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Director’s Corner

“CHAMPIONING DIVERSITY” DECEMBER, 2015

Diversity was the theme for the Education Department this past year — diversity in many senses.

We served a broad range of schools, students, and teachers, geographically and demographically. We worked with specialized academic high schools, with arts magnet schools, with high school equivalency programs for immigrants and former dropouts, and with schools serving court-involved youth on Rikers Island and elsewhere. Our participants came from all five boroughs and from Long Island, Westchester and Fairfield counties, and northern New Jersey.  Some of our students were from relatively affluent communities; the majority qualified for free or subsidized in-school meals. And through TheatreLink, our Internet and video-based distance learning program, we were all over the world, working with classes in South Africa, Greece, and England, as well as New Jersey, Texas, Oregon, and lots of places in between.

The MTC plays that our students studied and attended were also highly disparate, ranging from Donald Margulies’s bittersweet family comedy, The Country House, David Auburn’s rueful and elegiac two-character play, Lost Lake, Nick Payne’s heady, complex drama, Constellations, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s timely and powerful The World of Extreme Happiness, and Lisa D’Amour’s ebullient, challenging Airline Highway.

And the original student work this year was equally varied in theme and spirit. We had passionate political monologues in response to The World of Extreme Happiness, powerful dramas and comedies about dysfunctional families inspired by The Country House, and plays about strangers bonding, as in Lost Lake. Some students even successfully captured the fragmentary theme-and-variation style of Constellations. And our Theatrelink students, whose writing prompt was Outside Mullingar, John Patrick Shanley’s romantic comedy from MTC’s previous season, wrote plays about fraught relationships between neighboring families — but flavored by the diverse communities from which they hail.

Running through all the diversity were several unifying threads. Rich or poor, rural or urban, black, white, brown, or other, all our students were engaged in just two kinds of activities: They learned how to perceive the work on our stages more fully and deeply, and they developed the ability to give dramatic form to the ideas they encountered there, filtered through the lens of their personal experience. They learned to see plays and to write plays. And in doing so, they deepened their understanding of themselves and the world. And almost universally they found these processes exhilarating. As one young man summed up in his final evaluation:  “I love you guys.”

David Shookhoff
Director of Education


  • "Fostering Mindfulness" November, 2013

    “FOSTERING MINDFULNESS” NOVEMBER, 2013

    Last spring, in an essay on Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties, a student wrote about how the character Mort blackmails his brother-in-law Ben. The student understood the complexity of the situation: Mort forces Ben to insist that Ben’s dying mother bequeath a ruby necklace to her daughter Faye (Ben’s sister and Mort’s wife) — even though the mother detests Faye and has already given the necklace to Ben’s wife. The student writes:

    The scene… shows how much Mort cares for Faye by making sure she will get the necklace so when her mother dies she will be at peace with her.

    This sentence demonstrates a subtle and sophisticated understanding of the dramatized transaction. The student recognizes that Mort’s motivation — he “cares for Faye” — leads him to action — “making sure she will get the necklace” — by blackmailing Ben, and that this action will have consequences: “when her mother dies she will be at peace with her.”

    Many students wrote about that scene. It clearly resonated for large numbers of the young audience that attended the performance. In another essay a student wrote that “…the tenderness behind the scene really struck me…” continuing, “while I do not condone [Mort’s] mechanism to obtain the ruby necklace, his intentions were not malicious.”

    The scene in question embodies a powerful idea. It is a dramatic representation of human agency, the concept that powerful needs and desires galvanize us into action and that those actions have consequences, some intended, but often some that are not. This is an idea that, generally speaking, teenagers understand imperfectly. But, as it happens, it is the bedrock principle of the dramatic art. It’s the dynamic Aristotle was referencing when he wrote about drama as “the imitation of an action.” So when students study and attend a play, they are encountering deeply compelling manifestations of this crucial aspect of human behavior.

