How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 1

How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 1

Spencer Lau

So in my last Blog, I discussed how there are some major obstacles that school theater programs are facing on a large scale. You were probably left with a lot of questions. What can be done to help remedy the situation? How can I help? What can larger organizations do to help? What can directors do to help improve their programs? I’ve compiled some easy fix answers and thought up some crazy out of the box thoughts that may help improve musical theater education in schools.

“I Want to Be a Producer” (Director Improvement)

Well hopefully you don’t want to be Max Bialystock on your way to producing your school production but there are a lot of opportunities for you to become a better director and improving the performance of your students. The first thing you should do is research whether or not the school has any professional development funds for you to attend these. Obviously, they won’t pay for a hotel but any help would be great. Here are the top options that I recommend for teachers to investigate to improve themselves and their programs:

Broadway Teacher’s Workshop: A nice program out of New York City, you get to have workshops in acting, dancing, tech, and music with people who work in and around Broadway shows. In addition to that, you also get to see some of the top musicals on Broadway and do talkbacks after each show. One suggestion, don’t ask for handouts. The creative team of a show has nothing to do with ticket prices or making special accommodations or appearances in your area. That also makes things awkward for the rest of the room. Broadway Teacher’s Workshop also can be a bit pricey so try to get your school district to help offset some of that cost.

iTheatrics Summer Teaching Intensive: If you aren’t familiar with iTheatrics, you should be. Timothy Allen McDonald’s iTheatrics is the go to company for Broadway licensing companies to take Broadway shows and make them appropriate for elementary, middle and high school. Recently they have been responsible for Mary Poppins JR, Elf JR, Heathers 101, Rock of Ages 101, and A Chorus Line High School Edition. They also serve as the school theater educators for the Turnaround Arts Initiative. During the summer teaching intensive you will get hands on education on how to direct, manage and coordinate the various aspects of the production process. Recently iTheatrics put their own textbook out called The iTheatrics Method. You will go through how to run a rehearsal, production meetings and planning, technical aspects and quick fixes as well as question and answer time with the best in musical theater education. While there you will work with Marty Johnson, Cindy Ripley, Steven Kennedy and Timothy McDonald, who work with thousands of students and their teachers a year. There is also an iTheatrics Summer Observership where a teacher can come and observe one of their master teachers and gain some valuable insight on directing and managing a show.

Junior Theater Festival Atlanta (January) or Sacramento (February): Most directors or educators in school settings cannot just go to New York City for a week so there are a few alternatives. The first one I HIGHLY suggest is the Junior Theater Festival in either Atlanta or Sacramento. Both festivals have professional development tracks and provide an educational experience for a much more affordable price. While you are there, you will get to experience the Junior Theater Festival, the largest celebration of all things musical theater for all school aged students. You will get a chance to do workshops, watch some of the best school and community youth theater programs in the country perform and enjoy some amazing performances and talkbacks with some of Broadway’s best like Pasek & Paul, Baayork Lee, Robert and Kristine Anderson Lopez, Alan Menken, Lilla Crawford, Thomas Schumacher and many more.

EdTA Workshops: If you aren’t familiar with the Educational Theatre Association, you should be. They are all over the country and offer a tremendous amount of resources for all forms of theater. EdTA has a lot of resources for teachers to use. They have many state festivals that the licensing groups attend, and provide dozens of workshops with a variety of subjects. On the EdTA website, there is an open forum for anyone to post questions and receive answers. If you join EdTA you will also see they have multiple teaching intensives and have numerous grants and scholarships for multiple different program needs. EdTA is a tremendous lobbying and advocacy group that serve as “the eyes, ears, and voice of the entire school theatre community, advocating for a stronger role for theatre education in the curriculum”. They are well known for their school groups or Thespian Troupes (they even have JR Thespian Festival as well) in schools and responsible for the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Jumpstart Theatre Program as well. In the end, you have to go to their website to see the numerous things they do and what they are responsible for. There are also a variety of memberships and starting a troupe in your school as well.

