Monday, April 25, 2011

How a Teacher's Brain is Wired

We Interrupt Theater Production to Talk About English: 

Someone asked me recently: Just how is a teacher's brain wired?

Scary even to contemplate.

When I, former teacher Miss O', moved to New York nearly 8 years ago, I had to let my brain unfreeze. I bummed around for a while, did some assistant directing, costume running-crew stuff, experimental theater, acting classes, and a lot of walking, when I finally landed a job as an editor of text books. (Thanks, Hugh!)

The first year I worked there the scene you are about to read unfolded, and I have dramatized it in the epic style I believe it deserves. THIS, my readers, is how a teacher's brain is wired. It's the wiring of an artist, a scientist, a craftsman. (And a drunkard's, you know the way it's so hard to get an idea you can't let go of it for fear of falling off the earth? Only positive.) Much of the dialogue is verbatim, at least in my head.

I hope it brings you...if not joy, then a little smile, either of relating or of relief that you could never relate.
(It's one scene of several in a cycle called Extinctions.)

On the Hunt: A Myth
for Morris, Allison, Ira, Richard, Bobby, and all the other C.E.’s I’ve known

[Sounds of quills dipped in ink, scratching parchment, becoming a clatter of typewriter keys. Many typewriters, manual to electric, transition to keyboards, and then printers printing pages, pages, pages. Projection of a book, bound and ready for cracking open and consumption. It looks delicious.]

NARRATOR: The scene is an Ekta Table in a Publishing house at the very beginning of the 21st Century. Note: “Ekta” refers to the once-miraculous process of printing proof pages, involving the now extinct Ektachrome film, but the area for proofing such pages retains the name, much as we still call all small grocery stores in New York “Delis” when in fact many are no longer delicatessens that sell pastrami or knishes, and almost none are owned by German-speaking people. So we are at the Ekta table, where such rudimentary tools as “a table,” “paper,” and “pens” still exist, as well as “institutional knowledge” not accessible via Internet. Two “copy editors” are sitting at the table, faced with stacks of 11” x 17” documents, which contain “printed” copy that must be “proofread” and “corrected” for “errors.” It’s worth noting here that late in the 21st century’s first decade, humans learned that the very act of stating something in language , via any medium, made the statement “factual,” whereas in the centuries prior to this, in fact--there, I said it--all the way back through recorded time, to use language in a “factual” way meant demonstrating that a description, proposition, theory, or action was a “fact” and “true” using scientific method, or at least having a couple of guys with lab coats and college degrees to say, “That’s right.”

 [Such is the setting and time of the now extinct Morty and Stella, the Copyeditors, above mentioned. As the scene opens, they are lost in reading. They make marks with green pens, blue pencil is also fine, as long as the colors are consistent and are not red, because red is used by the Content Editorial team--the people who wrote the page content. Nor is black acceptable, for as we all know black blends too easily with black type to be seen by the compositors who will reprint the corrected proofs. Is everybody following?]

[MORTY and STELLA are chained to the table with oversized paper clip chains, linked around their necks from the starting point of, say, a stack of pages or a table leg. The pages shimmer. The pens are of impressive size and luminosity, like wands. Each scratch of their pens , each rattle of the paper clip chains, and each shuffle of any page, should be miked to booming. Projections of editorial marks, as found in The Chicago Manual of Style, might be projected behind them, presented as hieroglyphics. The lights should indicate epic struggle such as cavemen encountered when facing mastadons. Query: Did Neanderthal or homoerectus live at the time of the mastadons?]

MORTY: Listen to this. [Stella stops her own editing and listens, for an error of fascinating dimensions must have been discovered for one editor to interrupt a fellow editor’s train of corrective mark-making. Reading:] “The native people of these regions lived on such vegetables as beans, corn, and squash.” [STELLA gasps, a little.] OH my GOD! I don’t even know where to begin!

STELLA: “Native people”? With no “s”? What regions are we talking about? Were there a variety of tribes or groups? Might there be a need for an “s”?

MORTY: Well, earlier the text mentions the Iroquois, which as we know was comprised of a confederacy of the Five Nations of the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca peoples, and the Powhatan people of Eastern Virginia, so I will allow for the “s” on “people.” [Places an “s”.] At least [smirks] they didn’t say, “Indians,” as if all the Native Americans were one group.

STELLA [nods; thinking]: Read the sentence again.

MORTY [with relish; he is Sherlock Holmes, he is Fate]: “The native peoples of these regions lived on such vegetables as beans, corn, and squash.”

STELLA [sees, as Cassandra might; accusatorily]: Beans aren’t vegetables...

MORTY: They are legumes! LEGUMES!

STELLA: Do people today consider beans to be vegetables? Did something change when we weren’t looking?

MORTY: Even if someone changed it, it’s wrong! A legume is not a vegetable. It will never be a vegetable. Beans are, and will ever be, legumes!

STELLA: To what grade level is this information being presented?

MORTY: Grade 3.

STELLA: Have the children studied the classifications of food groups and items contained in those groups?

MORTY: If not now, then when?

STELLA: You’re right. You, Morty, Senior Copy Editor, are absolutely right.

MORTY [writing, as in blood]: “Query: Beans s-slash-b legumes question mark.” [Projected behind, is “s/b= should be”. If the whole line can be written, delightful.]

STELLA: Morty! With all due respect, there is no “should be” about it, and yet I admire your deference to the Social Studies Content Editorial team. Please God they follow up on the query.

MORTY: Stella, if you would, listen again: “...such vegetables as beans, corn, and squash.” [Both  MORTY and STELLA stare out, music intones, questions are raised.] I’m not happy with corn and squash, either. I have to think!

[A silence. They resume editing. NORMAN enters, an outsized paper clip chain around his neck.  He searches the table looking for his stack. A couple of beats.]

NORMAN: Has anyone seen Grade 2?

[MORTY and STELLA automatically look around to help search.]

STELLA: I think...oh, sorry, I’m editing right on top of it. [Lifts her pages.] I should have been paying more attention.