    Was its embodiment in The Assembled Parties the first time that these students had encountered such behavior? Almost certainly not. The students’ insightful analyses of the scene were surely drawn in part from their life experience with analogous situations. But something special happens when an audience — youthful or adult — experiences dramatic representations of human interactions. In a play, the interaction is selected from the proliferation of all possible human experience. It’s singled out, highlighted, presented to the audience for contemplation and reflection. By virtue of experiencing the dynamic of motivation/action/consequence in a work of theater, the students were able to “de-couple” the event from the chaos of everyday life and examine this particular manifestation of that dynamic in depth and from a variety of points of view.

    So what? you may ask. What’s the value of this contemplation of a dramatized human interaction? The fields of neurobiology and developmental psychology increasingly are offering a powerful answer. Through controlled experiments, both fields are rapidly amassing compelling evidence supporting what many artists and arts educators have always believed: that repeated exposure to literary representations of human interactions have powerful real-world effects, especially for developing minds. By enabling students to contemplate, analyze, and reflect on complex dramatic situations that are congruent to but detached from their own lives, — we are helping young learners become more complete, mindful human beings.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Sustaining Diversity" October, 2013

    Excerpted from the 2012-13 Education Department Annual Report

    This year’s watchwords were growth and expansion. Despite disruptions from Hurricane Sandy that got us off to a rocky start, we ultimately launched partnerships with twelve new schools this year. We enrolled nine in our Core and Write on the Edge I programs, which enable students to attend MTC matinees as the educational centerpiece of classroom residencies. We also expanded our collaboration with Passages Academy — a multi-site facility for incarcerated and court-referred youth — adding residencies at two facilities in the Bronx and Brooklyn. And we added a school in Jerusalem, Israel to our TheatreLink distance-learning program, bringing the total of partner schools in the U.S. and abroad to 17.

    But at least as gratifying as the number of new partner schools was their diversity. We added schools in relatively affluent communities in the city and the suburbs as well as schools serving high-needs students from high-poverty environments. Five of our new schools were GED programs in the Bronx and Manhattan, to which we provided seven Write on the Edge playwriting residencies. As noted above, we added two sites serving incarcerated youth as well as a school serving American students studying abroad.

    Clearly, no matter what the nature and background of their students, school administrators recognize the value of MTC’s services and programs. Despite shrinking budgets, principals understand the importance of providing their students with informed encounters with cutting-edge theatrical work in first-class productions; they are also aware of the range of academic and personal benefits resulting from students writing original plays and having them performed by professional actors. They believe as we do in the unique capacity of live theatre to deepen learners’ understanding of themselves and the world.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "TheatreLink 2013 Begins" January, 2012

    Today (January 2) marks the official launch of the 18th annual iteration of TheatreLink, our internet-based distance learning program. By the end of the month, all 17 of our national and international school partners will have logged on, joining as their spring semesters start. The cohort of participating schools extends geographically from Springfield, Oregon to Johannesburg, South Africa. (Our other two international schools are in Thessaloniki and Jerusalem.)

    Of all our component programs, TheatreLink has the most “moving parts,” is the most extensive and intensive learning experience we offer, and poses perhaps the most significant practical and philosophical challenges.

    In recent posts, I’ve discussed how we prepare New York-area students to attend performances of plays like An Enemy of the People or Wit. But early on in the life of the Education Program, we realized that the kind of work we were doing with the students we served here was in a sense anomalous. We realized that through accidents of geography, hundreds of thousands of students around the country and, indeed, around the world had no way of accessing the kinds of live performances that students in New York or other metropolitan areas enjoyed.

    We began to strategize about how to address this inequity, but most of the solutions we considered — touring productions with itinerant teaching artists, for example — seemed impractical or expensive or both. Then in the fall of 1996, we hit on the idea of distance learning, using the then nascent internet as our instructional platform, and TheatreLink was born.

    The idea of TheatreLink was simple. Classes from geographically isolated schools (one per school) would collaborate with one another on a three-part, semester-long playwriting and production process. First each class would study a play from the MTC repertory, a suitable work that had appeared on our stages (this year it’s David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People); then each class would collectively write an original one-act based on themes and ideas in the play under study; finally each class would pass its play to a partner school that would produce it.

