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On Building Ensembles: A Teaching Artist's Perspective

Posted by Stage Partners on

Stage Partners’ Education Director and playwright Maria McConville discusses the importance of building a strong ensemble and how her play #VIRAL can be used to discuss important, but thorny topics through group work.

As a teaching artist in NYC, I have the unique opportunity to step into a variety of school environments. There are the schools with the very active PTA, the schools where you wonder if the Principal ever actually comes out of their office, the school with student paintings everywhere, the school with metal detectors at the entrance…I can go on. But those of us career educators know that no one school environment is like another. Each school has a distinct spirit and vibe—as unique as each student!

That’s why no matter the residency I’m hired for—be it Playwriting, Shakespeare technique, or directing the after-school play, my goal is always to have the group develop into a strong ensemble. This is the element that transcends any scholastic environment. It helps me gage the strengths of each student actor, the closeness and trust within the group, and the skill level of the general population. And hey. It’s also really fun! And to this day, no matter what school environment I visit, the students prove they can work together in an ensemble when collaborating in theatre exercises.

This sense of ensemble is essential in the theater—teachers know this from our own backgrounds but also when we see the impact it has on individual students. In an ideal ensemble, members are only considered in relation the whole. How amazing is it to have students experience working with one another this way? I find it so powerful when a student realizes that they are an vital part of the project the class/ensemble is creating, when they discover that what they contribute is necessary for the piece to exist. When they realize they each much rely on their fellow ensemble members to execute, the work transcends theater and the students learn powerful life lessons. Teaching theatre in schools gives us the opportunity to impart empathy, strengthen students listening skills, and develop their ability to problem solve.

Some of my favorite moments are when the student who rarely showed up to class, shows up on theatre days so they can open and close the curtain on cue for their cast. Or when a mistake happens in performance and the actors work together to keep the play moving. How about when the student who rarely speaks helps the chatty cathy learn their lines? These moments happen time and time again, it’s a shame it’s not easier to quantify on paper for a school administration! I’m sure they’d increase the school’s theater budget…but that’s a whole other blog post!

When I was writing the play #VIRAL, I wanted to create a piece for students that would demand that they work together as an ensemble and I wanted them to tackle big, thorny topics—not just a play with a moral at the very end. The theme that seems to stand the test of time with young people (unfortunately) is bullying. With this play, though, I wanted to explore another angle—I wondered what it was like to BE the bully or, really, the more dangerous thing—uncovering the motives behind the people who just stand by while the bullying happens. We’ve probably all been guilty of that at some time in our lives, right? And which is worse? It’s a bit hard to say. I thought it would be interesting for students to ask this question and to ask themselves who they are; the bully, the bullied, the bystander. And can we train ourselves to have the courage to intervene? Can we hold ourselves to a higher standard of empathy when we SEE bullying?

To create #VIRAL, I worked with my students building ensembles before we even wrote a single word. Click HERE to see some of our exercises, which helped build trust and a rapport that enabled us to talk freely about these difficult questions. These are useful for any play, but have some specific pointers for working on #VIRAL as well.

Next week, I am starting two new in-school residencies with high school students. I am really looking forward to watching how practicing theatre shakes up these students. How will it bring out their strengths and how will it have them examine their weaknesses? And in what fabulous ways will it bring them together and give them a shared experience, never to be repeated?

This is why we do what we do, right? Play on!

-Maria

Check out our Free Resources page for Monologues, Scenes, Lesson Plans, and more! 

 

Maria McConville (Education Director) is a native New Yorker who has lived in every borough…yes, even Staten Island. She started out at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and received her BA in Performance from Fordham University at Lincoln Center.  Maria has performed all over New York City from Shakespeare in the Park-ing Lot to Theatre Row and across the country with Theatreworks USA. She is the playwright of Stage Partners’ play #VIRAL. She also a member of AEA, Army wife, proud mother, and an inspired teaching artist.


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