From Page to Stage: Our Vision for Theatre Education

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Every serious theatre company in the United States has a clear mission and vision statement for their audiences, especially since garnering patron support can be an ongoing challenge in the health of an arts organization. If you’ve never read our mission and vision statement, I encourage you to do so – Ovation Theatre is aiming to achieve a higher level of theatre education in the state of Texas by combining first-rate educational experiences with professional artistry. Too often, though, ideas can become lost in execution: it is easy to believe in the things we write down as goals, but it is far more difficult to take them from the page to the stage. 

As the Director of Ovation Theatre, I want to take the opportunity to provide you with more insight as to how we are making our ideas a reality for our students. 

Our Educational Philosophy 

There are two fundamental parts to our program: the theatre-learning environment, and the theatre-making environment. Because many of our students are high academic performers, they often do not have the luxury of including a theatre course within their daily schedule. As a result, the theatre classroom is a theatre-learning environment where students are provided a laboratory to experiment with technical and performance-based skills as opposed to making them prepare for a performance. Many of our students in Theatre I, for example, are taking the course for fine arts credit fulfillment, so we believe that there is greater opportunity for meaningful learning if we create a laboratory for experimentation rather than a factory for results. Ultimately, we hope that an engaging and inspired classroom can be the direct bridge for igniting a student’s curiosity about theatre and bringing them into our theatre-making environment. 

Our theatre-making space, on the other hand, is open to any student in the school – regardless of whether they can take a theatre class or not – and, because it requires students to audition in order to participate, it is highly competitive. We perform as many as six productions a year, and production schedules are often rigorous in addition to a student’s other academic, athletic, and extracurricular involvement. 

There is a fundamental challenge we must overcome when dealing with these two populations. If the theatre classroom is a performance lab, how do we translate the skills taught in the theatre-learning environment to the students in our theatre-making environment, especially since these students are the ones committed to performing in productions? Here are just a few ways we are bridging that gap: 

  • Pre-audition workshops that identify audition expectations and explore audition material in a tangible way 

  • Seminars that solely investigate a specific aspect of performance-based skills 

  • Masterclasses by theatre professionals in the Greater Houston area as well as Broadway professionals involved in touring productions 

  • Opportunities to see and discuss live theatre in a group setting  

  • Promotion of individual acting coaching and participation in summer camps like Camp on the CoastUH CAT, and Tal’s Camp

Combined with individual enrichment, our differing and varied learning environments can offer the opportunity for a student to fully take advantage of what our program has to offer. 

Inside the Classroom 

Our Theatre I-IV classes are completely performance-based. Theatre I provides an introduction to theatre that includes theatre history, script structure, theatre terminology, stage movement, and character development. Performance work consists of exploring acting methods, audition techniques, and memorized scene work. As students advance in the curriculum, they explore advanced stage movement, voice and diction development, audition techniques, and character analysis. They study, prepare, and perform monologues while learning various acting methods to help them access emotion, character, and authenticity on stage. 

Our Theatre Tech I-IV classes are ideal for the student with an interest in the technical trade (or, “backstage”) jobs of the theatre. Theatre Tech I is an introductory class that provides students a survey of the technical and design areas of theatre, focusing mainly on skills in safety, construction basics, lighting, and sound. A survey of costumes, props, makeup are also explored. As students advance in the curriculum, the tech classes become more design-based, and students are encouraged to participate in the UIL Theatrical Design contest. The students we train in Theatrical Design first develop the knowledge, comprehension, and application of trade skills before learning how to analyze, synthesize, and create a purposeful design for the stage. 

Theatre Production gives students the day-to-day challenge of running a professional theatre. Our Theatre Production class is held during 1st period, and students help prepare the theatre space for the day. Sometimes, this means creating props or set pieces used in rehearsal later in the week. Sometimes, it means preparing the auditorium for school assemblies or hanging lights for a band concert. Students who participate in Theatre Production get hands-on application of stage management skills while developing proper building, design, and production techniques. 

Our curricular goals attempt to identify the skills that we would like to see onstage and backstage. Our mission is to prepare students to successfully pursue higher learning in an ever-changing world. We will help students discover and develop their unique skills and talents through an intense, integrated arts and academic program that combines critical thinking and a whole-person developmental approach to learning. We aim to develop students academically, artistically, and socially so that they leave the school as independent, cooperative, responsible, and creative young adults with a lifelong interest in learning and the arts. We believe that these skills and qualities will prepare our students to pursue further educational goals and allow them to contribute to the life and well-being of society as a whole. 