    To facilitate this process we created a secure website — www.theatrelink.org — that would serve as the project’s resource and communication hub. Students and teachers could use the site’s clipboards, email, and chat functions to communicate with one another and with the New York-based teaching artist assigned to mentor them. Video excerpts from the MTC play could be uploaded to the site and materials that would aid students throughout the process could be made available there as well.

    By the third year of the project, we realized that, for all this was an internet-based distance learning program, live, face-to-face training for all the instructional partners — teachers and teaching artists — was essential. We recognized that there were enormous advantages to sharing and debating best practices in a room together. So we committed to flying in and housing all the participating teachers for a 3-day training conference in December, a month before the program goes live. This year, the education staff became quasi-travel agents for our 17 intrepid partners from all over the globe.

    But the logistics of the training weekend pale in comparison to the challenges of coordinating the real-time interaction between schools that are in some cases ten time zones apart. Some years back, we introduced videoconferencing as an instructional component. That enabled those schools that possessed the technology (about half) to interact face-to-face with their teaching artist and share their final performances with the “author school” through a live three-way video hook-up, with MTC teaching artists in New York monitoring the performance and facilitating the live post-production conversation. But videoconferencing — powerful though it remains — requires planning, flexibility, and ingenuity in order to ensure that, for example, a performance in Oregon can be viewed simultaneously by writers in Greece and MTC education staff in New York.

    Apart from the logistical challenges, TheatreLink presents a philosophical dilemma for an institution devoted to the live theatre experience. Unlike our other programs, TheatreLink — almost by definition — offers no opportunity for the participating schools to attend a performance in the theatre. Their interaction with MTC, the play under study, and other schools can only be electronic. Yet, in many cases, the alternative is no connection at all with professional artists or arts institutions. And finally the technology is a means to an end. The majority of the time, students are working on a hands-on theatre project: they’re writing a play of their own and then rehearsing and performing the script from their partner school. So the project in its own way honors and respects the power of the live dramatic event. Added to that is the opportunity for students to communicate and collaborate with a group of peers from another community with whom they would otherwise have no connection.

    It all adds up to a heady mix.

    I will pass on reports from the “front lines” as the work progresses over the coming months.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Teaching An Enemy of the People" November, 2012

    Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People — the opening production of this year’s season — at first glance might seem remote and challenging for young audiences. A period drama about policy issues set in a nineteenth-century Norwegian town is certainly not the normal entertainment fare of today’s digital generation. But at our Education Matinee on November 14, 400 high school students sat attentively throughout the performance, laughing and responding at appropriate points, and burst into resounding cheers at the conclusion.

    The “secret sauce” that almost always ensures this kind of successful outcome at our student performances is the preparatory work we do with the students beforehand. Through a series of classroom workshops, we help students forge powerful connections between their own life experiences, actual and potential, and the work they encounter on our stages. In the case of An Enemy of the People, we helped our young learners understand that Ibsen’s masterpiece is finally about telling the truth no matter what — even if it places the truth teller and his family in harm’s way.

    The play’s protagonist, Thomas Stockmann, the medical officer in a small spa town, discovers that the waters of the baths on which the town depends for economic survival are hopelessly polluted. We asked our students to imagine analogous situations. They came up with rich scenarios: a student discovers a massive cheating scandal that would have dire consequences for the entire school community if revealed, or, a starter on the school basketball team finds out that the gym has untreated asbestos, or a student discovers that a beloved teacher has been involved in an inappropriate relationship with a classmate.

    We coached them to write or improvise dramatic scenes in which the protagonist “blows the whistle” to an authority figure. We had them consider what kinds of arguments or tactics, legitimate or expedient, the authority figure might employ when confronting an inconvenient truth and to incorporate these responses into their scenes as well. We would frequently ask them to create a series of scenes in which the would-be whistle blower encounters ever more frustrating obstacles, as the powers-that-be try to thwart their protagonists’ efforts to reveal the truth. We then asked them to imagine that the ultimate authority figure in their scenarios — the coach, the principal, the guidance counselor — was the protagonist’s relative, perhaps a parent or an uncle. (In An Enemy of the People, the town’s mayor is Stockmann’s brother.) How would that alter their scenes?

