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Take My Theatre Ed Program…Please

“Hi! Wondering if you had time to review my last message about the high school ladies’ improv program. Again, this program is 100 percent free of charge. I even have a budget to pay you as a faculty facilitator. I would love to talk to you more! I’m happy to come to you, or treat you to a planning dinner!”

How many times did I copy and paste these words into unanswered emails? Spoiler: this article ends with me delivering an improv program to high school women. Whew. But this article is not only about the implementation of that program, it’s also about the long and winding road to get that classroom in the first place.

My Dream

I am the former education coordinator for a theatre program that served Chicago Public Schools. At my old job, there were two steps to recruiting new school partners: sell the program and talk finances. The first part was cake. Any CPS teacher with a pulse is down for an expanded in-school arts education opportunity, but then dropping the (even reasonable) price tag could make that same pulse stutter. I dreamt of a way in which I could have that step one conversation with interested teachers without the financial caveat. And then I won a bunch of money.

In 2015 a beloved member of the Chicago comedy community passed away, and a scholarship award was created in his honor. The winner was to use half the funds for improv classes and the other half for a project of her choosing. I wrote a proposal to run an after-school improv club for underserved women in Chicago. I won the award in March 2016, and immediately contacted a teacher with no funding who really wanted to bring my former arts program to her students. She wrote back quickly that she was in, barring principal approval. A week later, her principal agreed and we were off. I began planning the program, and we agreed to set October dates before the start of the school year. I was excited.

Attempt One

August rolled around, and my co-teacher was missing in action. The school year started and still no word. I started to wonder if I should reach out to another school, but I didn’t want to double book myself. How do you ask an overworked educator to tentatively commit to a club? In September, my co-teacher reached out apologizing for the delay. A strike was in the works. Ah. Either way, we figured the storm would be over by November and aimed for then. In the meantime I kept up with the news.

Mid-October I read that union negotiations had worked, and there would be no strike. I gave my co-teacher a week to recover before sending a poking email. After another gentle reminder, she let me know the end of the year was going to be too nuts. I suggested we get the program running at the top of spring semester. We volleyed for a while, but she had other after school responsibilities and didn’t feel comfortable setting anything for sooner than May. I began wondering if I would be able to do this program so close to summer when new gigs would be rolling out. If something fell through on either end, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the program happen until at the earliest Fall 2017. We really wanted to work together, but without firm commitment, it was just not going to be a viable option. We parted amicably, and I went back to the drawing board.

Attempt Two

I went into overdrive scouting for a new partner. I felt the clock ticking on the year mark of getting that grant money, and I had nothing to show for it. Fortunately, I was familiar with the Artlook Map, which is a tool Ingenuity (an arts organization in Chicago) created to help link arts partners with CPS. My main goal in designing the program was to bring improv and theatre to students who didn’t have access to it. I scoured Artlook for underserved, diverse schools in the lower levels of arts education, and emailed every arts coordinator I came across. I stressed my experience in education and theatre, that I would deliver the program for free, and pay teachers for their time. I reached out to about thirty schools and one person got back to me—a visual arts teacher with an ambiguous name. I had intended to create a fully women space, but I learned this teacher was actually a man. I was feeling nervous that no one would ever respond, so I accepted the partnership. We had a couple planning calls, I made advertising materials, and twelve students had signed up in his classroom. I arrived, set up the room, and waited. No one came.

What happened? I will never know for sure. The teacher was perfectly kind and apologized, but it wasn’t his fault. Apparently there is a large group of seniors at the school who do night classes and have a break between the regular day and evening scheduling. They were actually mere feet away from the classroom, but refused to come in. They offered no reasoning why they changed their minds about participating. Maybe they were more tired after a full day than they thought they would be. Maybe they were afraid to try something new. Either way, after twenty minutes of small talk with the teacher, I packed up and went home.

Class decorations for the after school improv program.
Class decorations for the after school improv program. Photo by Alice Stanley, Jr

Attempt Three

Now I was really desperate, so I used some different tactics. Instead of cold calling, I asked everyone I knew: “Do you know someone who works at a CPS high school?” I followed up with each contact, but over and over nothing panned out. I finally got in touch with a different institution that partners the arts with schools. I spoke with someone who recommended I get in with an all-women in-school group that already existed. I was grateful for the lead but a little disappointed. I had hoped my program would provide a new outlet for women who didn’t have one rather than plugging myself into an outlet that already existed. Yet by this time, a year had officially passed since I was awarded the grant, so I set dates for improv workshops with the existing group. The facilitator and I set dates, and I crossed my fingers until I was in the classroom leading the first warm-up.