NORMAN [taking his stack, looking about; conspiratorially] Let’s see how the Social Studies group has chosen to further destroy the literacy of midwestern youth this morning! [An EDITORIAL ASSISTANT stealthily emerges, lifts NORMAN’s paper clip chain, still around his neck, and attaches the free end to a stack of pages, or to the table leg. The ASSISTANT, accompanied by a droning sound, disappears. NORMAN arranges his space, lifts his pen, and begins reading. Sighs. Marks. Reads. Scratches scrape. Queries boom.]

NARRATOR: ALL are Reading, as only Copy Editors can read: by page area, by margin, by line, by word and phrase, through punctuation and into content, around the page! There is something wrong on each page. There must be. [Several beats. MORTY is still on the same sentence. He looks up.]

MORTY: And isn’t squash a gourd?

NORMAN:  Sorry?

MORTY: Squash isn’t a vegetable. It’s a gourd.

NORMAN: I believe that’s correct.

[STELLA is interested but has no response. Thinks. Resumes her own task. Sighs. Edits. Her own pen blasts as...]

MORTY: Well, this is ridiculous. I don’t see how we can allow these untruths into an elementary social studies textbook. You might as well say tomatoes are vegetables.

[All three editors sigh and shake their heads, hands flying to the heavens.]

NORMAN: Is there room on the page to explain the distinction?

MORTY: Of course not! When is there ever room for distinctions like this? Look how big the illustration is! [All peer over. The illustration is huge. They react accordingly.] And it’s wrong! This is a pumpkin, and where in the copy is the word pumpkin? I’ll tell you where it is: Nowhere! That’s where!!

[Morty  is on the verge of a stroke. All three resume editing. MORTY is stuck on the same sentence. Several moments, a minute. At least two EDITORIAL ASSISTANTS, wearing red-tape shackles and giant scotch-tape rolls for handcuffs (with a long enough chain to reach with) enter and pick up completed stacks, which they sling onto their backs like bales, and add pages to the existing stacks, carefully checking.]

ASSISTANTS [with bales, looking at editors, muttering a reminder in a drone]: Deadlines.

MORTY [flashes]: No, it’s got to be gourd. I cannot in good conscience call squash a vegetable.

STELLA: Is a pumpkin a gourd?

NORMAN: Certainly. Morty, read me the whole passage.

MORTY:  “The native peoples of these regions. . .”

NORMAN: “People.”

MORTY: The Five Nations of the Iroquois, and the Powahatan.

NORMAN: Retract.

MORTY: “. . .lived on such vegetables as beans, corn, and squash.” Now, beans are legumes! Squash is a gourd!

NORMAN: Corn is a grain.

MORTY: [exploding, or collapsing, whichever] I don’t know where to start [. or !] Not one of these items is a vegetable! I don’t know how to begin to solve this!

[All three consider. Gradually, STELLA returns to her stack. NORMAN resumes marking on his stack. MORTY is in agony. STELLA looks up.]

STELLA: Morty, forgive me, but can you change “vegetables” to “foods”?

MORTY: “. . . such foods as. . .” Yes! NoOOO! “Vegetables” is highlighted in yellow. It is a content vocabulary word!! [Hair-tearing ensues. Sighs crescendo. Beats. Morty looks beaten.]

NORMAN and STELLA [who have been thinking, look up, in a shared eureka moment]: Morty!

STELLA: “. . .ate vegetables...

STELLA and NORMAN: ...and..

NORMAN: ...such foods as. . .” [MORTY looks at the copy.]

STELLA [heavenward]: Can there be copy fit?

MORTY [counting spaces, making bold edits] If I eliminate this article in line two [scratch!], I can pull up the word peoples, [does this, scratch!] which would pull up the next line [pulls up!]; and I transpose the “such” and add the “and” and “foods”...[scratch, scratch, scratch; counts characters] yes...yes. WE HAVE COPY FIT.  [Thunder in the form of a rolling cart, a flash of fluorescent bulb.]

NARRATOR: The universe is altered. A future book’s content has just been corrected, and thus made right! What greater power exists? I ask you.

[The EDITORS sigh. Satisfied, as if fed. Sure. Their heads in unison dip back to their respective pages, their pens in unison poised for the next attack.]

MORTY [Significantly turning a page, reading, going in for the kill. Beat. Looks up, wild.]: Now listen to this: “They ate fruits such as. . . .”

STELLA: Oh my God.

MORTY: "...apples, berries, and..."

STELLA: Don’t say “pumpkins.”

NORMAN: Please God tell me it doesn’t say “pumpkins”!

MORTY [smiling a demented smile]: “...PUMPKINS.”

[Scene . Say, Editorial Assistants as Greek Chorus, or a musical number in which the Copyeditors Unclip.]

Copyright 2009 by Lisa O'Hara


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Two Questions: Miss O' Responds



So let's start with the first of only two questions, this one from Miss O's cousin in Cali:

Dear Ms. O,
In your professional opinion do children really need an education, I mean, come on, they spend their lives studying and end up working as a receptionist at a winery. Schooling, schmooling...
Haggard Homeschooler

Dear HagHooler:

Miss O' feels your existential pain. Yes, she does. How often has she asked herself this very question? Really, when you get down to it, why do anything? We're all just going to die.

Actually, I think our Aunt Mary said it best. In fact, she said it so well, I turned it into a haibun, a Japanese poetic form involving a title, a prose paragraph, and a closing haiku, to wit:


The morning after the big family reunion, Aunt Mary stares at me
across the kitchen table as Uncle Terry cooks breakfast.
“What’s the point?” she asks. “I mean, you get up in the morning,
have some coffee, go to work, come home, nothin’ on TV that night
so you make a kid. I looked around at all those people and I realized, half of this is my fault.” She pauses as if to puff on the cigaretteshe no longer smokes. “Let’s have some bacon.”

                                                         philosophy with toast
                                                         you answer your own question
                                                         laughter sizzling in the pan

And Aunt Mary, your question is well-taken: What's the point? 

Bacon. Crisp, delicious, "that pig didn't die in vain" bacon for breakfast, that is the goddamned point. And Aunt Mary's laughter. Oh, the laughter.