    These writing or acting exercises connected our students deeply and fully to Thomas Stockmann’s psychological journey in Ibsen’s play, in the course of which he transforms from an idealist to a whistle blower/crusader to a disillusioned iconoclast and finally to a pariah, an outcast in his own town, an “enemy of the people.”

    We did expose students to some key excerpts from the play as part of this preparation, but they did not read the play in its entirety. Thus in the theatre they were able to experience it for the first time, with the attendant excitement of novelty, but at the same time, through the preparatory process they had gained “ownership” of the play’s emotional and thematic territory. In a happy paradox, as with all the plays to which we bring our students, they encountered it for the first time as an old friend. The preparation not only made the play familiar, but enabled the young people in the audience to make visceral connections with Ibsen’s characters and ideas and to experience the play as immediately relevant to their own lives.

    As of this writing we are going back into our classrooms for follow-up sessions, where we always solicit written and verbal feedback from students and their teachers. I will share particularly interesting comments or insights in future posts.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "How We Do What We Do" October, 2012

    “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

    The old proverb could well be the motto for MTC’s Education Department. Ours is a progressive, experiential model through which learners of all ages forge deep emotional and intellectual connections to key themes, ideas, and expressive patterns in an MTC play prior to seeing it. Through our approach, we are able to engage and excite even novice theatergoers about plays that might at first glance seem remote and inaccessible.

    Last season, for example, we brought hundreds of high school students to see Margaret Edson’s Wit, a serious drama about a middle-aged professor who learns she has terminal cancer. In preparing young learners for this production in their classrooms, we first of all wanted them to understand that Wit is not a play about a cancer victim. Rather it’s about a brilliant individual — Professor Vivian Bearing — who uses her prodigious intellect to escape her humanity, who in effect hides from life and denies her mortality. Kids have a name for this behavior: they call it “fronting” — creating a façade to conceal parts of themselves they don’t want to acknowledge or the world to see. So we introduced them to this essential aspect of Wit by asking them to write or improvise dramatic scenes about characters who were “fronting”: the new kid who poses as a rebel or a clown to gain acceptance, the athlete hiding his interest in performing in the school musical.

    In the play, Vivian’s disease and her painful medical ordeal finally enable her to accept her mortality, to recognize and embrace the essential fragility of all life. In her final moments, in part through the agency of her nurse, Susie, she discovers compassion, kindness, and self-acceptance. To address this aspect of Wit, we asked our students to imagine that their “fronting” character had experienced a world-shattering crisis (a season-ending injury, the end of a long-term intimate relationship); we had them write scenes in which a friend or acquaintance helps their character come to terms with his/her situation and attain a broader, deeper sense of identity. In response, we got heartfelt scenes about, for example, a star athlete being comforted at his mother’s funeral by his bitter crosstown rival or a school counselor helping a student cope with her failure to win a college scholarship.

    We don’t explain beforehand exactly why we’re giving a particular creative task or assignment, how it will connect with what the students will see in the performance; we try not to spoil the excitement of the first-time encounter with the play. But in writing the kinds of scenes described above, students begin to inhabit the emotional territory in which the play lives. Without knowing it, they gain a kind of ownership of its ideas, dynamics, and expressive patterns. So at the performance, they view Vivian Bearing’s journey from denial to acceptance through the lens of their own dramatizations of analogous experiences, experiences which, to some extent, are drawn from what they know from their own lives.

    The process clearly works. In their post-performance essays, students wrote about Vivian as a character “encased in armor” who “didn’t want to show anyone how she was feeling.” Many discussed the final scene with her nurse, specifically how sharing a popsicle, as one student wrote, reflected her new-found ability “to connect on a personal level with a human.” Wit resonated personally for many of these young audience members; one for example wrote about her grandmother who is currently in a nursing home.

    Students attributed their connections to and understanding of the play in large part to their classroom work with our teaching artists, without which, said one, “I would probably not have viewed the play the same [way].” One student wrote, “I was even annoyed that class ended because the conversation was so fascinating.” High praise indeed!

