March 07, 2020

Why do we do drama at The McGillis School?

by Karen Nielson-Anson, Drama Teacher 

The reason I do drama is simple, but so intense for me, and that is: because I must.

From the time I was a girl, I have always been in the process of performing. As a seven-year-old, I used to stage scenes from Fiddler on the Roof at my cousin’s farm. I remember going to my babysitter’s high school production of South Pacific and having this experience with the show that I can only liken to falling in love. I remember sitting there watching my babysitter sing “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair” and wanting to leap out of my skin to be on the stage. I could have run on the stage and sang with them, right then and there, I was so enthralled.

So why do I do drama? Why do I breathe? It feels so innate, so central to my being, I cannot imagine a life without it.So, why do we do drama at McGillis? My simple response echoes my personal intuition: because we must.

Drama is an essential part of who we are. Each of us has a need to see drama (live or recorded), a need to express ourselves, a need to perform, a need to be a part of a group of people committed to working on a project together, and/or a need to feel needed. In The McGillis School’s drama program, we seek to create opportunities for students to find a way to express themselves and to shine. We create a supportive environment where their natural curiosity and creativity are able to emerge. While weaving in the use of our Toolbox tools and our Jewish values and holidays, we focus on the following areas in drama: 

  • the voice – training ourselves to speak loudly and slowly on stage and singing with proper breath support (breathing, using our words); 
  • the body – using our faces, hands and bodies to portray characters (personal space, time in/away); 
  • the imagination – relying on the innovation of students to create elements of a show (safe place); 
  • focus – enhancing the ability to listen to others and to calm ourselves, to acknowledge their strengths, and to respond to cues (breathing, quiet/safe place & listening tools); and, 
  • teamwork – approaching work with others with an open mind, learning to give and receive feedback (empathy, forgiveness/apology, patience, please & thank you, garbage can). 

We find that the work we do in drama provides an excellent opportunity to teach social-emotional learning and to refine and cultivate a sense of awe, in either another actor, in one’s own experience on stage (courage tool), in a performance or in the work of the technician.

To start the year off, our Kindergartners performed in The Gingerbread Man, Loose in the School to standing room only audiences. I try to suit the demands of a show to the developmental capabilities of the actor: so while all three classes recited or sang chorally and independently, a smaller group of actors pantomimed the action. Many of the same goals and results were highlighted in our 2nd-grade production of The Great Kapok Tree, our annual celebration of trees during the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat. In both productions, the students delighted, as did I, in the creation of their human, imaginary and animal characters and were able to embrace the notion of “full-body participation” in the task at hand. The students found themselves more confident on stage while gaining the skills of memorizing lines, facing the audience, and listening for their cue.  

In 4th grade, we celebrated a perennial favorite, Brighty: the Musical. I have the honor of collaborating with Jan Lundquist who has assisted in adding such elements as Jake Iron’s sidekick, Cowboy Drake, a pancake party, and editing wherever and whenever necessary. Students sang, danced and performed independently as they took on the tasks of character development, motivation and commitment. They began to explore the nuances of using facial expressions, playing subtext, using vocal intonations and working together as a team.

In Middle School, students have the opportunity to choose a more intense immersion into a subject they are passionate about during our 3-hour explorations block. Last fall, we brought Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors to the McGillis stage for the first time. And last week, our sixth-graders donned superhero caps and masks using their superpowers to stand up to bullies everywhere in their production of Superhero Purim Spiel! Having moved through the lower school drama program, many of these enthusiastic veterans to the stage have a chance to really spread their wings and take flight in more demanding roles. Students commit to some after school rehearsals and delight in the opportunity to learn more about comic timing, emotional intensity and stage combat.

The third-graders recently finished their productions of Winnie the Pooh: Sometimes It Takes Two, which I believe, at its core, is a production about preserving the joy of childhood and working on relationships. During the rehearsal process, I would encourage the actors to watch as another rehearsed their same scene with the task of “finding something wonderful” that their counterpart was doing differently than themselves. The students began to develop a sense of connection and empathy for other students who were playing the same part, and even a willingness to step in if an understudy was needed. I watched as the students became more supportive of one another, built their cohesiveness as a team, and became better actors in the process.  

Some researchers claim a high correlation between doing well in math, foreign languages, and music. We don’t know exactly why the correlation exists, but we know it’s there. Research in neuropsychology suggests that the same parts of the brain are activated when someone engages in visual and performing arts as are activated when a person engages in eating delicious food, working out and experiencing intense pleasure. I can only imagine that there exists in most students this same joy when engaging in the arts. It’s a lot of fun! We strive to offer opportunities to students to express themselves fully, to take full advantage of their own imaginations and to unleash their passions while portraying characters on the stage or contributing technically to a live performance. 

We invite you to participate in this joy by joining us for our Spring’s theatrical productions:  

  • March 18 & 20: If You Give A Mouse A Cookie (1st Grade) 
  • April 29 & May 1: Number the Stars (5th Grade) 
  • May 21 & 22:  Disney’s Aladdin Jr (7th & 8th Grades)