        What is the point of schooling?  1) The more you know, the funnier everything is, especially The Simpson's. 2) Man is planet Earth's only way of knowing about planet Earth; art, science, and proof of knowing: these are our major, possibly only, contributions to life on Earth. (I think the capacity to love is a universal among the creatures. But the other critters can't do physics, at least on paper. Or paint like Rossetti.) That, to me, is pretty much it, but let me give some examples.  

        I was forever telling my high school kids that the more educated your are, the funnier everything is: TV, movies, books, everything they encounter, to say nothing of "more beautiful." I'd explain how to watch a typical episode of The Simpson's,and for me "A Streetcar Named Marge" is perfection: If you know about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism (mentioned in an earlier blog post), and you see the throwaway gag of the daycare sign, "Ayn Rand School for Tots," you will fall of the sofa. If you know Tennessee William's gorgeous American tragedy, A Streetcar Named Desire, and see the closing dance number of Springfield's musical version Streetcar!: "I Have Always Depended on the Kindness of Strangers," you'll wet yourself.

        Why invite all this soiling and bruising? Because it stems from laughter. You could not, would not laugh without knowing the allusions.

       But don't believe me. Let's ask a girl I'll call Ashley. 

SCENE: Miss O's classroom ca. 1998. We'd just finished the unit on Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

ASHLEY: Um, Miss O', you know how you are always telling us how stuff is funnier if you, you know, read stuff? Okay. I get it now. I totally get it.

MISS O': Talk to me.

ASHLEY: Okay, so last night I was watching a rerun of Friends--you know that show? Okay, well this was the one about how Joey and Chandler get the baby duck and the baby chick to celebrate Easter--they buy them at the pet store, you know, because they are so cute. And Phoebe tells them, "You know, they aren't going to stay little and cute forever. What are you going to do when they get bigger?" And they are like, we hadn't thought about that. And Joey asks, "what can we do," and Phoebe is like, "you have to give them lots of love." So Joey holds the baby duck close and says, "I'll love you, I'll love you," and Chandler goes, "Okay, Lennie." 

MISS O': [laughs]

ASHLEY: See? I laughed, too, you know? And my mom and dad and sister just look at me and go, "Why are you laughing?" And I couldn't explain it. But it was so funny!

MISS O': Ashley, won't you please tell that story for the class? Oh, thank you.

BRIAN: Miss O'?

MISS O": Yes, Brian?

BRIAN: Um, is that Looney 'Toons cartoon, you know the one with the giant dog, who grabs Bugs Bunny and says, "I'll hug him and squeeze that Lennie?"

MISS O': [nods, grins] Yep. It's so mean.

CLASS: Oh! Dag! I didn't know what that was, oh, dag, I seen that...


Miss O', This is All Very Well, but I Still Work in a Winery, Even with All My Education

          My dad, Bernie, is a high school drop out and retired meat cutter. My mom, Lynne, is a cum laude graduate with a major in English and a minor in Spanish, who was in the Navy and later managed a book store.  My mom's love of books has given my dad a joy in reading he never thought possible; my dad's pool-sharking days and natural way with a story have given my mom not only laughs but an experience of a life different from her own, and I think greater empathy. My dad's instinct for emotional reaction has been tempered with more rational approaches because of the reading.

      They had four kids, and my dad has two more, and here we all are and I am editing text books and writing this blog and acting in comedy clubs and I used to teach school and direct plays. LIVING is education, but your question is about formal education. After all, my parents had very similar adult lives when one was far more formally educated than the other, so what's the point? The point is that learning keeps going, keeps getting reimagined, reused, reinvented, deepened, broadened, with every encounter. Mom and Dad fed each other--life experience, book experience, it all counts.

       That said, you don't need formal schooling to know that every job can be fun if you make it that way. You find the humor, the way to make it work. And after a grueling day of working all those different kinds of jobs to keep the big damn world going, isn't it lovely to read a book, watch a show, look at a well-planted garden, a beautiful sky, each experience deepened with some understanding of how it all came about? It's about living a complete life, I think. The more you know, the richer it is. 

        Anyway, that's what I think. And I didn't once mention politics. How about that?

Next Question!

Dedicated blog reader and former student and writer Vanessa asks:

Dear Miss O',

As a parent of a first grader, what are a few of the most important things that PARENTS can do to help teachers? After all, we're the ones who have the kids that you teach, so what can we do to make your lives easier?

Dear Vanessa, as I assume you don't mind me publishing:

           How very thoughtful of you to ask. The very idea that you ask tells me you really don't need the answer I'm giving. Good job! Still, I'm going to do a list. It's incomplete. And I have never had a baby nor have I wanted one, though I love people like crazy. So parents are my personal heroes, and I don't know shit about how to parent, in the "I love them" sense, but I do know how to parent in the "this is something you need to think about, kid" sense. (There is an important place in the world for childless adults, in that objective role.) That said, I know what I want in a classroom, so here's what I'd say.

1) Love your children. And be glad of their gender, body type, hair texture, eye color, all of it, and grateful for all the health they have. 

2) Don't assume you can know everything your kids will need to know. Listen.

3) Don't feel you have to control and filter and explain everything your children encounter. If they don't ask, honor the silence. It is called "processing." Listen.

4) When your kids do ask to know something, it means they want to know it. Tell them. Whether it's Santa Claus or what death is or where babies come from. You don't have to go all clinical and deep. Just please say something that is at least not an all-out denial. That's all a teacher asks. Listen.

5) Remind yourself that you got where you are by learning stuff, ready or not. Kids are resilient. 

6) Listen. Listen. Listen. 

7) LAUGH. A lot. Laugh at yourself. Teach your kids to laugh at themselves. 

8) Remember that your child is a precious, creative, joyful, energetic, curious being.

9) Remember that your child is a manipulative, sneaky, lying, bratty, whiny, pain in the ass.

10) EXPECT any kind of behavior. REWARD the good stuff and mean it. PUNISH the bad stuff and mean it. LISTEN to figure out the sources of all of the behavior as best you can. 

