“Things are great,” said Alex Hewett, The New Century School‘s Drama Camp Instructor on the last day of her 3-week stint. “This is my third year here, and it’s funny because my first year here, I taught for 1 week; the second year, 2 weeks, and now this time I had 3 weeks!” That’s because it became increasingly apparent that she’s terrific—inspirational, committed, and lovely both inside and out! Her 3 weeks were one with pre-K and K–aged kids for a half-day camp, the next week was elementary for a full day, and this last week was with kids entering K or 1st- or 2nd-grade.
The Artist’s Way
“I know I’m billed as a drama teacher,” she explains, “but I prefer to call it ‘theatre’ instead because we laugh mostly—it’s not so dramatic. [Beat] But there is drama with this age.” (We laugh.) “It’s intense fun. I had such a great group of kids.” Her approach is really very effective. She is trying to instill in her theatre students much more than an ability to project their voices, although such skills necessary for braving the footlights are certainly touched on. What she is modeling is something akin to life skills, a way of being that allows full expression of oneself while respecting and leaving plenty of space for everyone else around to also be and express themselves.
This technique is fundamentally about good communication and confidence-building: “Really communicating with your eyes to show that you’re connected is one example,” says Ms. Hewett. “If you are going to go on to become an actor, you need to have life in you to tell a story, and a lot of that comes from your eyes and from your voice. Some of the skills that we work on translate into the real world, such as being a person who feels good about himself or herself and who can communicate with others. Those are really basic social interaction skills that I think can be enhanced, because if you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s going to be hard for people to believe in you, if you don’t believe in you.” Parents, even if your kids are not planning to tread the boards one day, they are certainly going to walk away from drama camp with some important new skills and increased self-confidence.
All About Balance
In joining acting skills with life skills, Ms. Hewett reveals her yin-and-yang instructional style, and that wholeness is evident in all aspects of the camp, including the overall structure: “One of the things I encourage in theatre is using your own mind and being creative without following rules, but yet we still have to incorporate rules in order to keep everyone safe, so it’s a delicate balance,” she said. “The balance of what I’m trying to achieve is having some structure and getting the kids to listen but also getting a little silly and being creative.” So there is freedom within certain limits, hard work relieved by playtime. It’s quite Montessori-esque, not to mention oh-so TNCS!
Regarding the work/play balance, Ms. Hewett tailors the best fit to each particular group. With younger kids:
We are playing, basically. We do a lot of playing; it’s mostly fun. We do a lot of silly exercises, like The Laughing Chair. If someone walks into the room who is in a bad mood or is having a bad day, that energy can bring everybody else down. Or not paying attention or not following the rules—that disrupts everybody, so I like to try to reinforce the positive by saying, ‘even if you feel crummy, you can make someone else feel better’.
Even though “The Laughing Chair” is a way to let loose and have a little fun, it incorporates lots of other important skills. The exercise is really about connecting with each other,” says Ms. Hewett. The way it works is that someone sits in the designated chair, and somebody else tries to make him or her laugh. “You can’t touch them or tickle them or throw anything at them or push them out of the chair. But what can you do to make them laugh? Meanwhile, the sitter’s goal is to not laugh. If you laugh, you’re out.” Kids this age tend to use pratfalls and their whole bodies to make somebody laugh. But they learn to refine and particularize their comedy routines according to who is sitting in the chair. They start to learn to read facial and emotional cues, although some sitters are simply “unbreakable” as you can see below.
With older groups, Ms. Hewett is able to do more formal productions, but this requires a lot of focused effort from the kids. They are starstruck to learn that their camp instructor is a real, live actress and press her for details. “I do film, theatre, commercials, television, but the point isn’t to be famous; I want to do good work, and it’s hard work, not just a vehicle to becoming famous,” she says. And the kids learn about that hard work quickly—problem-solving and learning how to be patient and mindful. They also have to collaborate well. Her second-week group put on a scene from Roald Dahl’s The BFG (Big, Friendly Giant):
We worked really hard on this scene, and the timing of everything had to be perfect. Everybody had a part (everybody wants ‘THE’ part, but it all kind of worked out that everybody had enough to do and everybody was satisfied with their roles). We had to rehearse it over, and over, and over, and at times I heard, ‘this is boring,’ or, ‘I’m bored,’ and I said, ‘well, you know, if you really want to do something well, you have to repeat it,’ and in the end they were all happy. It was nice to watch them grow in that process.
Stretching, yoga, and breathing were other exercises they did regularly. The goal of the Week 3 camp was to get up to 15 minutes of quiet mindfulness. “We got up to 10. For some it was great; for others it was a real challenge to just listen to their breathing. But when you’re on stage, you have to be aware of yourself and of everything around you. So knowing how to focus and center yourself if you get nervous (because everyone gets nervous—I still do) is vital, and your breath is one of the things you have control of in this world,” said Ms. Hewett. TNCS students are already accustomed to this practice. “That makes a lot of sense. You don’t know what children are walking out of, even if it’s just the stress of trying to arrive at school on time and being too tired to start the day,” she said. It’s a great way to get them grounded and ready for the day.
Transformative Power of Theatre and Story-Telling
“One of my favorite things I was told when I first started out,” says Ms. Hewett, “is that when you walk into the theater, it’s a sacred space, and it’s a privilege to be here.” So, at theatre camp, the kids take their shoes off to symbolize that whatever troubles they may have been experiencing are left at the door. “We become immersed in an imaginative world. There’s something joyful about that. Stories are really powerful, and art can make a difference in people’s lives.” For instance, with the Week 2 older kids, who happened to be all girls and were obsessed with all things Frozen, Ms. Hewett helped them to see that women can have strong roles other than princesses. “You can be the king; you can be a dragon. Or, you can be something completely different form who you are—that’s the power of the theater.” They also read Amelia Earhart as another example of a person who triumphed over her obstacles and embraced her differences to become a role model for all women.
To introduce this concept of transformation to her younger actors, for whom some of the more conceptual aspects of theatre can be a bit more challenging, she talks about where stories come from. In another Dahl story, James and the Giant Peach, the protagonist’s parents get eaten, leaving him to be raised by two very nasty aunts. Dahl wrote this story during a particularly tough period in his own life, and, happily, both he and James Henry Trotter came through just fine. Says Ms. Hewett, “I had students tell a story about having felt some kind of pain in their lives to incorporate that aspect of the transformative power of stories and art to make the world better. I’m also a therapist. I work with nontraditional actors at Sheppard Pratt [hospital] doing creative therapy in which we use theater and improv and writing as a way to be a little bit more free from yourself, while still working problems out.”
Other stories they put on included Today I Will Fly!, by Mo Willems, which demonstrates the value of perseverance and a little creative problem-solving. “If someone tells you you can’t do something, don’t get discouraged, just keep trying harder.” Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about consequences. The characters who behaved badly and didn’t heed warnings met with very horrible (albeit funny) demises, whereas Charlie Bucket, who was the opposite of his demanding, impatient fellow golden-ticket winners, is the hero of the story.
“Being patient and kind always wins,” said Ms. Hewett. Fortunately, as drama camp shows, these can be learned traits. In essence, drama camp teaches nothing less than the art of being.