On Thursday afternoons at The New Century School, elementary students attend Theatre Workshop with Alex Hewett. Immersed readers might already be acquainted with Ms. Hewett because she’s often doing something newsworthy and worthwhile around school! (See TNCS Drama Camp Brings Out Kids’ Inner Artists and Summertime Theatrics: Drama Camp at TNCS for previous posts.)
Ms. Hewett is an accomplished actress in her own right and deeply believes that skills an actor/actress uses on stage translate to daily life. These skills can make us better communicators, boost our self-confidence and self-esteem, and help us trust one another—collaborate and cooperate. For all of these reasons, TNCS Head of School Alicia Danyali asked Ms. Hewett to host theatre workshops for the elementary classes, as part of what she calls her “invisible curriculum” to foster community, empathy, and respect.
“Kids this age can find it challenging to work together because they are so full of individual energy,” said Ms. Hewett. “It’s a matter of taking that energy and using it on stage. We’re told in society to be quiet all the time, but then how do we express ourselves? That can be especially confusing for kids because they have a lot of questions; they have a lot to say. On stage, you have the freedom to express yourself.” There’s also a therapeutic component to theatre, which, for Mr. McGonigal’s homeroom class, took the form of a big expenditure of energy followed by several minutes of calm. Students were asked to collectively make the loudest noise they could—the subsequent screams were deafening—and then laugh their biggest laughs. This is followed by holding hands with eyes closed in a circle to harness their collective energy. “See what happens when we work together?” she asks the group. “Working together” is a phrase she repeats frequently, because team-building is really the thrust of this special class. She also emphasizes how the actions of one impact the group as a whole, which sends the dual message that each student belongs to this community and must show respect to its members and likewise that each is an important contributor and deserves that same respect.
Finally, they lie on stage in utter stillness, completely abandoning movement, speech, and thought for several minutes. The latter is no easy task for 8-year-olds, but they have worked up to it, and their ability to focus has clearly benefitted. In fact, all of these preparatory techniques have multiple benefits: They transition the students from the classroom to the stage, help them block out distractions, and provide a form of release. As she guided the students gently into deep savasana (“corpse pose”), she explained in a whisper that this helps them relax and get attuned to their surroundings and themselves, gain self-control, and learn self-discipline. “If you are supposed to be dead on stage, for example, it’s not going to work if you are yawning or coughing.” Good point!
That’s not to say that the energetic kiddoes don’t lose focus from time to time, but Ms. Hewett knows how to bring them back and always keeps a sense of humor. “And a gentle hush fell over the crowd . . .” she intones when the students start to get overly boisterous, and quickly her “ladies and gentlemen” are back to the task at hand.
The task at hand was rehearsal for a poem recital, in which they will alternate individual speaking parts and also speak some lines all together. But first Ms. Hewett had a fun way to physically demonstrate the results of well done collaboration. Together, they became a “machine.” “One little tiny screw falls off a machine, and the whole thing no longer works,” she said. “So I’m going to tell you one very specific thing to do, but don’t start until I tell you to start.” She configured them on stage, and away they went!
The Show Must Go On!
Ms. Hewett knows how to coax optimal performance from these kids. “How many times a day are you told to be quiet,” she asked about midway through the machine exercise. “Well, this is your chance to be heard! Work the room!” She also fields directorial suggestions and praises the kids’ efforts to be so actively involved and creative.
The workshop culminated with poem rehearsal, and the class will recite the poem for the primary classes during a special performance at the end of October. Here again, Ms. Hewett has integrated a therapeutic component with performance in her choice of poems. “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” by Maya Angelou delivers the message that fear can be managed; it doesn’t have to disarm us completely. “We’re all afraid of things,” Ms. Hewett told the class, “But how can you change your way of thinking about the scary thing so it doesn’t take over?”
For their performance, the students will read chunks of the poem, accent with sound effects, and intersperse poem stanzas with excerpts from their own personal experience of what they might be afraid of. In preparation for this piece, each student stood and told “their story”—what frightens them. Ms. Hewett encouraged them to use strong voices and be proud. She praised one girl’s improvement in projecting and making herself heard over last week when she was considerably more timid on stage.
Inside the Actor’s Studio
“I’m coming at this from two perspectives: How do you handle your emotions, and how do you do that on stage while still having fun with it? I can’t separate team-building with kids from performing in a theater setting. The very first day we talk about safety, for instance, because we’re on a stage with an edge and with curtains and props. You have to work together to keep each safe. And you have to listen carefully. What happens if a classmate drops a line or forgets? You have to be able to keep the performance going. You all affect each other. Sometimes that’s positive, but when it’s negative you have to learn how to not let it wreck your energy.”
And that is a lesson we could all benefit from learning!