10a) I am serious about the goddamned punishing and meaning it. Your kids will always love you. Always. They will HATE you sometimes. That is FINE. Follow-through of a promised punishment (no TV, no allowance, what have you) is the SINGLE most important help you can give to a teacher, after the loving and listening and laughing stuff. Follow-through creates SECURITY. Limits are safety.

11) Please know this: Your kids' teachers DO NOT have it in for your kid. We are too goddamned tired. How much more narcissistic could you be? Jesus.

12) It's okay for your kids to have teachers they don't like much, as long as there's no abuse. We have to learn to get along with everyone. And in spite of. (I wrote about my own experiences earlier.)

13) Introduce your kids to as many grown-ups, kids, places, nature, foods, books, languages, and situations as you possibly can before they head to first grade. Just let it BE. You don't have to explain everything, or use every encounter as one of those obnoxious "teaching moments." Being is nice sometimes. After first grade, keep doing that. Listen to what they are learning in school, and then relate it to your life at home and in the world as soon as it makes sense. With humor.

14) Is this helpful?

That's all the time we have. Miss O' has a reading of her friend's play and a performance (she plays herself, sort of) of "Alky" tonight at the Broadway Comedy Club. That should inspire confidence in what I'm writing, huh?

Until next time!
P.S. Since yesterday's publishing, I've edited a bit. I also want to talk about "being": New York has become a hub of "helicopter parents," parents who spend all their time with their kids pointing things out, in constant narrative, explaining every encounter, asking quiz questions, trying to tell their kids about every little thing. I've watched some beautiful subway reveries interrupted by a well-meaning dad or mom who feels they aren't "engaging" enough or something, who shake their child out of the concentrated stare at the gorgeous bag and the woman attached to it by trying to "engage" them, and it makes me sad. Not only for the kid, but for the loss of my own reverie in watching the child watch the other woman. You know? What's wrong with quiet? stillness? thought? Lost art, daydreaming, now that we have these little devices to numb us. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Miss O' Asks for Your Questions

Dear O'Bloggers:
You are so sweet to read all these things. I hope I've said things that are useful.
I am taking questions, because I'd like to know what you'd like to know about whatever it is you think I might be able to tell you about.
I want to finish the thing on teaching a Production Concept, but I realize I need to rein it in, so in the meantime, message me some questions and I'll amass 'em and build a post around it.
I'll do my best to keep it entertaining.
Also, sign the question with the name you'd like me to use when I post them.
Kisses to all,
Miss O'

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

More Theater Production Prep!

And continuing from the last post...

BASICS OF THEATER PRODUCTION: Figuring Out If the Kids Who’ve Signed Up Should Really Be There

            So you’ve thought about your expectations. Now you need to find out, as quickly as possible, who is prepared to meet them and who isn’t. You need a baseline.

            I like to give kids a crash course in TP with the following Play Project. I have them go through a script box on the second day of class (after they have signed my forms and introduced themselves) and select a play fairly at random. These plays have been vetted by me, so they are not “objectionable” in any rational sense; but to irrational parents who get upset about Sexual Perversity in Chicago because of the sex part, unfortunately paired with The Duck Variations, which was the Mamet play I wanted them to use, I say, “Remember that the choice is ultimately the responsibility of the student--see the form.” (Aside: My favorite story about that is the girl whose deeply religious parents objected to Macbeth and went on and on to the principal about how the “satanic” angle would harm their daughter, who, by the way, was 7 months pregnant. As her teacher told me, “Somehow I don’t think a few imaginary witches from 1600 are really her biggest problem right now.”) You are about to show kids a new way of seeing.

[begin project handout] 
(WORTH THREE GRADES!) DUE DATE:  _____________

OBJECTIVE: To think about a play not so much as a work of literature, as you would for an English class, but as a living creative experience.  (It’s okay to be confused  by this.)
DIRECTIONS:  Read a full-length play (2-5 acts) of your choosing.  After you read it, please complete the following ten activities as directed ON YOUR OWN PAPER.  
Write in ink or type on one side of each pageNumber each question clearly.

In the heading under your name, date, and class period, include the following:
PLAY TITLE: _________________________________________________
AUTHOR:  ___________________________________PUB. YEAR: ______

1.  Record the time period in which the play is set, the location(s) of the action, and characters, by act and scene.

2.  Summarize the basic plot of each act (or scene, as needed).  What is the essential conflict or problem of the play?  What is the outcome or solution?

3.  Describe the specific setting of each act or scene (time of day, rooms, etc.). Next to or below one (1) of your set descriptions, sketch or make a collage of the setting and list the set and furniture requirements mentioned in the stage directions.

4.  Who is the protagonist or central character of the play? Draw or make a collage picture of this character in one moment of the play. Find a line of dialogue that helps define this character and write it as a caption for the picture.

5.  Select three (3) characters from the play and complete the chart below to the best of your understanding. (Invent costumes in a general sense if nothing is specified.)
[eg.] Connie, 19, maid       bathrobe, slippers                                  maid’s uniform

6.  In order to light the set, you need to consider the following questions: Does the play take place inside or outside?  Are there windows?  Does the time of day change?  What would be the real life light sources if this were a real place? Now write a description of the lighting needs for this play.

7.  Choose two (2) particular colors and one (1) “neutral” color (black, grey, white, cream, tan, or brown) that you think should be in the sets and costumes of this play, and tell why. Call it the way you “see” it. Provide a sample of the two colors.

8.  List five (5) props, or small items, that actors must handle, carry, or use during the play, and tell where they are needed.

9.  Consider the sets, costumes, and lights you have discussed above. How difficult is it to put on this play from a technical standpoint?  Explain.

10.  What did you think of the play?  Discuss your experience with the words, the characters, the plot, and any other aspect of the reading.  Would you like to be involved in designing this production? Use specific examples to explain.

[end project handout]

       To prepare students for the Play Project, have them open their scripts of choice and review with them how a play script is set up. The list of characters, the stage directions, etc., might not be as obvious as they would seem. So review this. Ask students to skim the script so they can ask you questions before taking it home.