Kennedy Center: I will admit that I do not know enough about what the Kennedy Center does but I do know that they have plenty of educational programs for teachers, and programs through their charitable programs. They are responsible for the Turnaround Arts Program that “brings arts education resources into priority and focus schools as a strategic tool for targeting larger school challenges and opportunities”. That sounds like something we all need, doesn’t it? The program was founded by the Obama administration in 2011 and lead by the Kennedy Center and Department of Education and National Endowment for the Arts. Their goal is to use the arts to “help motivate and educate low-performing elementary and middle school programs through attendance, parent engagement, student motivation, and academic achievement”. The Kennedy Center also helps sponsor the Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards to “spotlight some of the country’s most inspirational teachers and recognize them for their contributions.” This was another program that is also initiated and funded by the generous support of Freddie and Myrna Gershon.

Honorable Mention: TDF Education and Engagement Programs

“You Will Be Found” (Student Improvement)

When I talk to musical theater directors, educators, and administrators, I am always awe-struck by the number of students who found themselves through theater. Some of the kids are in first grade and some of them are seniors in high school and everywhere in between. There are some obvious ways that students can improve like taking voice lessons, being a part of summer theater (community and school) programs and just reading as much as they can. What are some ways you as a director/educator improve your program during the year? Here are a few options that mirror what you can do as a director:

Junior Theater Festival Atlanta & Sacramento (juiortheaterfestival.com)- The Junior Theater Festival is where programs from all over the country meet for a few days and perform in groups for each other and a panel of adjudicators. In addition, they are treated to multi-tiered workshops, amazing professional performances, interviews and heartfelt talks with Broadway and musical theater stars of stage and screen. Think of it as the Super Bowl for theater kids. There are specific qualifications but nothing is more exciting than to see your students faces when they walk into a space that had 4,000+ kids from across the world coming and performing for each other and seeing that they are part of this amazing global love of musical theater.

iTheatrics Summer Broadway Academy (itheatrics.com/Broadway-academy)- Each March iTheatrics sends out audition notices for kids to audition for their Summer Academy where they do workshops and first readings of potential new titles for the various licensing companies for all three levels of school. The program is based in New York City and has a tuition and scholarship program but also provides students with a brilliant theatrical education with the best educators and mentors in that field. The families are responsible for their own lodging and travel as well but the experience is priceless beyond words.

Broadway Dreams (Broadwaydreams.org)- This program is for the more serious musical theater performers and there are workshops all over the country. Broadway Dreams brings in some of the best talent to coach the participants in many facets of theater while having master classes, various ensemble rehearsals and a cumulative performance at the end of the camp. They also have a scholarship program and fundraise all year to provide the greatest opportunities for their students as possible. Broadway Dreams offers a Summer Intensive, Triple Threat Extreme and a Broadway Boost. Each program offers the same high caliber training but at various points during the year.

Educational Theatre Association/EdTA (schooltheatre.org)- As I mentioned before about how they have training for teachers and directors, EdTA is specifically geared to school theater education. As a director you can establish a thespian troupe in your school (middle or high school) and take students to competitions and participate in a myriad of activities from plays to musicals; from individual, duet, small group performances to large ensemble performances; Shakespeare to modern plays, etc. Think of them as track and field meets for theater where you can compete at the state level and national if you qualify. In addition to that, EdTA offers many scholarships, performance opportunities and is probably in your own backyard. I realize that most of the programs I mentioned were in New York City or regional but EdTA troupes can be established anywhere and will provide you and your program many opportunities to learn and build each student individually as well as a group. Go to their website and go through the amazing programs they have or contact Diane Carr, their Director of Chapters and Communities, or their Facebook page. This by far is the most local for groups all over the country to use to begin to improve their students.

Part 2 comes tomorrow!

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Spencer Lau is a fourteen-year public school teacher, producer, music education advocate, clinician, writer and musical theater director. He can also be followed on Twitter (@njdlau)

Photo: Freedom High School

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