Sorting through my thoughts about Generation Y

First, check out this great post I just discovered for Arts Managers working with Generation Y.

Depending on who you ask, I’m a member of Generation X or Generation Y. I guess it would be most accurate to say that I was born into Generation X, just on the cusp of Y. It seems like there is a lot of talk lately about Generation Y (also referred to as the “millenials”) and I did not think much of the topic until very recently. At some point in my working life I started noticing a generation gap where I had not seen one before. I started personally struggling and watching peers my age and just a few years younger with banging heads with colleagues from an older generation. In most cases it was not so much a matter of the “X/Y” colleague skirting work or actively trying to be disruptive to others — but just that the fact that those in the “X/Y” continuum often seem to simply work differently than some of their more established colleagues. I myself struggled sometimes with a sense that the ways I worked most effectively and productively might appear “unprofessional” to others. More familiar with technology than some previous co-workers, I would become very annoyed if they did not follow thoughts on how  a computer issue could be  solved or a piece of software would make things “easier.” And on the other hand they might be very annoyed– mystified even– by the suggestion that I work an irregular schedule or have a meeting with someone via instant messenger.

At a recent meeting with college professors I heard a lot of talk about what a problem students texting in class is. I heard a lot of talk about this among professors at the AATE/ATHE conference as well. This is clearly a relatively new issue and I suspect that at least in some cases this behavior may be less insolence or immaturity on the part of the student than a matter of simple generational differences.  Students from Generation Y have never known a time when computers weren’t available. They live in a complex world that makes many demands on them, not the least of which is the demand of multitasking. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, multitasking is such an expectation among people of our generation that when he encounters new clients or colleagues who simply can’t multitask it seems to be an enormous roadblock in communication and productivity.

I realized listening to these other instructors that I’m not really sure how I feel about texting in class (on the college level at least), but that I’m confident I’m less appalled by it than some of them were. To be honest, I rather adore texting as a means of getting/giving important messages during a Tech Rehearsal, for instance– I perceive it as a means of quick multitasking that won’t disturb someone else.  I certainly wouldn’t text during a one on one conversation, but I might discreetly read a text briefly in the middle of a meeting where my full attention wasn’t necessarily required. I’ve often doodled in the margins of my notebooks while listening to lectures, and sometimes even write down the grocery list developing in my head– almost “putting the information aside” while I listen. I’m sure that there were times I faded out of a lecture in college or grad school but in general I would say that the kinesthetic activity of drawing and noting amidst a meeting/class actually keeps me more present in the room sometimes.

Now, in fairness, rude is rude. If a professor identifies texting in a lecture based class as disrespectful (and I suspect the vast majority of them, whatever generation they were born into,  you shouldn’t do it. People have the right to define what respect means to them and it is common courtesy to follow suit. And it’s fair to say that if a student is texting at length about topics that are non-urgent and have nothing to do with the class then they probably aren’t devoting very much attention at all to their learning. I’m just not sure that such students are necessarily going to pay “more” attention without the phone– many of them are just going to space out anyways. Are teachers offended that their students are texting because it means they are not showing respect for them through their undivided attention– or are they concerned that their students are not learning because their attention is divided? Which is most important? How much of a “problem” is a “problem behavior” if it has very little impact on the student’s performance in class. Maybe texting is a symptom of a larger issue in the student’s performance. But I’m toying with the question of whether, in some cases,  it might not really be all that big of a deal..

I guess I also come from a school of thought that says, if they’re not paying attention to me what can I do differently? Working with young kids so much has taught me that you always need a gimmick when teaching–or at the very least give the student a reason to listen. Taking the phone away from the student isn’t going to force them to care about my lecture. I can’t change the fact that the student may not be riveted by the content, but I can change the way I teach it. I would say that more experiential learning is called for with Generation Y-ers anyway, as a whole sitting and listening isn’t their best way to learn. Maybe if the college classroom included more cooperative activities and opportunities for kinesthetic learning those texting students would be too busy and distracted to text.

With young drama students I often say “Show me your listening with your eyes,” to explain to them that it is possible to listen without looking at me, but there’s no way for me to know you’re listening unless you look towards me when I speak. As teachers I think it’s important to tell our students what we need for them and also to distinguish between what behaviors simply annoy us and what behaviors are going to interfere with someone’s learning. The “rules of the class” themselves are less important than the careful thought that went into them.