            Point out that reading a play should take about as much time as it would to perform it. (In reality, you need to add about an hour for reading the stage directions, or about three hours total, maybe four for slower readers. If they ask, tell them two. Don’t scare them.) Encourage them to read the whole play in a sitting or two, so as not to lose the story.

           Teaching really takes a lot of goddamned time, doesn't it?


            ORGANIZATION ALERT, and I’m doing all this tedious shit because it’s the tedious but ultimately sanity-saving shit you SHOULD have learned back there in your education classes!! Dammit ANYWAY! Now then: I always passed around a sign-up form—make photocopies of your rosters for this purpose and put the blanks in the front of your curriculum notebook—and have kids sign out a play. This way you get the scripts back, and you note anyone who was absent and did not select one.

            I’d make them turn in the project at the beginning of the second week of classes. This is how you find out who is serious. I usually had about three kids transfer out by the middle of the first quarter, and maybe one to come in. I’ve had kids leave after the first day—too much work. Mostly it’s that they really aren’t interested, and this project allows them to find out right away. If you don’t like reading plays and figuring out how to produce them, well, Theater Production is not for you. No shame in that. I’d suck at German.

            Here are five (5) things you are assessing in this project (there is an assessment check sheet following the assignment):

1.     Critical reading ability. Can they follow a story, understand the qualities of characters, understand the setting, and understand plot development?
2.     Ability to visualize. Theater is a visual medium. Can they “see” a show in in their minds as they read? Do they pick up on cues in the text that hint at costume styles for the characters? set decorations? prop needs?
3.     Ability to think outside the box-set. How far can their own imaginations leap when reading? Are they literal-minded or visionary?
4.     Sense of connection and involvement. Some might see this is a subjective response, but part of our work as teachers is to go to that deeper level. Does this kid “get it”? Do you sense that here is someone who can make a show happen? And what element is most interesting: sets? costumes? lights? props? management?
5.     Following directions. Two meanings here: a. Can they follow the stage directions in the scripts? b. Can they follow your directions for the project?

I hope it is occurring to you at this point that an arts elective, however much fun it looks, is not for sissies.
NOTE: You may notice style things in my assignments, such as the use of all caps, or underlines, or bold highlighting that may make no sense to you or seem like over-emphasis.

            Let me tell you a little story.

            When I first read Julia Child’s In Julia Child’s Kitchen, I noticed how she talks about how her recipes have been perfected over hours of trials and errors to achieve their chemical and gastronomical perfection. Even if a step seems sort of too much, like “blanche the bacon,” or “pat the beef cubes dry with paper towels,” I can attest that indeed if you don’t blanche the bacon before you fry it up, or pat dry the beef cubes before browning, your beef burgundy is just not as good as when you do. I had the food orgasm (when I blanched and patted) to prove it, and shared that with two gay men to create a moment of intimacy that sex can only HOPE to bring about.

            Now, I am no Julia Child, but I can tell you that the stuff that is called out, is called out for a reason. For example, I have had students actually turn in the play project on the handout. THEY CRAMMED IN ALL THEIR WRITING, AND IN PENCIL, mind you, onto the actual handout. Look at that handout. Look at it and remember this: Someone in your own class will also do this. You will marvel the first time it happens, and feel so weirded out that you offer to let them redo it. (There is no point to that offer, by the way, because they will only recopy the few phrases they did write onto other paper with ink. I’ve rarely seen a kid who made that level of mistake actually “redo” anything, but teaching is about trying over and over and over again, until you bleed.) The second time it happens, you can only shake your head. And give them the D- they deserve. And ask for a conference.

            I have also had kids smash all 10 activities into one sort of essay, which is a beast to try to grade. I would have to read it through a make slash marks and kind of number it myself, all the while realizing the kid has kind of answered the questions all over the place. You may be able to better visualize the dilemma if you can imagine a kid who has done all ten math problems all together, with answers all over the page. How can you check his work? So that is why the boldface, the all caps, the underlines in the directions--it’s pleading, using text features.

            Someone in your class will still . . . you see what I mean. Nope. Don’t bother. It won’t get any better, not today. Just take off the 10 points for not following directions and deduct any points for the stuff that you really cannot find. And don’t look too hard. They can learn by failure--remember that. And you must keep teaching for success.


Every teacher needs to complete anything she assigns. It’s basic. I used to write a draft of a test after one reading of a story or novel. I made a mock-version of every project. What can I do? What do I remember? That’s how you start figuring out how and what to teach.

Let the students grapple with this new way of reading a play. This model is a guideline for you the teacher for what I consider an A project.

NAME Karen Karenina   DATE September 20, 2010   THEATER PRODUCTION

Nebraska! by Candy Kane Stripes, published by Example Books, New York, 1934

1. Act I, Scene 1: Place: An inn near Lincoln, Nebraska
                              Time: A morning in June, 1905
            Characters:   Barbara Jean Hamper, 20, dreams of being a professional nurse
                                    Clyde Cohan, 25, a cowpoke with a past
                                    Dave, 70-ish, a wise old innkeeper
   Act I, Scene 2: The Hamper homestead, that afternoon
            Characters: Barbara Jean Hamper
                             Clyde Cohan
                             Ma and Pa Hamper, Barbara’s parents, about 45, farmers and       pioneers
   Act II: The Hamper homestead, that evening
            (characters same as Act I, scene 2, plus)
            Phil Philo, an FBI agent, 40s

2.  Act I, Scene 1: The action centers around the arrival of Clyde Cohan in an area outside Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1905. Barbara Jean Hamper, a would-be nurse tending to a sick resident at Dave’s Inn, sees Clyde arrive at the inn, in need of a job and medical care. They meet, talk, and Barbara Jean falls in love as she bandages his wound. Clyde, a stranger, says he wants to settle down. But will Barbara’s parents approve? And will Clyde understand her desire to be a nurse? Those are the conflicts of the play.

   Act I, Scene 2: Barbara Jean brings Clyde back to her Homestead for dinner and to ask her father to give Clyde some work on the farm. Clyde, under pressure, admits he is on the run.
   Act II: An FBI agent, Phil Philo, arrives to confront the fugitive Clyde about his former days as a con man. Convinced of his decision to be a good farmer, Philo looks the other way and Clyde and Barbara can marry. Clyde is proud of Barbara’s nursing ambitions, but she gives them up to help on the farm.