    As of this writing, MTC’s Education Department is beginning Units of Study in dozens of New York-area classrooms on our current production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. In my next posts, I will discuss how we’re approaching this nineteenth-century masterpiece and report on students’ responses.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Why We Do It" September, 2012

    This post marks the official launch of Education Director David Shookhoff “Director’s Corner” Blog. His notes from past Education Department Annual reports are included here as well. Going forward, David will post regularly on a range of topics connected to the theory and practice of MTC’s renowned education program; on occasion he will also post pieces about general issues related to arts education in New York City and the rest of the country.

    Manhattan Theatre Club’s Education Department essentially does two things: we teach learners how to see plays and how to write them. We provide instruction through residencies and workshops in schools and in our studios, but almost all our programs culminate in participants’ attendance at MTC productions. (For more details about our work, please visit the education pages on this site.)

    A legitimate question is, “Why?” Why does an institution which exists primarily to produce plays spend more than $1 million dollars a year on an education program? It’s not, as some people suppose, to generate income through, for example, ticket sales to schools; the fees paid to the education program for its programs represent a tiny fraction of its costs. It’s not to attract grants and donations; as with earned income, the donations we receive for the program cover only about a third of what we spend. And it’s not even about “audience development;” if that term is taken to mean creating paying customers, well, we’ve failed: the available data indicate that none of the 50,000 or so students we’ve served over the 22-year life of the program have become MTC subscribers.

    So then why does MTC’s Education Program exist? At heart, it comes down to our conviction that informed encounters with seriously intended theatre are intrinsically valuable experiences for learners of any age. We believe that the arts in general, and theatre in particular, provide unique forms of knowledge and insight, that experiencing them helps us better understand ourselves and the world.

    Plays are especially powerful and relevant experiences for the growing young minds of high school students, our primary target. Drama is the most future-oriented of all the literary forms. Plays finally are images of human agency: they depict human need and desire transformed into purposeful behavior; they remind us that actions have consequences. What ideas could be more timely or relevant for adolescents, who are immersed in the process of locating themselves temporally, forging a consciousness of their pasts and of the possibilities that lie ahead?

    This is the developmental stage, psychologists tell us, at which emerging adults are seeking to create an identity and clarify values. For them, the characters and conflicts on our stages become sounding boards that amplify and focus choices and dilemmas they may be confronting in real life. What is the difference between value and worth, and which do I choose? What roles do luck, circumstance, and character play in determining our station in life? How can we transcend emotional and social trauma; how can tragedy become a source of strength and wisdom? To what extent are we defined and bound by our family histories and legacies and how can we escape or enlist them in a quest for autonomy and independence?

    These are but some of the questions the learners we serve confront and explore when they study and attend MTC productions. The informed encounters with world-class theatre we provide them thus constitute unique, invaluable opportunities to explore who they are and envision whom they may become. Finally it is to help young people in their process of self-discovery that MTC’s Education Program exists.

    As suggested above, MTC’s Education Program also serves post-secondary and adult learners. In future posts, I will discuss how and why we work with those populations and will focus as well on the nature and impact of our pedagogy.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Making A Difference" June, 2011

    Most of us who went into theatre education wanted to make a difference: to provide those we serve with new understanding of what it means to be human, to excite their imaginations, enhance their quality of life, add an element of joy and possibility to the world of the everyday and the humdrum. So we constantly ask, are we attaining this end? Are we contributing to the growth and understanding of the learners we serve? Are we changing people’s lives?

    At MTC, sometimes the answer is a clear, resounding “Yes!” In the Highlights section of this report, we provide instances of dramatic changes in the lives of three students. There’s Dan, who won a national playwriting contest after participating in our Write Now! after-school playwriting program; Mac, who was admitted to college based solely on a play he had written through a Write on the Edge playwriting residency; and David, who, having been declared functionally illiterate by his school, astounded his teachers by writing a powerfully affecting monologue as part of a Core Unit of Study.

    But more often the differences we seem to make are subtle and incremental. We know, for example, that one third of the roughly 3,000 students we serve have never before seen a professional theatrical production. Nearly 100% told us that their work with our teaching artists made the performance they attended more meaningful, and 91% reported an increased interest in seeing live theatre.

