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A childish approach to theater

It wasn't as though Coral Reef's teachers never tried to teach us anything. It's just that when they did, it was always a basic and childish approach that disrespected theater as an art form. The work and lessons were half-assed, underdeveloped, and pathetic.


Our classes were akin to a bunch of ten-year-olds going to drama summer camp for the first time, rather than high school students preparing for future acting careers. Everything we did was absolutely infantile.


I don't mean to say that I was too advanced to sit through the basics. I mean that most of what we performed or learned was, quite literally, meant for children. Our senior show was written for middle schoolers and many of the scenes we put on in class came from beginner's books. We started with this material in freshman year and never moved on from it.


We were even instructed to think about theater the way little kids are. When given scenes, our only goal was to memorize lines. Typically, our blocking was nothing more than sitting in a chair, standing up, maybe taking a few steps one way or the other if feeling bold enough. Our other directions were simplistic enough for children to follow: project, speed up or slow down, face the audience.


We were never taught to, say, interpret the material and perform it through understanding subtext. We did not examine characters or objectives. We did not look at plays from a social or historical eye. Actually, we never even read plays, other than A Midsummer Night's Dream as freshmen. We were never challenged or pushed from our comfort zones.


M* * * * * * was the worst offender. Love or hate her, she could not teach. At her worst, she disrespected and insulted theater (and us). At her best, she looked at it as nothing more than a cheap hobby. Students quickly learned not to ask her for help, not out of fear or pride but because she made it clear she had no interest in seeing us get better in the first place.


The rare days she prepared a lesson, her teaching methods were also futile. She'd reduce entire historical topics like Greek and Roman theater, Shakespeare, or Misner into nothing more than a few projector slides, not for sake of brevity, but because she didn't have much more to say about them. Then, she'd dole out the one assignment in her repertoire: to list "five facts" about the subject (ANY five facts, no matter how irrelevant or pointless) and turn them in. That was it. Our work was never reviewed nor discussed, and often never graded. I guarantee nobody in our class ever remembered anything taught from the lessons even one day later.


M******* also directed many of the school's shows, and her methods there were no better than in the lessons. She didn't direct as much as just supervise us while we rehearsed, but when she did have something to contribute that wasn't an insult, she made very strange, amateurish choices.


Case in point: our senior year straight play, The Brainwave Plays. I played an obnoxious, arrogant, nerdy genius kid, and I tried to play it subtly. After my scene partners and I had already developed a rhythm, M* * * * * * told us to make a change. Appropos of nothing, she insisted I yell all of my lines at full volume from beginning to end. All of them. She did not attempt to justify the direction with an objective, character trait, story beat, or anything else. Her reasoning was just that the character was "angry," and when you're angry, you yell every word at maximum volume.


This sort of approach to directing actors -- telling them explicitly how to say their lines, and in addition, making choices that show no nuance -- reminded me of what you do for children who are too young to interpret the script for themselves. You just tell them how to do it.


And then there was L* * * * * *, our freshman year teacher who was altogether unhinged in her own right. Her teaching methods and assignments were so strange that they hardly qualified as "childish," except for one key lesson: when we read and eventually performed A Midsummer Night's Dream by Shakespeare. Instead of performing it in any professional way, she had us use Barbie dolls, animal costumes, and other etc. to tell the story.


(Now, for the record, I don't think using "fun" methods to understand Shakespeare is the worst thing in the world, but this was a drama magnet program. We were supposed to be rising to the challenge of performing plays professionally, not dumbing them down.)


Some people think it's unfair to expect such sophistication from a mere public high school. To them, I point out our rival public high school, New World.


New World was our complete antithesis. They respected theater and put in the proper work to pull it off. Teachers treated students like adults from the beginning and encouraged them to take on mature, advanced themes. Meanwhile, we spent most of our stage time presenting showcases full of inside jokes, immature innuendos, and people screaming at each other.


New World's senior classes put on important, meaningful plays like The Crucible. When our class wasn't doing little kid plays, or showcases full of inside jokes, the best we could muster was a slapstick murder mystery parody full of pop culture references. There was no growth in our entire Coral Reef careers.


Rather than look to New World for inspiration, M* * * * * * took every opportunity to insult them. She frequently remarked about how they tried too hard or were full of themselves. Even us high schoolers recognized talent in other schools and were never that juvenile and insecure.


But perhaps the biggest insult to our education was the childish approach to preparing us for after we graduated. Despite four years of neglect and derision, by senior year, a good half of our class was still interested in auditioning for college B.F.A. programs. How did Coral Reef respond to our enthusiasm? By saying it was not their problem.


That's right, college preparation was not to be done during drama class time. It simply wasn't discussed. If you wanted to prepare audition material, you did it on your own. If you had college questions, you'd better hope you could ask someone outside the school. Our teachers made it clear: class time was for classwork. College planning was none of their concern.


I actually hadn't thought about just how immature this policy was until recently. Here we were, eager to continue exploring what was supposed to be our common passion, but rather than help us reach the next stage of our journeys, our teachers were insulted that we might just have more important goals than memorizing yet another little kid scene. Sometimes we didn't even need help. We just needed them to chill while we submitted applications in down time. That wasn't allowed. Crazily enough, you could do whatever the hell you wanted to waste time during an idle class period -- except prepare college material.


Across the four years, Coral Reef leadership would routinely point out a multitude of reasons why the program failed us: a lack of money, a lack of time, a commitment to academics over arts, even our own immature attitudes. But really, when the teaching is childish. . . when the assignments are childish. . . when the works performed are childish. . . when the outlook around theater is childish. . . what the hell do you expect? A childish program leads to a shitty experience.

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