3. Sets:
    Act I, Scene 1: Dave’s Inn lobby: reservation desk, small table, chairs, a window looking out onto the street, doors to street and doors to kitchen; stairs suggested that lead to rooms in the inn.
    Act I, Scene 2: The living room of the Hamper Homestead, a rustic room with a small sofa, two chairs, two small tables, a lamp, a fireplace, and a dining table and four chairs. Windows look out to the farm; front door entrance; door to kitchen.

    Act II: Night, same at Act I, Scene 2         [include sketch or collage of one setting here]

4. The central character is Barbara Jean. At first, it seems to be about Clyde Cohan, but Barbara is the most changed by the events of the play. She begins as a woman dedicated to nursing and living alone, and ends by falling in love with Clyde and agreeing to take over farming her parents’ homestead.
[place collage or drawing here] “I want to heal the wounds of the world, but let’s start with you.”

     Barbara Jean Hamper     Plain black dress                   Bight blue dress
     Clyde Cohan                     Dirty cowboy outfit: shirt,       One of Pa Hamper’s old
                                                jeans, chaps, hat, holster                              suits, ca. 1870
      Ma Hamper                      Calico farm dress, apron          Same as entrance; no apron

6. During Act I, Scene 1, the light should be natural. It is morning, and light should be seen coming through the window. Maybe a lamp is on the registration desk, but not an electric light. Act I, Scene 2, the house should also be naturally lit for afternoon, with light from the windows. During the scene, lights need to be lit--no electricity, so maybe oil lamps.
   Act II would be evening, and only moonlight outside the windows, with light from the fireplace and oil lamps in the room.

7. Colors for the show would include the blue of Barbara’s dress and Clyde’s jeans. I would also choose red as a second color to show the patriotism of the characters. They all talk about how much they love America and the chance to get a better life. As for a neutral, I would choose white (to go with the blue and red), or black, because that is the color of Barbara’s dress. [include samples]

8.  Five props the actors use include
1. quill pen and ink (Inn desk)    2. bandages (for Clyde)   3. gun and holster  (needed by Clyde)   4. tea pot  (Hamper homestead, tea poured by Ma)   5. plates (set out by Barbara Jean at homestead)

9.  The play is quite easy to produce from a technical standpoint. There are very few characters, only a few costumes, and two main sets. The sets are specific, but don’t need to be elaborate. The stairs mentioned in the script could be short and go offstage. The Inn scene in Act I could even be in front of the traveler, and the main set of the Hamper homestead could be behind this. The lights would not be hard either, except for the oil lamps that need to look real in the second act.

10.  I have to say I did not really enjoy the play, Nebraska!. First of all, I didn’t understand how this play was just about Nebraska. The play is really about how a woman makes a choice to be different from others, and then decides to follow in her mother’s footsteps. It seems to me it could take place anywhere, except for some references to horses and farming.
            Also, I thought the plot was really simplistic and there were not enough conflicts to keep an audience’s interest. It was pretty obvious to me that Clyde would be forgiven for his old life and get to marry Barbara. The language of the play was easy to understand but not very interesting to read. Lines like, “But Clyde, you are my hero” sounded silly. On the other hand, the first scene of Act I, where Barbara and Clyde are trying to get to know each other, was realistic. They actually discussed their lives and the hardships of city and country life at this time. This was interesting because it made history from that time seem more real than it does just in a book. Barbara Jean says, “I don’t know why I’ve chosen to become a nurse. People think I’m crazy.” And Clyde says, “Most people don’t have any idea what they would do if they got sick, and then they look down on you for wanting to take care of them.” This showed that these characters were intelligent and thought of more than just themselves.

            I wouldn’t mind designing the production. I realize that the set would[1]4 have to look like 1905 in Nebraska, and I don’t know what that would look like. I would have to do research to learn what a homestead would look like. I would also have to research the clothes. The set and costumes don’t sound very pretty to look at, and so making the set and costumes interesting would be a challenge. I’m not sure where to find the dresses, so those might have to be made by someone. Overall, I think I would search for another script.
[end model of project]

Now it's time to grade the things.

Read this through, and then we’ll talk.

NAME: __________________________________ DATE: _________
PLAY TITLE: _______________________________

 Point Values
1. ____/10   Time period (2), characters (4), settings by act/scene (4)
2. ____/8     Summary of plot complete by act/scene
    ____/2     Essential problem and resolution
3. ____/2     Set description
    ____/6     Set drawing/collage
    ____/2     List of furniture/set needs
4. ____/8     Drawing/collage of protagonist
    ____/2     Caption for character
5. ____/4     Character/roles
    ____/3     Costume at entrance
    ____/3     Costume at exit
6.* ___/5      Lighting description/details (interior/exterior, sources)
7. ____/3     Color choices (2 colors + neutral)
    ____/4     Justification of colors
    ____/3     Color samples
8. ____/10   Props (2 points/prop and where used)
9.* ____/5    Critique of play production difficulty; details, accuracy of                                       observations
10. ____/10  Discussion of play-reading experience, design interest

TOTAL POINTS: _____ /90                COMMENTS:

GRADE COMPONENT 2: Following Directions (ink or typed; neatness; creativity of presentation; format and mechanics) 


TOTAL POINTS: _____/10         COMMENTS:

OVERALL PROJECT GRADE: _____/100 _____ [letter grade]

*Note that “Grade Component 2” points come from these questions to make a total of 100 points for the project. Record this three times in your gradebook.


            I believe in taking the guesswork out of grading. Everyone has a different system. Any good teacher can look at a project and say, “It’s a B+.” We teachers know this. However, some of us are unduly prejudiced by our own little bailiwicks and peeves: I’ve known teachers to fail a kid for a comma splice. This is insane. I’ve known teachers to have their heads so turned by a gorgeous cover that they fail to notice only half of the project was actually completed.