Theatre Activities for Students with Special Needs – post 1 of many, I’m sure

I went to two sessions at the AATE/ATHE conference that dealt with this subject (specifically with students on the Autistic Spectrum) and I wish there had been more!  The first session addressing this subject that I went to was Autism: Strengthening Social Skills Through Drama. Special thanks to Lauri McCleneghan and John Muszynski of Maine South High School for sharing their work in a classroom that is purposely mixed with students on the autistic spectrum and those who are not, and sharing their strategies for creating social and theatrical challenges for both groups. The other session I attended was Autism Action: Drama Classes for Young People with Autism, presented by Brian Guehring, Sue Gillespie Booton, and Michael Harrelson of Omaha Theater Company, and focusing on drama classes coordinated by a professional theatre company. I’m glad that more schools and theatres are experimenting with ways to reach kids with autism– in my former position I had several experiences where I felt rather isolated in trying to adapt drama programs for students on the autistic spectrum, and I know there are many theatre education practitioners out there who’ve had the same experience.

When I was in grad school I had a friend who pointed out to me that the “Special Education” professors often had better syllabi than the regular “Education” professors. It was one of those things I never noticed until it was pointed out and thereafter noticed everywhere I went. Somehow the training to work with students with special needs seemed to translate to a better ability to put together an organized syllabus, and to be able to differentiate instruction on the college level in a way that I otherwise have not encountered. Perhaps this is why I would say the best resource I have found has been VSA Arts— so many of the presenters have strong special education backgrounds.  I’ve only been to one conference of theirs, in 2006, but it was fantastic– every workshop filled with practical use-tomorrow strategies and outstanding handouts. I wish they had conferences more often, I would go all the time!

I am interested in hearing about anyone’s favorite resources, books, activities, and/or websites for adapting drama instruction for any of young people with special needs. I’m especially interested in any insights into adapting dramatic play activities  for students PreK-Grade 3 who are on the autism spectrum and/or multiple disabilities, but any and all experiences and insights are welcome!

Question for the World: What are the best resources you’ve found so far that have assisted you in better meeting the needs of students with special needs?

Commissioning Plays for Young Audiences!

The last session I went to at the AATE/ATHE conference this year was Innovative Approaches to Commissioning and Developing Plays For and With Youth.  Special thanks to Julie Gale, Jim DeVivo, Sandra Fenichel Asher, Gina Kaufmann, Leigh Kennicot, Kristen Leahey, and Carlos Manuel for making this session happen. Since I’m currently exploring ways to commission a new work I was very interested in this session. A lot was said about devising plays with young people, but since my focus right now is on plays for a youth audience that may have all adult actors or incorporate age appropriate casting, I was most interested in the commentary on issues unique to that situation. I thought Sandy Asher’s statement, about a wonderful experience she had developing a new work, was a powerful call for a new model of commissioning that deserved a broader audience. Thanks Sandy for sharing it and for passing along the text!


My Experience

By Sandy Asher

Once upon a time, when I was working with his troupe on a new adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN, Tom Ballmer, Artistic Director of Stebbens Children’s Theatre in Mason City, Iowa, shared with me a dream he had for commissioning new scripts for youth theaters like his own.  It seemed to me a great idea at the time, and an even better one now, a model suited to youth theaters, professional theaters, community theaters, university theaters and secondary school groups as well.

Tom’s plan is simple.  Any three theater groups of similar make-up and interests get together and decide

1)  What they need in a new script, in terms of topic, length, cast size, etc.;

2)  Which playwright they will contact about writing the script;

3) How much each theater will contribute toward the commissioning fee and playwright’s travel expenses;

4) When each theater will produce the play and bring in the playwright.

The benefits to theater groups and playwrights are clear and huge:  The theaters get the kinds of scripts they can and will produce.  They participate in the developmental process with the playwright at one-third the commissioning cost plus expenses.  They enjoy the added excitement and PR buzz of having the playwright on hand during some or all of the rehearsals and/or performances.

The playwright, in turn, earns a commission for writing a play with three developmental productions already lined up, has the opportunity to attend rehearsals and/or performances, and forges new creative alliances with the participating theater groups.

Our field of theater for young audiences as a whole benefits by the addition of new scripts developed through three productions at the very kinds of theaters most likely to continue to produce them.

Tom’s hopes for a new play included the following:

    1. A title that would bring in audiences,
    2. A large, flexible cast with plenty of female roles and roles for teenagers,
    3. Full length; non-musical.