Outside The Classroom 

When developing a season, we may determine the following structure based on the needs of our students: 

  • Fall Production 

  • New Works Festival 

  • Cabaret (with Encore Choir) 

  • Winter Musical 

  • UIL One Act Play 

  • Pop Show (with Encore Choir) 

Our fall production is a smaller-scale musical or a play. We determine some of the skills we’d like to develop in our current students to address in the first production, and let that lead what our programming discussions. Pedagogically, we try to challenge our students at the onset of the school year by setting high expectations so that we can continually try to exceed our own standard in subsequent productions. 

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We believe creating new work is vital to life of the American theatre. In 2017, we created our Play-in-a-Day Festival, which is open to all students (no audition required) who would like to write, direct, and produce their own ten-minute play within the course of twenty-four hours. The students operate under a few guidelines, and, from that, they create interesting work. We hope to build upon the festival format in the coming years. 

Collaboration with Encore Choir is vital to our success. Every year, Encore produces a Cabaret, which focuses on solo and ensemble musical theatre performance from a variety of Broadway musicals. We coach individual students in their performance pieces as well as stage large ensemble numbers. We believe that if students can effectively tell a story in two to three minutes by themselves onstage, they can effectively tell a story as an ensemble. 

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Our winter musical is a big production, complete with a large cast, live orchestra, big sets, vibrant costumes – essentially, the “whole nine yards.” Typically, between 100-150 students participate in this production, onstage and backstage. We attempt to replicate an environment as close to commercial Broadway theatre with this production as possible. The most amazing part of winter musical is that, for many students, this is the first time they’ve ever been onstage and part of the magic. 

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UIL One Act Play is a well-known theatrical competition held throughout the State of Texas. Our goal is to produce substantial, challenging, and inspired literature both for our students and our audience. Truthfully, the UIL One Act Play serves as an exercise in clarity: clarity in storytelling, clarity in emotional communication and physicalization, and clarity in character work. Because our students have performed several full-length productions at this point in the year, putting together a forty-minute show is (usually) not difficult. The changes that the show undersees from the first rehearsal to the final performance is indicative of the real educational process taking place. 

Pop Show is our final performance of the year, and it’s more than just “sheer fun.” Entertainment, for example, is a concept we do not explore enough in our day-to-day rehearsal process. Brecht says that entertainment is a byproduct of artistic thought, intentional and capable of instructing an audience to change. Most of our students who have attended a Beyoncé concert feel such a change afterward, and that’s the type of experience we are looking to discover and develop. It is different, dimensionally, from everything else we offer throughout the school year, and that is why we think it adds value to our students. 

Holistically, our theatre-making environment addresses the following learning concepts: (1) smaller-scale ensemble skills and growth, and techniques for individual growth, (2) creation of new work, (3) individual storytelling technique through musical performance, (4) large-scale ensemble performance, (5) individual and ensemble emphasis on clarity, and (6) broader aspects of entertainment. We believe these higher-level skills develop our students into well-rounded performers and technicians that will serve them in higher education and professional settings beyond the doors of Dawson High School. 

Creating a Culture of Excellence 

The students define the culture of our program. We have always guided students under three basic rules: 

  • Be on time. 

  • Work hard (make meaningful work). 

  • Love each other. 

Our student leaders exemplify passion, work ethic, and commitment to one another. The byproduct is love. That is what they share in every audition, rehearsal, and performance, and that is what we offer to the audience when the curtain comes up. This is extremely important to us, above all else. 

We stress involving our community in what we do. Every year, we adopt a family around the holidays to donate toys for Christmas. In the past, we’ve raised money for teachers at our school affected by Hurricane Harvey, and we’ve taken care of our families who have been affected by sickness and hardship. We’ve held events that promote learning beyond our shows, providing books for elementary school children and inviting our junior high students to our performances and inviting them on stage afterward. 

I remind my students of the challenge that Tony Kushner gives us at the end of Angels in America: “More life: the Great Work begins.”  Every day, I am reminded that the world is small, and it means nothing if we don’t make something for each other. That’s why we are committed to the rules above: they don’t have anything to do with the theatre. And that’s why they are important. We may not always be successful in following them, but half the battle is showing up every day, ready to try again, ready to begin the Great Work. And as long as we keep showing up, the show will go on, and we can continue the Great Work together. 

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