TNCS Elementary and Middle Students Perform Standup Comedy for Theatre Class!

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!

“I ultimately just want them to believe in themselves. Theatre does that.”–Alex Hewett

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!).

“The microphone makes it so much more real.”

 

*Read more about “Mortified” in this great writeup!

TNCS Summer Theatre Campers Embrace The Bard!

From July 15th through 19th, The New Century School welcomed back annual guest instructor Alex Hewett, who led the first TNCS Shakespeare Camp! Ms. Hewett is a TNCS favorite and has taught many aspects of drama, including scenes from various Shakespeare plays, to TNCS students through the years. (You can see some of her past camps and workshops here, here, here, and here.) but this year is special for being dedicated to one of the Bard’s plays. Currently, Ms Hewett is a Teaching Artist at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC).

A Midsummer Dream Camp at TNCS!

We know what you’re thinking—Shakespeare?! For kids?! Ms. Hewett’s answer is a resounding yes. Nevertheless, with a mixed-age group, she had to be strategic. Interestingly, all of the campers are either going into 2nd grade or 5th grade, so she paired them up, younger with older. It worked like a charm!

I started with Puck’s monologue to see how we did with that, and then determined which abridged version of the play with how many lines we could get through in 1 week. I don’t like dumbing down things, but in order for us to get this done, I went with The 10-Minute or So A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘creatively edited by’ Brendan Kelso. It keeps the integrity of some of the text and definitely keeps the overall feel. It brings in some colloquial language, too, which helps the kids’ understanding.

Besides, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has fairies—very mischievous fairies at that—and lots of laughs. You don’t have to be a scholar to find the Rude Mechanicals funny! That’s not to mention Bottom in donkey form. Even more importantly, the play is about love, and camp centered on that theme. Ms. Hewett says:

Even though Shakespeare’s stories are hundreds of years old, the feelings that the characters have, whether heir kings or peasants, are the same feelings that we have today. We have love, we have disappointment . . . we have sadness and grief. His stories transcend any time period and any culture because we’re all human. The story plots are also relatively simple—someone loves someone else, but the love is not reciprocated; someone wants to have power but somebody else in charge. I particularly love A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it’s magical, and I think kids really relate to that.

She was joined by Amy Hechtzizes, who hadn’t worked with elementary age children in a while but found the experience “difficult and hilarious and awesome”! (Sounds about right.) The two met at a women’s theatre ensemble workshop at The Strand theatre. Costuming help came from artist Liz Swanson. The campers themselves came from schools all over the city in addition to TNCS, including Hampstead Hill Academy (HHA), Patterson Park Public Charter School (PPPCS), and St. Casimir’s. They contributed some lovely drawings on theme to decorate the stage. Props were fashioned out of Imagination Playground materials—those trees (see videos below) are works of art!

Hello, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company!

Midweek, as a reward for all of their hard work, the group of budding thespians got quite a treat—a field trip to the CSC’s theatre in downtown Baltimore! Led by Studio Director, Gerrad Alex Taylor, they toured the theatre, getting to see all areas, including backstage and the gasp-inducing armory . . . all those swords! Go ahead—ask your kids what orchestra, mezzanine, and second mezzanine are! They can also probably clue you in as to how the Green Room got its name. Back in Shakespeare’s day, backstage was outdoors, so unless they were on stage, actors were passing the time until they were needed outside “on the green.”  Some of the important directorial considerations he shared with them included how to stage the play so that the actors can engage all of the audience, even those they may not be directly facing.

Mr. Taylor is also an actor in the company. One of his favorite recent parts with CSC was the rebel Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1, because he got to “throw a table” in that volatile role. He also acts in Washington, D.C. and has taught drama at HHA. The tour ended with a Q&A with Mr. Taylor. Then, to top it all off, they borrowed costumes and got to rehearse on the CSC stage!

The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth!

But this special production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream sure did! (Okay, there was one casualty in the form of a pair of unfortunate sunglasses.) Back at TNCS, the last day of camp meant that families were invited to come for a performance.

Want more? You can see additional videos including the full rehearsal at CSC on our TNCS YouTube channel—while you’re there, please consider subscribing!

tncs-shakespeare-summer-camp

Theatre Workshop Promotes Team-Building among TNCS Elementary Students

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.)

Drama Camp instructor, therapist, actress, and mom, the illustrious Alex Hewett!

TNCS theatre workshop instructor Alex Hewett.

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.

Warming-Up Exercises

“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.

life-doesn't-frighten-me

“Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” was written by Maya Angelou and illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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.”

Alex Hewett

And that is a lesson we could all benefit from learning!

The class lines up to take a group bow after their hard work during rehearsal. Well done kids!

The class lines up to take a group bow after their hard work during rehearsal. Well done kids!