Can we please change the discourse on social media?

This summer I was fortunate to return again to the annual conference of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) and that of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). In considering overall themes that kept returning, especially in the ATHE conference, classroom use of social media and video-sharing platforms (e.x., Youtube, Vimeo, etc.)  kept returning. The two sessions that really stood out for me this year were “Teaching Theatre to the Youtube Generation” and “Designing Collaborative Exercises for Theatre Design,” the latter of which wasn’t necessarily intended to look at social media issues but the topic inadvertently became a major part of the discussion nonetheless.

I have to say that I’ve been disappointed overall in the discourse on this subject in the field. Too often I find the tone of discussions about technology’s role in the classroom and the theatre becomes paranoid and negative. I truly appreciated panelists in both the above-listed sessions for choosing to explore, in a practical way, how social media’s emerging presence in our lives could positively influence theatre and theatre education. In too many cases at these types of events, the mention of technology dissolves into a series of rants by professors complaining about their experiences with students texting in class. Yes, I can see how that could annoy someone. If it bothers you, state your expectations regarding technology at the beginning of the semester and enforce them. Or get over it and ignore it.

Could there be ways social media could be legitimately welcomed into the classroom, facilitating and deepening learning and artistic exploration as opposed to simply distracting from it? What if students were to tweet their “muddiest points” from a lecture to a class Twitter handle, allowing quick assessment and an easily accessible record of student understanding throughout the course? What if students were encouraged to text each other their thoughts following a performance viewing? What if conversations about communication in the theatre went further to explore the unique challenges of communicating via text, email, and social media platforms, something virtually all theatre professionals today are encountering to an increasing degree? What if theatre students were expected to make podcasts — living journals– of their rehearsal process? Could video footage kept in an e-portfolio enhance the traditional post-mortem discussion of a student production, or perhaps aid in encouraging a student to self-evaluate with greater objectivity? Which is more valuable to the Intro to Theatre student– an article about theatrical conventions in Kabuki or a Youtube clip showing those conventions in action? Access is an important aspect of the conversation for me as an educator. I use an outstanding textbook in my Introduction to Theatre course each semester that unfortunately many of my students honestly cannot afford. But all of my students have free access to Youtube clips at their public library. Could social media platforms offer possibilities for more equitable scaffolds for learning than more traditional resources?

These are the kinds of questions about technology that interest me as a teacher, and I suspect they would be of interest to others if the discourse could be framed and facilitated positively. Instead, I felt that too much of the dialogue many of my colleagues engage in seems almost fear-laden. There were comments about whether even the idea of bringing Youtube into a theatre classroom was self-defeating to the field. Is there a real concern that increase access to online video content will ultimately kill theatre? Well, I would respond, is there any evidence that increased access to recorded music via platforms like iTunes decreased live concert attendance? I would certainly be surprised if it were the case and would venture that most would still feel that the live communal event retains its place as a special experience in spite of such opportunities.

Yes, technology has its limits and problems. Professors need to be responsible in considering/controlling how openly student work should be shared, for instance. But exploring social media and strategizing around its potential challenges will yield more benefit for the future of the field than simply resisting it. Finally, as technology’s role in the workplace changes, given that theatres are workplaces, shouldn’t our students be encouraged to master those platforms that will like figure into their professional lives?

Question for the World: What role does social media play in your classroom or theatre? What role would you like to see it play in the future?

Call for Submissions!

The Youth Theatre Journal is now accepting submissions for 26.1, a special issues
volume that will examine ways that youth theatre practitioners, researchers and
educators engage in critical and innovative directions in research, methodology,
publication and presentation. We are interested in articles that explore ways our
field is collecting, articulating and presenting inquiry both at conferences and in
print. Submissions may be reflections or critiques of innovative research practices
in theatre classrooms, or in applied theatre settings. We welcome both theoretical
explorations of the subject and papers that address youth theatre’s concerns with
these innovative approaches.
• Papers might address, but are not limited to, the following topics:
• The use of performative inquiry, performance ethnography, ethnotheatre
• and/or research based theatre to collect/analyze data and share research
• findings.
• Issues, ethics around performing findings.
• Non-traditional written presentation of data, such as the use of hyperlinks,
• photos and or sound bites.
• The relationship between artists and researchers who engage in research-
• based theatre projects.
• Ways of assessing and/or evaluating innovative, non-traditional approaches
• to research.
Please submit all pieces through ScholarOne, http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/uytj
Submission deadline is October 18th, 2011.
Please direct all question to either;
Dr. Gustave Weltsek, gweltsek@indiana.edu or
Dr. George Belliveau , george.belliveau@ubc.ca

I see EDGE OF PEACE in 48 hours

In 1990, at 12 years old, I played Girl in Hartford Children’s Theatre’s production of Mother Hicks. For the uninitiated who won’t be scoring big in TYA Trivia Night this weekend, it is the first in a trilogy of plays by Susan Zeder. The second, a prequel, Taste of Sunrise, is my very favorite TYA play, and the first on my dream list of plays I want to direct one day. The Edge of Peace is the final play in the trilogy. The first time I ever saw the phrase American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) was because of the golden Best Play of the Decade Award sticker on my script. Tomorrow I get on a plane to get myself to conference in Chicago, for an AATE conference chaired by my friends Leigh and Talleri, with whom I shared first-time attendee joy in Minneapolis in what seems to be not so very long ago. Saturday morning I present about the Safe Theatre Project, an idea that I’ve been talking about at conference and working on for several years now. And then Saturday night I see. this. play. So yeah. This weekend wins.