            We have to justify our grades. If you can break down your expectations into reasonable points, projects become a lot easier to assess. In the above example, you might see only the tedious point-breakdown and think, “This is too hard.” Look again. You can skim the project very quickly with a sheet like this: Are the parts there? (If you want to simplify each question as ____/10, fine--I sort of simplified number 1--but I think you will start getting confused as to whether Billy mentioned two characters or three, or missed the one entrance costume...and should it be 2 points off or 1? I’m just saying, blanche the bacon.) In Component 2 at the end, you can deduct a few points for poor presentation and weak mechanics without causing a kid to fail because you have a sentence fragment neurosis.

            Another note: I often put –2 /10 in a blank rather than _8_/10. Subtracting was easier for me because most kids lose relatively few points. If you prefer to add, do it. This is a step that is strictly personal preference.

            I counted this project three times to give it enough weight for kids to take it seriously. I’d also count it three times because it’s actually not hard to get a very good grade on it (see Model). Three of the questions, numbers 3, 4, and 7, ask for a “creative” interpretation alongside objective requests, and completion of them is usually enough for full credit. And only one of the questions, number 10, asks for a personal opinion. All the other questions leading up to it are fairly objective, so students have plenty of information to make a judgment.

            As you assign design and building tasks to your kids, you have to know that they will be completed in a timely way and with enthusiasm. Ergo, every assignment in the course is designed as a kind of practice run. TELL THEM THIS. All of the learning will be put to use in actual productions that the drama club will perform for paying audiences. Not only is the course hands-on, it is, as that American icon Stephen Colbert might say, balls-on. Though you needn’t say this to the children.

            Think about the standards and components of your course. No one is great at everything. In Theater Production, not all kids are great critical readers of plays. Some kids love sewing and clothes, some love mechanical stuff and electricals, some will feel at home using a paint brush. Some kids see things in a literal way, others make leaps of imagination. All of these brain types have important uses in designing and building a show. All the kids will try everything once. They cannot know what they will be good at or enjoy if they have never tried it.

            In my first Theater Production class in 1992, I had a wonderful student named Roberta. She was studious and pleasant and always followed through. She did not know at first that, as much as she liked the acting in theater, her gift would be in set work. The projects we did helped her find her niche. It was in planning the spring production of Auntie Mame that Roberta asked to be put in charge of props. And oh, what props that show needed! Three changes of apartment decor, mulitiple set locations, liquor set-ups, edible hors d’eourves (three times!), ringing telephones, suitcases, a dragon mobile...and bless her, Roberta was in her glory. One Saturday crew call she was uncharacteristically late, and when she arrived she was carrying a hubcap. “I saw it on the median, and I pulled over! It could be a prop!” (And indeed, it found its way into the design of the mobile, though eventually Roberta went with a less heavy plastic substitute.) Now, that is passion: Roberta had found her calling. (COOL FOLLOW-UP I KNOW ABOUT: After college, Roberta became head props mistress for a large regional opera company--go know!)

            Many students are originally drawn to theater by the desire to act. Some find that between trying to learn lines and develop a believable character, to say nothing of overcoming stage fright, acting just isn’t for them. Yet still they love theater. A class like Theater Production serves a great purpose: It can give kids the chance help design and build the sets and costumes, create the program, make the tickets, run a box office, and publicize the play for the drama club. This is a real boon to a drama club in general, because so often there are not enough faculty or parent volunteers to cover all those bases. The better-educated and more invested the helpers, the more elaborate and inventive your sets, costumes, and lights can be.

            A secondary benefit--and I say secondary not because it’s not valuable, but because it’s not a goal--is that some kids, like Roberta, actually find an idea for a college major and a career. That’s wonderful when it happens, but I never wanted any of my students to feel that they were less valued by me if they never do any theater again. They will become educated theater-goers, should they decide to see a show, and I believe better-rounded individuals.

            My best friend from college, Richard, is a Broadway stage manager. He’s done opera, plays, and musicals, the Tony’s, and even the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City. We had most of the same training, and found our strengths and joy in different areas. While he went into professional theater and I went into theater education in public schools, we both cherish our degree for similar reasons. One of the biggest benefits of being theater majors in a BA program was that we had to do shop hours in every aspect of theater production. We learned to sew, hem, make and cut patterns, buy fabric, and measure bodies; we had to learn the names of dozens of tools, use table saws, and build stud walls with 2” x 4”s (which are really 1 1/2” x 3 1/2” and this is important to know) and 16-penny nails and a hammer--can you do that? I can. I can also run a box office and hang lights and run a light board. I can call sound and light cues. I can learn lines and act on stage. I can apply makeup. And--and this is huge--I learned to clean up all my messes after working at the scene shop even if it’s 4:00 AM and I am starving, oh my god, so hungry. (Take a lesson, Washington. Obama understands.) It’s about discipline and passion and trust. And making art. And it is fun. 

            When I moved my furniture to New York several years ago, Richard drove the 16’ truck for me. We used to drive the Theatre Arts Truck in college and borrowed it to move our own stuff to various apartments, as well as for moving scenery. (Don’t tell Dave and Randy.) Anyhoo, when we arrived at my Queens co-op apartment on the hottest summer night all season, no one showed up to help me unload. I looked at Richard and wanted to cry. “Lisa, we are theater people,” he said. “We can go all night.” We two unloaded the entire truck in 2 hours, dropped off the truck and keys at the rental place, walked all the way back from the drop-off, and Richard took the subway home. THAT is what show business is all about, folks. On weekends I have helped Richard re-upholster furniture for his home, and he has come over to help me with things like installing under-cabinet lights. Now, Tony Kushner, tell me everyone should not be a theater major.*

            (*Tony Kushner delivered an essay at Bread Loaf, the English school and writer’s colony in Vermont, in the summer of 1996, an essay which he later published, saying that he did not believe that universities should offer “Theater Arts” as a major. Now, I know that Tony Kushner is a genius, but even as he was graciously autographing my copies of Angels in America (and he is incredibly nice) I told him I thought he was dead wrong. I think what Mr. Kushner was talking about is the very limited BFA, or Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, which has students focus exclusively on one aspect of theater, such as acting or costume design. Personally, I think my BA experience was superb; because I went to a liberal arts-based university where every single engineering major, agriculture major, what ha?ve you, had to take Theater Appreciation, Art Appreciation, AND Music Appreciation; and I had to take a lab science, we were a really close group for 40,000. But here’s the thing that really ticked me off about Tony’s essay: So you want people to go out and live before they do art? I agree. But don’t shut down university theater departments just because America’s commercial producers no longer value the actors and writers from the streets, Mr. “I Went to Tisch School for the Arts and All I Got Was This Lousy Pulitzer Prize for Drama” Kushner. Thanks for listening.)


