EPISODE 05: THE STORY OF

Theater for Young Audiences

with Barbara Pasternack

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We have a vision for a world in which theater gives generations a reason to look up, both figuratively and literally, from their devices.

Jamie
It’s easy to bring a live theatrical performance to your school. I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On this episode, we’ll be talking theater for young audiences with Barbara Pasternack, artistic director of TheaterWorksUSA. What is TheaterWorksUSA and how do you spend your days?

Barbara
Jamie, TheaterWorksUSA has been around for 60 years. The actual TheaterWorksUSA started with a musical called Young Abe Lincoln that was produced for a short run on Broadway and had a local tour. And I think it was the first show that actually did that. That took something that was on Broadway, saw that it had appeal for student audiences and decided to offer it as a tour. So we have, you know, quite a  history, and our mission is to create exceptional, transformative theatrical experiences, which are accessible for young and family audiences and diverse communities throughout New York City and North America. We have a vision for a world in which theater gives generations a reason to look up both figuratively and literally from their devices. And we want to give them the opportunity to explore themselves, their communities with optimism and excitement. And you know, because we’ve been around for such a long time, I feel like we are really a staple for educators. I think we may be one of the last professional, ah, young audience and family touring companies that, you know, do this sort of theater and send it out across North America and Canada. So I’m very, very proud of what we do, and we’re everywhere.

Jamie
And how do you spend your days? Are you on the road with TheaterWorksUSA touring productions?

Barbara
I’m not usually on the road, although at the moment I am actually in Chicago developing a new piece with the Bushnell Performing Arts Center called Warriors Don’t Cry, which is based on a book by Melba Pattillo Beals. It’s a one woman show which uses video projections in the most amazing and exciting way. And so, you know, I get the chance now to actually watch the show in development with these middle school audiences that are coming to help give us feedback as we shape the show. But normally I do not really travel the country very much. A typical day for me, you know, the best part of my job, the most fun part of my job is actually searching out properties that I think will be relevant to young and family audience is useful to teachers, things that are meaningful and educational, and then finding the right team to bring those properties or ideas to life… give them a theatrical life. So I’m always reading scripts or always talking to authors. I’m always meeting new directors and designers. Dramaturgy is a big part of what I do. So when I’m working on a new piece, I’m reading scripts, I’m giving notes. When people ask what dramaturgy is, at least for what I do, it’s much like being an editor. I work very closely with writers and directors to help them communicate and achieve their… a clear and exciting vision. So, and then, of course, we’re not for-profit companies, so fundraising is always a big part of my day, and, of course the shows, they have to get cast and sent out on the road. At the moment we have, I believe, eight new productions that are just beginning their tours. So that involves casting them, sitting in – you know, giving young actors the opportunity – auditioning to get cast in, to get their equity cards and to become professional and then oversee the rehearsals, give notes to the actors, to the directors, have design meetings about production and, and go to see as much new work as I possibly can, because I think that’s… it’s very important for me to really know what’s going on out there, what’s happening. You know, part of theaters, TheaterWorks mission is not only to give young audiences their first experience with live theater, but to give young creatives their first opportunity. So whether you’re an actor who’s getting a first job, whether you’re a director who’s getting first job, designers… You know, we really try to find people who are not only talented but who respond to what we’re doing to our mission and on, and then they get a really wonderful opportunity to see their work on stage. We do a lot of musicals musicals are usually very expensive to produce. And when somebody works for TheaterWorks, they get a chance to see the musical to go through the whole process in a relatively short period of time. By short period, I mean usually about two years, where some new musicals can kind of wander around from theater to theater for many, many years before they actually get a real audience. And so giving them opportunities and then watching them go on and to become the next Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez, who wrote Frozen, or the people Who wrote Seussical or the director of Come From Away, or actors who were currently all, you know, in every show on Broadway. You know, that’s part of my passion is actually launching careers and also, I guess, making people feel like they have, you know, a sense of community. I think that’s super important. This year was a really major year for us. So you asked what, how do I spend my days… This year, we actually, and by this show I mean, 2019.  Lightning Thief became a National Tour, a commercial national tour. So you know, sending that out and then opening it on Broadway, that really does take up an awful lot of your day. We also had a show that premiered at the New Victory in New York. So that was a pretty big deal. And this new production and premiere, which is actually happening tonight with the Bushnell again, it’s a new endeavor for us. I feel like you always have to remain fresh. You always have to try to reach more audiences, and you always have to respond to what’s going out in the world. That’s something like Warriors, which really is about young activism. And how it’s been inspired by the civil rights movement is… I feel like that is something that’s really important to explore. In addition to the Junie B. Jones’ and the Dogman, which is out there now, and, uh, yeah, always, always trying to remain relevant, always responding to the needs of the audience and the educators.