It’s hard to explain to those who’ve never heard of Susan Zeder or this trilogy why this warms me so. I’ve been thinking about the why of it a lot lately. Just recently I’ve become friends with some diehard Harry Potter fans, who have shared with me their Leaky Con antics and written in their blogs and chat windows– in loving, heartfelt detail– their experiences this month attending the final Harry Potter movie. It’s been interesting, getting a glimpse into a fandom that I really didn’t know a lot about and getting to know these incredible, quality people at just this moment when something they love so much has come to a head such a powerful way. I bring this up because I’ve been thinking this week that this trilogy is my Harry Potter. Girl was a huge role to play at an age when I was flirting between childhood and adolescence– and honestly holding on to the childhood as hard as I could. It was a time when so much of who I was to become was coming in snapshots, in and out of focus, every day. I had just re-discovered a little bit of comfort in my own skin after a traumatic move from my beloved Ohio and a difficult sixth grade year. This was the production that ultimately led me to Wethersfield Teen Theater Company, to what was then called the Greater Hartford Academy of Performing Arts, to my first paying job (as a performer for  Looking In Theater), and to so many people that became such an important part of my growing up, many of whom are just as dear to me today.

Mother Hicks was the event in my life that, ultimately, put me on a path of hopeless devotion to theatre for young audiences, and I am so especially thrilled to know I will be seeing it with my colleagues and partners in crime at AATE. I’ve always said that my favorite thing about AATE conferences is just hanging out with amazing people who all know who’ve heard of  Nellie McCaslin (and completely understand when I share that I burst into tears when I met her). It is there, and at least until recently, only there, really– that I’ve felt like a fangirl in the best sense of the word. I’m such a fan of the work of the amazing members of AATE, who advocate for theatre and education all year long and have invited me along to play.

Question for the World: What’s the production that changed your life?

 

Ethics

There are a lot of ethical challenges in freelancing that I feel haven’t been fully explored by a lot of teaching artists and theatre practitioners. Some of the most important articles being written in the field right now, in my opinion, are about ethics. One of the things I am most looking forward to at the American Alliance for Theatre and Education conference in a couple weeks, is connecting with some of my colleagues about ethical issues in the field.

The social networking age has added a major wrinkle for all of us trying to make good choices with regards to a lot of the challenges highlighted in the article hyperlinked above. So many of us communicate, professionally and personally, on multiple social networking platforms and blogs on a regular basis. Every post, status update, and tweet is a press release of sorts, upon which all sorts of judgements can be made about who you are and what your values are.

Question for the World: Have you struggled with any of the issues mentioned in the article? Do ethical questions come up often in your work?

Preach!

Pardon my Rant – re: Conference Session Titles

Pawing through the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference guide, and thinking seriously about attending this year. Already definitely attending the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) conference, also in Chicago. (All you readers out there should come to that one, by the way, so you can attend my session on the Safe Theatre Project– just sayin.) So have to make sure the funding to attend both will work out, as well as the timing around my other professional obligations here in the Eastern Standard Time Zone.

Now for the promised rant: I have to say, I really despise vague and bizarrely titled sessions. I will refrain from mentioning examples in case one of the presenters is one day in the position to offer me a job, but those of you who are regulars in the conference circuit should be able to recall many such confusing titles in your conference books of yore. Yes, once I attend a conference I am given access to lengthy descriptions of whatever it is the session/workshop/panel is supposed to be about– but I really don’t have a lot of time to waste looking further into sessions whose title give me no earthly idea what it is their supposed to be about. Expound in your session description. Get metaphorically interesting in the panel discussion. I promise you, if people are able to surmise your session topic from the title, they are a whole lot more likely to actually attend.

Question for the World: Planning to attend any conferences this year? Which ones are you looking forward to? Any sessions catching your eye– in a good way?

First Days

When I was in high school I was an actor for Looking In, performing scenes about social issues throughout Connecticut. Part of the training process involved listening to a range of speakers discuss the various issues we were creating scenes about. One of the speakers I remember most vividly was a therapist who talked about alcohol abuse in adolescents and mental health issues. He told a story of a professor he had in graduate school, who asked the classroom of psychiatrists-to-be what they thought the goals of a first therapy appointment ought to be. The students discussed a range of agendas a mental health professional might have as they began work with a new client and there was a heavy debate about which priorities were most important. After the class discussion the professor offered this insight: The goal of the first appointment is to get a second one. Period.

That statement has stuck with me for a long time and I’ve applied the notion of getting a second meeting in a lot of the work I do. When I direct a play, I want to get the actors clear on what the schedule is, get a taste of the culture of this process we are embarking on, and get the juices of ensemble flowing. Ultimately all the planning I do for the first rehearsal revolves around the question of how to get these actors ready for the second rehearsal. I don’t really have a set icebreaker I always use or an immovable rule that every rehearsal requires that staging begin or even a read-through necessarily. Each production is different and this makes each first day different– but the plan always revolves around the question of what are my performers and production team going to need immediately next. Does everyone know where the bathrooms are? Is there an activity that will most develop a collegiality among (often) relative strangers who’ve come together for this particular production? Is there an image or idea I can share that will help those in the room see what most touches me about this particular piece, and can I present that in a way that will plant a seed of deepening interest in the project?

I have a similar approach in teaching. With my college students I spend a huge portion of time going over the syllabus on the first day, and in the past I found myself frustrated that that would take away time from activities I had in mind to “get started.” But just as elementary school teachers know that investing extra time on establishing rules and classroom management that first month of school makes all the difference in the students’ behavior the rest of the year, adult students, too, need their hands held a bit before getting their feet wet in a new course. Its an investment in the rest of the course, but particularly for the tone that second class will have.

Question for the World: What do you like to do on “first days” or rehearsal, school, or work? What approaches to the getting-ready-to-go phase of collaborative activity  have you found effective, and what approaches did not?