    Teachers report on how disaffected students become deeply engaged, motivated, and participatory in our residencies. More than a few tell us of failing students who received passing grades because of their work with MTC. And many write about students with low self-esteem and poor work habits developing a sense of pride and accomplishment and a genuine artistic voice through our playwriting residencies.

    The students themselves tell us about growth and change.  One, in connection with The Pitmen Painters, wrote about appreciating the distinction between price and value.

    Others wrote about gaining empathy and insight through their experience with The Whipping Man.  Still others, in encountering Good People, deepened their understanding of selflessness, the relationship between luck and success, and the meaning of the play’s title.

    Do such individual anecdotes constitute evidence of permanent life changes?  Perhaps not.  But we believe that these kinds of small instances of increased understanding or changed attitudes, if repeated sufficiently, do make a difference in learners’ lives.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Staying The Course" June, 2010

    Despite the difficult times, MTC’s Education Program has remained true to its mission and goals. We have scaled back a bit to be sure; for example we will not be able to print a hard-copy version of this report this year. But I am pleased and proud that we have stayed the course, preserving the essentials of what we do. Our job as an education department remains the same: to instill in the learners we serve the idea that theatre constitutes a unique and irreplaceable means of knowing and understanding oneself and the world. The in-depth work students do in our classrooms and workshops and the world-class plays they encounter in our theatres enables them to explore vital issues and ideas that exercise and concern us all today; the work they do with us enriches them as citizens and as human beings.

    To that end, we have continued to provide the same level of high quality instruction and partnerships to all the learners we serve. Our students ranged in age from junior high school through adult; we worked with them in all parts of the New York metropolitan area and indeed, thanks to our distance learning program, TheatreLink, in schools and communities all over the country and around the world. In fact, in 2008 a record high of 66 schools collaborated with us, affording their students the benefits of our unique combination of in-depth classroom instruction and attendance at world-class plays and productions.

    This year, more than 500 high school students saw Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined. Their intensive, hands-on classroom exploration deepened their understanding and enriched their experience at the performance of this powerful, disturbing, but finally uplifting work. Students also studied and attended such insightful and challenging works as Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan, Itamar Moses’s Back Back Back, and Samson Raphaelson’s Accent on Youth. In some cases, through our Write on the Edge Program, they went on to write plays inspired by the ideas they encountered at these performances. The students’ comments on evaluation forms, as well as those of their teachers, attest to the unique benefits they derive from these opportunities.

    The following pages document the array of programs and activities we provided this past year and will suggest as well the crucial importance of what we do, especially in these challenging times.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Giving Form To Feeling" June, 2009

    “Alone together on a nearly bare stage, with two lights on each, mother and daughter, you can feel how they are separated by a vast emotional distance.”
    — student essay on Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls

    “[Watching the last scene], it was easy to see potential similarities between my future and [Marlene’s] life.”
    — student essay on Top Girls

    [The final scene] shows that people will do anything to prevent being alone…Without companionship and love, we cannot truly live.”
    — student essay on William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba

    “One thing I have learned about playwriting is that if I change one thing, I will have to change many others.”
    — student evaluation , Write on the Edge playwriting residency

    “I learned that playwriting is a very powerful form for emotional expression. But there’s a lot of revision…it’s important to take criticisms…Once you think you’ve done the best you can, you go back and do it again.”
    — student evaluation , Write on the Edge

    MTC’s education programs teach learners of all ages to see plays and to write plays. Learning to see a play entails understanding how its constituent elements – characters, setting, conflicts – combine first on the page and then in production to form patterns of meaning. It means coming to see how each moment in the action relates to the dramatic whole; how the choices of the playwright, the director, the designers, and the actors unite into a coherent, expressive form. Learning to write a play entails developing the ability to employ those same elements actively in order to create a clear, coherent, meaningful work. Writing an original play thus complements coming to understand a professional play. Through our programs, students acquire and deepen skills of expression and perception.