At the time, he had no particular title in mind and no collaborators for a commission.

Just the dream.  Having enjoyed my work with Stebbens Youth Theatre, I left Mason City with a promise to think about a project that might fit the bill.  It was important to both of us that the project be as interesting and challenging to me as a playwright as it was artistically and financially beneficial to the theater.

Over the next few months, we tossed a few ideas back and forth, but nothing excited either one of us enough to proceed.   One day, while I was in my local library browsing the Young Adult collection, a title of one of Avi’s novels all but leaped off the shelf at me:  ROMEO AND JULIET – TOGETHER (AND ALIVE!) AT LAST.   I sat down with the book and began reading.  It was a middle-school story – lots of teenagers – with a hilarious premise and a wealth of comical characters and dialogue.  Its farcical plot grew naturally out of the collision between its modern school setting and the original Shakespearean play, and much of the action took place on a stage.

Granted, it wasn’t a “title” in the “Cinderella” sense of unbeatable familiarity, but it had a title sure to arouse a potential audience’s curiosity.  It had certainly piqued mine!

I knew I had a story I wanted to adapt for the stage and believed it could be the play Tom was hoping for. Tom read the book and agreed.

Could the dream of a joint commission and three developmental productions come true?  As it turned out, Tom was not able to commit to a commissioning fee at that time, but he could manage a full production and travel expenses.

Joe Lauderdale, then at Laguna Playhouse, read the book and offered to share the commission and bring me in for rehearsals and opening week.  Thanks to an introduction from John Newman, David Dynak and Amy Oakeson signed on for the University of Utah’s Youth Theatre at the U as co-commissioner.  Tom would do the third production at Stebbens Youth Theatre.

What followed next was a dream-come-true scenario for all concerned.  Encouraged by the interest of three producing companies, Gayle Sergel, of Dramatic Publishing Company, made arrangements with Avi to acquire the underlying rights to the novel.  I wrote knowing I had three eager and capable directors and an editor ready to read the script and offer comments and encouragement.   Joe scheduled the first production in October of that year with two trips to Laguna Beach for me – one early in the rehearsal process and one during opening week.  Amy and Tom followed with two productions of the continually revised script in February, with me in residence for late rehearsals and early performances.

I should mention here the terrific cooperative spirit among the three groups.  Many theaters commission with a “world premiere” in mind and jealously guard that distinction, even against a production halfway across the continent.  These three organizations were in the game for the development of a play worthy of their young casts and staged their productions in the best interests of the script’s growth.  Nothing that happened in Laguna Beach, Salt Lake City, or Mason City detracted in any way from local excitement about developing a new script and bringing the playwright to the community to work with the company, visit schools, run workshops, and meet with the young people and adults who support each group.

From my vantage point as playwright, this was a heavenly experience.  What normally takes forever – the scheduling and presentation of three developmental productions – took only about a year.  I saw three casts who differed in age and experience; tested the script against production values that reflected budgets large, medium, and small; and revised with insights provided by professional, university, and youth theater experts.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The new script at the center of all of this activity has enjoyed many productions since, but it’s not for all groups or all tastes.  That’s why I am offering this experience as a model and encouraging other kinds of theater groups to come together in a joint commission.  What kinds of plays do you need?  Which playwrights would you like to work with?  Can you find two other theater organizations to dream with you?  Can the three of you work with a playwright (preferably an AATE or ATHE member playwright, of course!) to make your dream come true?

Together we can do more and better than any one of us can do alone.

QUESTION FOR THE WORLD: Does this seem like a workable model you could participate in? Have you had other experiences with new play development that went very well– or very badly? What would have to change for more new works for young audiences to be developed and ultimately published?

Reading List

I purposely didn’t bring much money to the AATE conference this year, because the vendor area tends to suck me in and then not only have I spent all my money but I’m stuck trying to figure out how to transport all these new books home. I was very good and tried to just take notes about books I want to look into, publishers that seemed interesting, etc. And yet somehow I still ended up with a suitcase full of books– people were giving them away for free! The two that I actually got at conference that I think I will actually use are a collection of plays that Coleman Jennings handed out at his Jose’ Cruz Gonzalez session of his, and a book of theatre research sites in New York City.

