Holds Bard.” When performing Shakespeare, we have separate workshops based on seven of his plays. Artists work with students on the play to give them more insight on what was going on when Shakespeare was writing it—dealing not only with politics, but also with patrons on whom he may have based a character and put them in a great light. Shakespeare has a reputation of being dry and boring. Students feel they are forced to read Shakespeare. We try to show them the life, the comedy, the sex, the bawdiness, and the sheer thrill of Shakespeare.
Emory: Can you videotape your shows?
Stackhouse: No. We are not legally permitted to do that. The actors’ faces are their property and trade. We would have to pay them each time we showed it and that would cause many complications.
Emory: You mentioned that you would like to use the Internet to provide tools for educational outreach. How do you foresee doing that?
Stackhouse: We don’t use the Internet as much as we could. We mainly use it as a marketing tool to get the word out about our shows. I hope to develop an on-line resource of unit plans for teachers. For example, if they want to do a unit on playwriting, they could call us for a workshop, plus access and use the unit plan.
Apart from our classes offered through schools, we have acting classes for adults. Right now, one of our instructors, David Sennett, has a voice class to teach projection and regionalism, accent correction—so they can get to a neutral ground that helps them to take on a range of accents.
Emory: Is there anything else that you’d like to say to our readers?
Stackhouse: Just that theatre and the arts afford tremendous opportunities. Living in the Internet age, when so much can be done without interacting with other living things, the arts are even more vital. More and more people work at home on their computers. They use e-mail rather than pick up the phone. They shop and may even buy groceries on-line.
We talked about how the arts hold up a mirror to society. It is vital that the arts continue to show aspects of society. You can go to the Internet and point and click to see photos of far-away lands and people, but only theatre can show the interaction of people and places. Today, more than ever, theatre has become increasingly vital.
A healthy civilization needs the arts. I hope that our world cultures will never blend into one—that we never lose the distinctions between cultures of each country, city, or community. Theatre helps to preserve these distinctions. Theatre can do period pieces to show life as it was. As they say, “To get to where you’re going, you need to see where you’ve come from.” One needs to know that people fought hard and there was blood, sweat, and tears to get to where we are today. For example, the show, “Ragtime” shows the turmoil and pain and suffering that was in America at the turn of the century. It’s easy to gloss over that in a routine history lesson.
Society needs the mirror that the arts provides, and nowhere is that mirror more important than in the schools. The arts help to tell the story, not only of America, but of the entire world. Shortsightedness and the quest for the almighty dollar have begun to cloud the mirror. I hope that, as we enter the new millennium, America will renew its faith in the value of its arts programs. If you look back across the centuries, societies are rarely remembered for their leaders, or for the wars they fought. They are remembered by the art they created. There is an incredible amount of artistic talent in the U.S. right now. If we choose wisely, we, too, will be remembered for our arts.
Daniel Stackhouse is a native of Maryland and has been at TheatreVirginia for close to three years. A graduate of the University of Richmond, he is also an actor and stage manager for a number of Richmond-area theatres. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.theatrevirginia.com.
Cheryl Emory is contributing editor for LiNE Zine and an instructional design consultant. She has a love for theatre that started when she was a child—a love that she shares with and nurtures in her two daughters. She can be reached directly at.
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