    As the first three quotes above suggest, in mastering these skills, students deepen their understanding of themselves and the world. Plays, after all, are inquiries into human actions and their consequences. Works like Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius explore what happens when we confuse value with price; William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba examines how we find the strength to cope with disenchantment and failure; Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls asks what it means to be a woman today and explores the spiritual cost of material success. In delving into works like these and writing plays inspired by them, students grapple with these deeply vexing but elemental questions in personal terms.

    As the last two quotes suggest, through intense, laborious effort that enlists both their intellects and their emotions, student playwrights give dramatic form to personal feeling and come to recognize how the works they see on our stages do the same. Through these processes, the students we serve gain a range of valuable skills and knowledge, but finally what we do is help them explore and answer, at least provisionally, the paramount questions of adolescence: “Who am I?” and “What is the world?”

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Transcendent Outcomes" June, 2008

    Enthusiasm, excitement, joy – these are difficult outcomes to capture in assessing an education program. Yet our students unmistakably display these kinds of emotions (and others as well) in our theatres at student matinees of MTC productions and in their schools when their own plays are performed by professional actors during a Write on the Edge playwriting residency.

    The students’ pleasure in the performance of their own work is relatively easy to explain and perhaps predictable: pride in accomplishment, the empowering experience of hearing one’s words brought to vivid dramatic life by professionals, the positive reinforcement from peers and teachers – such benefits, while certainly not to be minimized or disparaged, are perhaps to be expected from a successful art- making experience.

    What is more difficult to anticipate, and therefore of particular interest, is the rapt attention our student audiences give our performances and the spontaneous outpourings of appreciation that typify their responses at curtain calls. For the raucous cheers and standing ovations that greet MTC actors when they take their bows at student matinees clearly have been prompted not by lavish production numbers or dazzling stage spectacle but by challenging ideas and complex dramatic images.

    Nilo Cruz’s Beauty of the Father, which compellingly explored the mutability of relationships and the many forms of love; David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, which powerfully affirmed the possibility of prevailing even in the face of unthinkable tragedy; and Conor McPherson’s Shining City, with its poignant depiction of lost souls desperately searching for connection and expiation – all these, along with the other plays in our season, moved our student audiences to laughter, to tears, to fascinated attention, and finally to standing ovations and thunderous outpourings of approval.

    Our preparatory work in the classrooms – described in the following pages – mediates between the students and the ideas and images and images in our plays, making them more vivid and available than they would otherwise be. But ultimately it is the plays themselves that speak viscerally and powerfully to our young audiences and elicit their enthusiasm and excitement.

    This phenomenon surely epitomizes the most exalted kind of learning experience, through which young people are literally uplifted by the expressive force of a challenging, illuminating work of art. Their excited responses affirm the powerful connection they have made with the new way of understanding the world embodied in the play they have attended.

    Educational evaluators may rightly demand less ephemeral measures of student learning, but in this age of high stakes testing and quantitative assessment, the behavior of our students in our theatres and our classrooms must also be acknowledged as a valid indicator of our Education Program’s resounding success.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Overview" June, 2007

    Seven times this year, high school students filled an MTC theatre for what they and their teachers generally reported to be among their richest learning experiences of the year – attendance at a student matinee of a play from our season. All told, roughly 2,500 students saw a play at the Biltmore Theatre or on one of our two stages at NY City Center. All of them came through either our Core Program, which enables students to explore a play’s themes and issues before seeing it, or through Write on the Edge, which empowers students to write original plays based on an MTC work after they have studied and attended it.

    Informed encounters with live theatrical performance form the bedrock of MTC’s educational philosophy and practice. During the past year, plays like John Patrick Shanley’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize- winning Doubt, Craig Lucas’s Reckless, or Donald Margulies’s Brooklyn Boy confronted students with powerful images and complex questions. When must we act despite incomplete knowledge? How does one go on when cherished beliefs are shattered? How do we live without a parent’s love? These are just some of the challenging issues students examined and explored in studying and attending these and other plays.