Here’s the list of reading materials I didn’t get at session but am going to be seeking out at libraries everywhere very soon:

Playwrights I Want to Be More Familiar With

Carlos Manuel

Nicky Silver

Journals I want to

The Journal of Aesthetic Education

Theatre Topics

Books I Need to Read

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind by Margalit Fox

Multiple Intelligences Around the World, edited by Jie-Qi Chen, Seana Moran,  and Howard Gardner

Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon

Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, by Lois Hetland, Shirley Veenema, Kimberly M. Sheridan, and David N. Perkins

New Tax Guide for Writers, Artists, Performers, and Other Creative People, by Peter Jason Riley

Plays I May Check Out

9 Plays by Jose’ Cruz Gonzalez, edited by Coleman Jennings

The Hundred Dresses by Mary Hall Surface

Children’s Books I Really Should Have on My Bookshelf

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (already read but want to go back to it now)

Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin

Glass Slipper Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella by Paul Fleishman

Question for the World: What’s on your reading list?

What Makes Children Children?

I find the title of this article, Your Baby is Smarter Than You Think, to be counter-productive, but perhaps in a time when newspapers appear to be on their way out the author is merely shrewd in composing a title that will get attention. (The fact that it is currently the number 1 emailed article on the New York Times website would seem to support this argument. What do I know.) The article itself is quite interesting though. There’s something about the study of children that in essence becomes a study of humanity. I find educational research of the very young to be really fascinating.

One of the (many) issues I’m exploring for possible article writing as I come down from my Conference High is this question of what is it that makes children children, and how should (if at all) our understanding of children impact the direction of Theatre for Young Audiences. My undergraduate thesis focused somewhat on this issue but I’m in a different place now and I think it may be time to have another look at that 9 year old manuscript and see where those ideas can go next.

Teaching Designer Collaboration

Another great session I attended at conference was Risking Innovation in Collaboration: Teaching the Vital Art Form of Designer Collaboration. Special thanks to the following professors who made this session happen: Sarah Martin and Sara Nelson of Adelphi University, Ethan Krupp of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Kim Axline of the University of Denver, Robert Gander of the University of Nevada-Reno, Cynthia Turnbull of Denison University, and Laura Tesman of Brooklyn College.

I was really glad to have the opportunity to go to this session because I am currently planning for my VERY FIRST Adjunct teaching position at a community college for an Intro to Theatre course, for which there will be a design component. Certainly I have vague recollections of my own college level Intro class, and of some required design courses I took. (Plus, I’m a pack rat so I bet if I looked hard enough I could find those syllabi somewhere.) But I really hope to step out of my comfort zone with this new experience, so I was eager for some new ideas and resources.

Some Use-Tomorrow Activities I Got From This Session:

  • THE COMMUNICATION EXERCISE: Divide the class into partners and give a simple stick drawing to one of the partners (Student A). Student A has to write a description of the drawing and then give the description (and not the drawing) to Student B. Student B is then asked to recreate the drawing using only Student A’s text as a guide. Then examine/compare the drawings that result as a group. Where does the interpretation go awry, and on whose part does clarity stray? Discuss how this happens with a simple stick drawing, and how much more challenging it would be to communicate clearly about the range of media involved in theatre production.
  • ROLE PLAY ACTIVITIES: Role play production meetings. Role play common collaborative disasters. Focus on getting directors to say, “This is the story I’m trying to tell. How will this design support that?” Focus on getting the designers to say “Tell me what the problem is in your scene and then I’ll bring you 3-4 solutions that might solve this problem.”

Other Important Bits of Wisdom From This Session:

  • Design Training may grow creative artists, and it may grow expert technicians. But if a designer doesn’t learn to navigate collaboration, business etiquette, and interpersonal challenges effectively that talent and ability may not get them far. Emerging designers really need to have practical experiences in theatre, particularly those where things may not go as planned. It occurs to me that many design classes require a project of some sort, it gets handed in, and a grade given. But in the course of a rehearsal process a costume or set piece might be changed, argued over, cut,  re-painted… Young designers would do well to learn to expect surprises as a part of the process, and emergent directors need to learn to empathize with designers as to how their expectations and communication style impact their work.
  • A lot has been written about the “Millenial Generation” recently and I think the issue of intergenerational misunderstanding is pervasive in all aspects of the professional world. More needs to be done to discuss how generational differences impact communication and working styles and what this means for teaching.

Question for the World: Any other great thoughts on working with designers and/or on teaching design, for any age level? Got a favorite exercise or collaboration tool?

A Good Thing