In late 2020, theatre teacher Alex Hewett returned to The New Century School, much to the TNCS community’s collective delight. Ms. Hewett has been with TNCS in various capacities since 2013. (Read Embrace the Bard from 2019, A Week of Wonder from 2016, Theatre Workshop and Drama Camp from 2014, and Summertime Theatrics from 2013.)
Here, we give you Immersed’s latest conversation with this artist, activist, and all-around wonderful human being just before her culminating project with her elementary and middle school students was about to begin.
Immersed: Since the last time we sat down for an interview, a lot in your professional life has probably changed.
AH: Yes! Currently, I teach a class at Johns Hopkins that I’ve developed on creativity inspired by The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I took a workshop with her a few years ago, and it changed my life, so I’ve incorporated some of her teaching. Each unit is different, from visual arts to music to writing and then performance. And in the past year the class was looking at how do you overcome trauma using creativity so that that’s how the class was structured. I have also produced a storytelling show called “Mortified*” for the past 6 years or so. We were not having live shows last year, although we did a few zoom shows to raise money for the Creative Alliance. In this show, adults share their childhood diaries, love letters, poetry—things they created as kids. So we look at the submissions and curate them, and then they share these things on stage. And it’s funny because at the time they were writing they never think they’re going to share it with anyone so it’s messy and hysterical and ultimately very cathartic. I’m also getting an MFA in creative writing and publishing arts at the University of Baltimore.
Immersed: Are you still doing anything with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company?
AH: I am not actively teaching classes with CSC now but have been involved with their Veterans ensemble.
Immersed: When did you actually come back into the school?
AH: I started teaching in person about 2 months ago and virtually in November.
Immersed: Teaching theatre virtually—was that difficult?
AH: I was working with an acting teacher taking classes as a student myself all last year, and I learned that there’s so much you can do to create some of the intimacy of being on stage through zoom. That really helped me. I also usually don’t teach as young as kindergartners, but I have lots of puppets so with them we were able to move around a lot and keep the younger students engaged. It helped keep them going because they spend so much time on the screen, so much of my class was up and active. It was interesting because they would listen more to the puppets than to me!
Immersed: That sounds wonderful (and funny!). So how was physical reentry for you and when are you here?
AH: On Mondays I’m here for the K through 2nd-grade classes and Wednesdays I’m here for 3rd through 8th grades. Also on Mondays the 3rd through 8th grades get an asynchronous assignment from me, and the K through 2nd-graders get one on Tuesdays. The first day back was a bit overwhelming because some students were still at home and some were in the classroom. I talked to my actor friends who also teach theatre to ask how they approach this, because we can’t be together in this space, we can’t hold hands, we can’t see each other’s whole faces. How do we do this? But this collaboration with my peers and a lot of creativity paid off. We started with the kids writing their own stories—kind of creating their own model of who they are. We did scenes from Shakespeare, “Into the Spiderverse,” and “Harry Potter the Musical” to start with material they’d be more familiar with. After that first day, though, it was pretty joyous.
Immersed: Wonderful. And yet it’s difficult to imagine how you pulled it off with students in two very different spaces.
AH: Oh, well, there were challenges. Sometimes they couldn’t hear each other, for example. But we did lot of yoga and movement and breath and meditation. With the younger kids, especially, we played more theater and movement games. Or, I’d read them a story and then have them act out the scenes according to their own interpretations. We’ve also done a lot of improvisation.
Immersed: Tell us a little more about how you created your curriculum.
AH: You know, theatre is fun, and I think the stuff that I’m teaching is fun. I know I was leaving the classroom each day feeling good, and the kids were laughing. I really tried to do things with them that they would enjoy and ask for their feedback. Sometimes I pull stuff from the Kennedy Center or from live theatre performances and have them watch a play or a musical or even some dance. It’s different for each class depending on what we’re doing at the time. I often had to adapt my curriculum in the moment, so that was stressful in a fun way. I also feel like I’m on stage all the time and, like,
‘Oh no, what am I not getting through to them?’ Because I ultimately just want them to believe in themselves. Theatre does that. So it has definitely been exciting and a creative challenge, but I’m up for that!
Immersed: If we know anything about you, it’s that you are certainly up for creative challenges! And now here we are at the end of the year! What are students presenting for you today?
AH: Well, I knew we couldn’t pull off a traditional play, but I thought, why not do some standup? The past year has been really difficult; let’s end with a laugh! I interviewed a few of my friends who are professional comedians, and I presented the interviews to the kids as their asynchronous assignments to familiarize them with how to craft standup. Unfortunately, standup is usually geared toward adults and not appropriate for kids, so I had to be very careful. But, basically, kids are the funniest creatures in the world, so it’s not that hard to access the funny. I think the biggest part of it is getting over the fear of being by yourself up on stage with a microphone. The microphone makes it so much more real.
Immersed: So what kinds of things did you teach them to “access their funny”?
AH: In crafting comedy, you look at the things that are the most difficult in your life . . . things that bother you, things you want to change, the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. We’re seeing more of that sort of comedy, and it shows that everyone has problems.
Immersed: And through comedy, we can start to come to terms with them.
AH: Exactly. Everyone’s life has been affected this past year, so how can we reflect and talk about it? As you’re talking about the things that bother you the most, everyone’s going to connect maybe not on the exact same things, but it’s that you’re honest and you’re respected for being up there. That takes a lot of courage, so I really tried to stress that we must be supportive of each other, and we’ve been working on helping each other with crafting our pieces. Everyone gave a pitch of what they want to talk about, and we provided feedback about what was funny, what we liked, or how to use your body your body language to tell the story more effectively. So that’s we’ve been working on, and everyone is going to come up on stage for 2 minutes and do their thing!
Without further ado, we give you the TNCS Comedy Troupe! We even have a recording from a student who was virtual the day of the presentations (and she slays!).
*Read more about “Mortified” in this great writeup!