    Students in our programs wrestle with such questions not through traditional lecture and discussion methods but by engaging with them through hands-on, theatre-based activities. They write scenes and do improvisations that address key ideas or character dynamics in the play under study. For example, preparing for Jeffrey Hatcher’s A Picasso, based on an actual encounter between the renowned artist and a Nazi bureaucrat, students wrote scenes about thwarting authority and protecting something precious. In relation to Donald Margulies’s Brooklyn Boy, which depicts a writer’s troubled relationship with his family, students wrote about seeking approval from an emotionally distant parent.

    Writing assignments like these point simultaneously in two directions: forward to the performance students will attend at MTC and inward to their own storehouses of life experiences. By drawing on autobiographical material similar to that which animated the writer whose work they will see, they forge links between the play and their lives. The scenes they create illuminate the play even as the play amplifies and clarifies their personal experiences; the process ultimately deepens and extends their understanding of themselves and the world.

    Write on the Edge, our playwriting program, further extends this exploration process by enabling students to develop embryonic scenes into completed plays. In bringing their works to fruition, they deepen their examination of the root question, issue, or experience they’re writing about. And since these subjects are connected thematically to the MTC play that students study and attend as part of the residency, writers like John Patrick Shanley, Donald Margulies, and Craig Lucas become tacit mentors to our nascent playwrights as they give dramatic form to their emerging ideas.

    The work on MTC’s stages thus becomes a source of the richest kinds of learning, enabling students to shape and understand otherwise unexamined, inchoate personal experiences and to make connections between these experiences and larger, more universal truths. A student’s play drawn from personal dealings with an unloving parent, focused and shaped through the lens of Donald Margulies’s Brooklyn Boy, deepens his understanding of his particular relationship while linking it to larger, general questions about the ways our roots both nourish and bind us and about how accepting where we come from may help us realize who we are.

    This is the kind of learning we seek to foster in MTC’s Education Program. In the ensuing pages we will provide a sense of how each of our particular programs connects to this overall vision and philosophy.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education

  • "Then And Now" June, 2006

    This past year marked the fifteenth anniversary of MTC’s Education Program, and even a cursory “then and now” comparison suggests how far we’ve come. The program began in the spring of 1989 with one teaching artist (me) and one administrator (also me) collaborating with two teachers, one at each of two schools. We served a total of seventy students. This year the Education Department had four full-time staff members and two interns, employed fifteen teaching artists, and served 60 schools, 4,000 students, and 200 teachers. Our budget has grown from $20,000 to more than $1 million over this period of time.

    But far more important and gratifying than mere growth has been our steadfast commitment to the mission the theatre’s leadership and I articulated at the program’s inception. From the outset we agreed that as its “core business,” the Education Department would facilitate informed encounters between students and MTC productions. We believed in the intrinsic value of such experiences, and the program’s work in the past fifteen years has confirmed and strengthened this belief. Encounters with the contemporary plays MTC produces constitute unique opportunities for students to deepen their understanding of themselves and the world.

    The plays we produce are not, however, fully accessible to an unprepared audience – they require and repay study. Mediation is necessary if an audience is to apprehend the work on our stages fully; indeed the hallmark of any important work of art is that it becomes richer and more meaningful with continued examination. In our case mediation takes the form primarily of hands-on, theatre-based activities in the classroom. We believe that the best way to study theatre is to make theatre. Accordingly, students write scenes and do theatrical improvisations connected to key themes in the MTC play they will attend; they perform excerpts from the script and discuss these excerpts in relation to the original work they have created.

    As a result of this preparatory work, our students over the years have consistently been the most knowledgeable and arguably the most perceptive and responsive audiences at MTC. According to the students themselves, their teachers, and outside evaluators, as a result of working with us students’ interest in attending live theatre increases along with their ability to perceive plays more fully and to benefit from the wisdom and insight they contain.

    While holding fast to these beliefs and practices, over the years we have steadily amplified and enriched the instructional services we provide with an array of new programs. We created each of these programs to address a need that arose as our work grew and evolved; each one is rooted in the core beliefs articulated above and each is connected to MTC’s artistic mission, specifically to work that appears on our stages. Each one is described in the pages that follow.

    David Shookhoff
    Director of Education