            As you need a yearly plan for any class, a Big Picture, so too does a theatrical production need an overall concept or plan. The Production Concept is the hardest thing to teach and you have to do it first because you will be holding auditions for the fall play in about two weeks. (Your first show goes up in October.)

            SO: Let’s get cracking!

            To paraphrase Moss Hart: You create a failure just the same way you create a smash. No one sets out to suck. One thing that helps whenever you do a show, whether for high school, college, or the Kennedy Center pre-Broadway tryout: ya gotta have a gimmick. Actually, you need a concept. “Concept” is both a scary word and a punch line of a bad intellectual joke. As a dear actor and dancer, the late Crawford MacFarland, once said, “An ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.”

            Let us avoid, by all means, any pretensions.

            So what is a Production Concept? The best way to explain this is to use a fall play that will be produced by Luxe High School and take you through the experience, just as I would my theater class. I will offer two examples, easy and hard. Here is the easy example.

FALL SHOW: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
QUESTION: What is this show supposed to look like?
ANSWER: Read what the Stage Manager says in the opening monologue. Do what he says. Watch the video of the Lincoln Center Theater production with Spalding Gray if you are still unclear. [Note: Since writing this, I saw David Cromer’s stunner of a production at Barrow Street Theater in New York. There IS another way to do Our Town, and it changed my life, but really, no need to for the high school director.]

Here is the hard example:

FALL SHOW: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
QUESTION: What is that show supposed to look like?
ANSWER: Whatever you think it looks like.

            Now that is hard. You sit down to direct this show and now what are you going to do? Shakespeare tells you they are in a forest.

            [cue crickets; a cough from the audience]

            In other words, Shakespeare’s contemporary theater people just put on their clothes and spoke the story. Maybe the fairies had wings, but I don’t imagine it was too much more than that. The language was the thing. But today’s audience expects to be pulled in visually, and you have to do this. No, you really do. Shakespeare is hard, and relying on high school actors to carry those words, unsupported, is cruel to both actors and audience.

            Granted, it’s really hard when you first start out being a drama director. At my first school, I had about four weeks to stage the play I’d chosen, Moliere’s The Doctor in Spite of Himself. Here I am, over 20 years ago: It’s a classical play, small cast, funny, one set to deal with, and I want it to be right. Let me set the scene: I arrive at my first school. I know NO ONE. I have just met the kids. I’m an outsider in a rural Virginia school system. I ask the secretary about funds. I look around the auditorium; I ask the kids what they knew. Here’s what I learned: We had no budget. I would have to use my own money (I had none) until tickets were sold, when I would get reimbursed. There was no one to help with costumes or to build sets. The drama club owned no tools, and there was nothing much in terms of set or costume pieces to choose from in the “storage” area under the stage: an end table, a military coat with epaulettes, a feather duster, assorted hats that women wore to church in 1965. The lighting system was archaic, with strip lights (generally meant for the floor to light a cyclorama, for example) that were hung above the stage in preset colors of red and blue. The catwalk boasted of about a half dozen fresnels, which if you know this, don’t have the power to reach long distances and so were just wasted up there. Imagine a little AA flashlight trying to illuminate your backdoor at night from 25 feet away. Exactly. I had to convince the school to let me buy some Lekos, and fortunately I had a couple of smart young students, brothers, in my drama class who could hang them. But there were no real dimmers per se, and the only control for the house lights was this emergency panel in the back of the house which using cost the school a fortune. Good times.

            Needless to say, this not being a Disney movie, no miracle occurred and my first show was a disaster for which I refused to apologize. The kids, bless ’em, were great about it and actually gave darling performances, while using a few pieces of furniture and some old coats or aprons as costumes.

            I learned that people wanted me to be fired. To add to this stress, I was a beginning teacher with three preps, trying to earn money enough to eat and pay off student loans, to say nothing of adjusting to a new culture and going home to a sort of seedy little apartment over Edna’s beauty shop downtown. I had to cut myself some slack, and I think the faculty tried to do that, too. The senior class musical catastrophe, Mixed Nuts, which we wrote ourselves the following spring, won me no friends (though the kids were so cute); the failure was made inevitable by the fact that the new choir director (also a first-year) could not play the piano. (She left at the end of the year to live with her boyfriend and manage a 7/11.) The band director was a doll but wouldn’t help me. No one in Tech Ed was interested in helping build sets. And this went on for two years of agony. A Guys and Dolls with no dancing in “Luck Be a Lady” because the choreographer’s son told her he didn’t want to dance. It was like that.

            The third year (yes, I stayed that long), the Latin teacher convinced his friend the local pastor, who also directed the community theater, to build my sets. (The pastor did this with an eye to taking my job, which he did when I left, but I didn’t care: A show I was directing had an actual set. It made me cry.) Parents chipped in and helped get their kids dressed in what looked like real costumes. By now we had enough lighting instruments to illuminate the stage...mostly. I ran the follow spot. That show, Sugar, was quite adorable. And I’d also taken a one-act play to the state festival (a first for that school) and another one to regionals, so at least I left that school system after three years with a little dignity if not an ovation, except from the custodial staff. We became devoted friends the day after my first play, when I saw them striking my set. “Why are you doing that?” I asked. Sam said, “Well, Ms. Jones always used to make us.” And I put a stop to it. “That’s not your job! My kids and I will do it.” After that, anything I wanted. Loved those guys. Seriously: On my last day, they walked me out to my packed truck and took off their hats. You can’t feel more valued than that.

NEXT UP: Who knows? I’m exhausted.