Jamie
Prior to a show’s arrival at the school level, what can teachers do to get their students prepared?

Barbara
Interestingly enough, sometimes teachers, you know, we have study guides. I don’t know that teachers always look at our study guides, so I feel like number one, you know, if you’re going to see something that’s based on a book, it’s really useful to read the book, and it’s really useful to look at the study guide materials and prepare the audiences for what they’re gonna come see. I know this sounds very silly, but I can’t tell you how many times young people walk into the theater, they have no idea what they’re coming to see, and they don’t even know they’re really coming to see theater. They think they’re going to a movie. I think in addition to reading the material, looking the study guide, I think it’s good for a teacher to talk about theatre and what it is and the fact that it’s live, that there are, you know, they’re real people, they’re in the moment. It sounds silly that you’d have to discuss that, but I think you really do. I think it’s great for teachers to pose questions to their students before they walk in. Things for the students to look for, things for the students to think about and again it depends on the age of the audience. You know, if it’s if it’s somebody who’s coming in to see Pete the Cat, you know, maybe they’re not going to be able to critically analyze the plot. But you can certainly ask them to think about… explain basic terms to them. What is a character? Well, what is conflict? What is the show about? What do characters want? Did you care about the character? Did you want the character to succeed? Those kind of simple things, I think, audience young audiences can understand on every level. And, you know, those critical thinking skills are things that are useful, you know when you’re reading a story in school, when you’re analyzing a short story, even up to junior high kids, when they’re sort of prepping for SAT. The ability to look at a story and break it down, I think is very important. It’s such a broad question you ask, cause they, for instance, we have a new show called Pete the Cat’s Big Hollywood Adventure. And in it, Pete and his friends go to Hollywood, and it’s about a young girl who wants to, she wants to be a director. They go through all of these stories and they end up affecting each one. So even prepping the audience and before they walk in and saying what does a director do? How do you make a story is important. There’s issues about friendship and Pete the Cat. How do you how do friends work together? What happens when friends don’t agree? How do you compromise? Uh, you know, those kind of things are, they’re in the plays that we do. You know, with something that’s more sophisticated, like Warriors, which really has to do with the civil rights movement, Melba Pattillo Beals’ activism… How kids are affected by things like school violence. There’s so much that you could do to prep your kids in addition to, uh, to perfect unveil theater, you know, reading about the civil rights movement, discussing how difficult it was for somebody like Melba to be an activist back in that time. What it was like to be, um, a young black girl back in that time, what it’s like now to feel like you’re different or on the outside, or to fight for a cause you believe in. How does social media come into play. So I guess in order to cover any of this, you… Again, you have to go back and look at the study guide because there’ll be lots of talking points in there and jumping off points for you. Uh, as an educator.

Jamie
What are some of the student benefits that come from attending a live show?

Barbara
Well, number one, I think, is empathy. You know, I know everybody says that, but it really is true. When you see other people on stage and you can you see yourself up there and you see people who are different. I just feel like empathy is something that’s so important now. And, um, not sure that you get it from watching a movie, you know, it’s different when it’s live theater. I also think that attention spans these days are pretty short. Kids are always in their devices, and all those you know, social media and technology can be a good thing. I think the ability to just sort of sit and be in the moment and watch a play or a musical and watch it with a group of people so that you’re there with a community and you’re having a shared experience. I think that’s very important and very powerful. It’s really easy for kids to zone out now, and you can’t or you shouldn’t do that in the theater. You have to be there because the audience is part of the experience. Again, it’s not passive like sitting in a movie. And when I talk about empathy, the best theater elicits an emotional response from the audience, and that’s, I think that’s what we always try to be there, and I think that’s really important. I mean, also diversity, you know, we  strive to do shows that, um, where everyone is represented on stage. I think it’s really important to see yourself up there to see your story, uh, reflected up on that stage. So I think that’s what, you know another thing that’s really important about theater: those stories you tell that they’re, that all different stories are represented. It’s really interesting, you know, with Lightning Thief, it had really a big twitter following. I wasn’t on it until Lightning Thief, but the twitter community for Lightning Thief was a very supportive community. And it was interesting to read all of these posts about how the show and the story affected the, um, the audience in a really deep way, and they could connect with other people who also were affected by that story. Often it was a lot of kids who felt disenfranchised, who felt that the show, the characters were role models, that they gave voice to things that these young people felt and couldn’t communicate. And, um, and they would write things like and these were… sometimes they were young people who had never been to theater before. Forget Broadway. They’d never been to theatre. Um, it was… I was so surprised by what a meaningful experience and transformative experience it was for these young people, it literally changed their lives. I really think that the best theater can , it really can change lives.

