Playwright, Director, Teaching Artist and Stage Partners Founder Morgan Gould shares her tips on how to tackle serious or dark material with your students in rehearsal and beyond. Here are her 5 tips...
1. SOLUTION-BASED TRANSPARENCY.
When something comes up in a play that’s difficult, transparency and honesty is important. Students of all ages (especially drama students!) are very good at detecting when you’re protecting them from the truth. Be honest but age appropriate about the reality of the situation. In My First Lockdown, for example, the students are hiding from a potential intruder/shooter in their school. If a student asks, “could that happen here?” The answer is yes it could…BUT and then tell them the protections your school has. “Do you know how Mr. M sits at the security desk? He’s there to protect us.” Or “We have metal detectors.” Or “Those drills we do are to make sure we know what to do it that happens.” Transparency paired with clear solutions helps make sure honesty can bed every tough conversation, but security can follow.
2. APPRECIATE THEIR ABILITY TO GRASP/GRAPPLE WITH TOUGH REALITIES.
Remember when you were 12? Or 15? Or even just 9? You had a whole inner life your parents and teachers knew very little about. In A Wrinkle in Time, for example, Meg has to learn about the very nature of evil and hate—it’s a tough pill to swallow, but the adult characters in the story explain it to her and trust her enough to believe she can handle the truth. Your students and children in your life have seen A LOT you don’t know about—they can probably handle more than you think.
3. MAKE CONNECTIONS TO THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE.
As theater teachers and educators, we are all aware that one of the most important reasons for theater in school and beyond is building empathy. That often starts with tackling tough questions and themes in safe environments. Ask yourself what common ground you can find with your students. In #VIRAL, the six young women struggle with a violent bullying incident that spreads onto social media. Most of your students have likely experienced some level of online bullying. Ask them to relate their experiences as you work on the play. What did they do when it happened to them? What do they wish they had done differently?
4. LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN FOR QUESTIONS.
When you wrap up any tough conversation, make sure your students know they can come to you to talk about it later. Tell them you understand it’s a complicated subject, and they are free to tell you if they have questions or worries or want to talk about it further. They will not make you worried or angry, and they will not get in trouble. Assure them you understand that some of their questions might be tough to answer, or require they divulge information about their lives that they normally would not tell an adult or teacher.
5. LEAVE SPACE FOR QUESTIONS AND REVISIT THE SUBJECT.
When talking about challenging or dark issues with your student actors, be sure to leave space and time for questions, both in the moment AND later. Sometimes students might take some time to ask you the things that are most disturbing to them. Feel free to revisit it with them. “Remember that conversation we had the other day? Does anyone have any thoughts on that?” Understand it might take days or weeks or months for their concerns to consciously surface.
Morgan Gould is a New York City based playwright, director, producer and theater teacher specializing in the creation and representation of adaptations for the stage. She most recently adapted A Wrinkle in Time for Stage Partners. She’s done residencies and directed work at theaters including Ensemble Studio Theatre, New Georges, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Ars Nova, HERE Arts Center and Playwrights Horizons. She holds a B.A. in Directing from Fordham University and an M.F.A. in Playwriting from CUNY Brooklyn. Her plays for schools have been performed across the nation.