After all was said and done, young women who had never done improv got to try improv. They learned new skills and we discussed how they could apply these lessons to life. I saw sparks of confidence, hilarity, and encouraged the curious ones to keep seeking comedy opportunities. After the last workshop, I walked into the sunshine of the parking lot filled with a little joy and a lot of relief.

Why Was That So Hard?

One, teachers are so busy. They’re underpaid and pulled in a million directions and get obnoxious solicitation emails all the time. I’m a teacher, and in the jungle of student and admin emails those “Try  Our New Textbook” subject lines don’t stand a chance.

Two, I think my offer sounded too good to be true. Nothing is ever really free (even though this really was). If a teacher had opened an email and accepted this was a pro bono class, maybe they were cynical about what kind of teacher I am to be peddling my services for free?

As a high schooler at a school that offered no drama classes, I would have stabbed someone for an after-school improv club. But would I have showed up alone to meet a lady I didn’t know so she could make me pretend to be a chicken or something? Probably not.

Three, scheduling blows. It’s just plain hard to put something out of the ordinary on a calendar. Even the thought of doing so can be stressful. Education systems thrive on redundancy. School starts and ends at the same time. Track season is March through June. Homecoming is the second weekend of October.

Four, we as artists want students to be exposed to art, but do students want to be exposed to art? I think sometimes, yes. As a high schooler at a school that offered no drama classes, I would have stabbed someone for an after-school improv club. But would I have showed up alone to meet a lady I didn’t know so she could make me pretend to be a chicken or something? Probably not.

Arts education is most effective when it comes from inside the school itself.

What I Believe about Arts Education Now

Chicago is an incredible arts education city. The program I previously mentioned, Ingenuity, is partnering thousands of students with all kinds of programming every year. But so many students are still falling through the cracks. A huge barrier is money. And from my experience, I have learned money is not the one defining issue.

Now more than ever, I believe arts education is most effective when it comes from inside the school itself. One conservative viewpoint about arts education is that schools can be served by artistic communities without dipping into as much taxpayer funding. Sure, there are benefits of partnerships like students taking field trips to professional theatres, and seasoned writers and actors coming into the classroom, but I’m not saying those have to disappear. I’m saying those opportunities could supplement in-school arts education that already happens.

Moving down the list of obstacles I found in my journey, I believe in-house arts programs for schools are vital because outside arts educators put unneeded strain on other educators, who already have full plates. Additionally, if schools commit to having in-school arts teachers, there’s not a constant question and debate about schedule and budget. The arts have a metaphorical and literal space where they belong. Cramming them in is simply ineffective, both in how much students are able to learn and in terms of how much time and energy it takes to organize these programs.

Lastly, and most importantly, arts make students vulnerable. Vulnerability is why we need these programs and simultaneously why students might shy away from these programs if they don’t know the instructor, or the game plan. How many talented young artists don’t have the courage to stay after school one day, but would have the courage to enroll in a class they saw happening every day across the hall?

Of course, the current state of our country doesn’t bode well for an increase in education, or arts funding any time soon. So, perhaps these conclusions are moot. But maybe if we are all making due with arts education we can squeeze into schools, there are some answers to be found in making our programs as insular and regular as possible until, hopefully, one day, we make ourselves obsolete with a return to in-school programming.

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As an educator who works for another organization based in Washington DC that offers free (really! totally free!) arts programming for schools, I find this article to be perfectly reflective of my experience. We might reach out to hundreds of schools to get a few dozens responses. It's only the schools that have had our programming for multiple years and grow to trust us that we can rely on to respond to our emails and calls. Even then, teachers are overburdened, underpaid, and worried about testing.

I couldn't agree more that schools would do better to have in-school programming when possible, but I do wonder if there are better methods for building relationships with schools to gain trust and bring in those outside programs. Teachers get so many offers, but if they know there's one they can rely on, they're more likely to call back or share it with other teachers. That means organizations need to make long lasting commitments to schools and accept that it may take a few years for that trust to be built.

Thanks for sharing your experiences and reminding me the struggle is a little more universal than I sometimes feel!

Absolutely! The struggle is common. Good point about making those lasting relationships--but it's so hard! First, we must get in, and then so much can happen--like teachers can leave and there goes our ambassador, or the benefits of the program aren't always empirically clear and then it gets bumped. Oof!

Fantastic article--thank you for sharing your experiences and insights! I just assigned this as summer reading to our interns.
We are planning to launch our own puppetry after school program, and in addition to the school-integration challenges you described, we are also figuring out how we fit into the national conversation about after school / out of school time "systems" within communities especially as they relate to equity, diversity, safety (especially for young children), and inclusion at the municipal level. Our town has an insane patchwork of organizations right now, and the local community foundation has taken the initiative to get different providers networking and collaborating across sectors. HowlRound readers might be interested in the research and advocacy work done by the National Institute on Out-of-School Time: https://www.niost.org/

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