Jamie
How about any teacher benefits or even benefits for school principals and administrators? When it comes to bringing in a live show?

Barbara
Well, I think for… I think it actually, I think it helps teachers help students develop critical thinking skills, certainly, and I do think it is a fantastic tool for curriculum for the core curriculum, where there’s a lot of crossover, you know, you’re supposed to be able to cross over history with English with math. Andi, I think that you know a piece of theatres gives you, uh, for instance, we have a Rosie Revere, Engineer and Friends show, which is very STEAM Focused. Uh, and so you have Rosie, who’s an engineer, and Iggy Peck, who’s an architect and Ada Twist, who’s a scientist, and so a show like that that is booked into a school, or that you go on, you know, a field trip to see There’s just so many useful things there you can tie in math. You can tie in science, you can tie in, Uh, in addition to English. You can tie in art because they’re based on picture books, and, uh, the illustrator has a very specific style. You could tie in again the way kids, uh, relate to each other.

Jamie
Oh, uh, social and emotional learning!

Barbara
Social and emotional learning. yes, thank you. I think it’s very important for social emotional learning. The conflicts that the young characters have in a show like Junie B or Rosie Revere can be teaching tools, I think in the classroom and for, you know, for principals to. But also I think theater, as I said, it’s a shared experience. If a show comes into your school and the whole school experiences it together, then I think that is, that actually brings people together. Also, I think that, um, in addition to all the teaching stuff, theater could be a very joyous experience and offer ah, lot of hopeful messages, which I think young people need very much. There’s a lot of pressure in school, I think to excel and succeed and honestly, to just have the opportunity to go and have a great time and cheer for a character you love. That’s a great release. And, um and I don’t think it should be underestimated that the entertainment part, in addition to the educational part of the experience in the day, I think it’s great. It’s really interesting to see kids go on field trips to… it’s this special like freeing thing and sometimes, like we have a lot of kids who in our New York field trip houses are inner city kids and they have never left their neighborhood. So actually, even the act of going with a teacher in the school to a field trip. It broadens their world.

Jamie
Finally, what is your vision for the future of live performance in school spaces?

Barbara
I’ll tell you, I wish that there was. I wish there was money in which we could actually raise the money to make sure that every child got a chance to see live theater and so vision… I mean, that that would be something that I hope, could be possible, that the arts could be valued so much that we would be an integral part of a student’s life and not just something that special for a few. I feel like, probably coming up with more immersive experiences. Theatrical experiences is something that I would be really interested in and figuring a way to have deeper connections with various schools so that it’s not just about seeing the show. It’s about seeing a show and having a deeper experience. I think that’s something that you say “vision” – I hope that’s something that we will be able to do is have deeper engagement with communities, certainly communities that we now tour to, and I think that we have to continue to, as I said, be relevant. Be challenging to young audiences who I think are getting more and more sophisticated and probably I think we need to figure out a way to incorporate technology in an interesting way in a non-passive way as an ancillary tool to a production. The Bushnell just recently was talking about having an AI – an artificial intelligence Melba Pattillo Beale. They’re working on this technology, and it will be an ancillary material for educators that will go along with show so that young people can feel like not only are they seeing her on stage, but they’re able to ask her questions. I think I think that anything that enhances the experience.

Jamie
You can find out more about TheaterWorksUSA at www.twusa.org. Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and I’ve been your host, Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.