Signs of Change: New Directions in Theatre Education: Revised and Amplified Edition

Signs of Change: New Directions in Theatre Education: Revised and Amplified Edition

by Joan Lazarus

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There is no one-size-fits-all way to keep pace with the changes affecting high school students and those who educate them. That’s why Joan Lazarus has gathered here the insights of hundreds of secondary school theater teachers and teaching artists on how they have responded to the shifting demands of theater education in today’s schools. She paints a


There is no one-size-fits-all way to keep pace with the changes affecting high school students and those who educate them. That’s why Joan Lazarus has gathered here the insights of hundreds of secondary school theater teachers and teaching artists on how they have responded to the shifting demands of theater education in today’s schools. She paints a portrait of active, dynamic professionals who build vibrant programs and confront challenges in a variety of ways—from inclusive, interactive lessons to comprehensive programs that address the impact of poverty, race, gender, and spirituality on students’ lives. In the process, she shows how real teachers bring about real change. An accessible and up-to-date guide to best practices in theater education, this expanded and revised edition encompasses new hands-on activities—drawn from the author’s in-depth interviews and research.

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Theatre in Education
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Signs of Change

New Directions in Theatre Education

By Joan Lazarus

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-763-7


Signs of Change and the Need for Change

The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself.

bell hooks

The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.

Albert Einstein

I think I have been writing this book my whole life. From as early as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to change the world, to make the world better. I also was enthralled by theatre and its power to capture and convey feelings and ideas as big and powerful as my feelings and ideas seemed to be. Now, years after I began teaching, I am still yearning for change in theatre and education.

This book explores the convergence of a passion for teaching and a love of theatre as it bears upon the education of young people in middle school and high school. It is a collection of effective practices used by a small but growing number of veteran and novice educator-artists who are deeply committed to their work. Though the perspectives of professional theatre artists, administrators, students, scholars, and university theatre education professors are included, the voices in this book are primarily those of middle school and high school theatre teachers.

Each of these professionals works at the intersection of artmaking and education, of process and product, of knowing and doing, of teaching and learning. They are in the business of bringing about change in the lives of individual students as well as in their schools and communities. They are pioneers evolving their practice of theatre education in their own frontiers of change, their classrooms.

This book is but a glimpse at the imaginative, forward-looking work being undertaken by dynamic theatre teachers in urban, rural, and suburban settings throughout the country. I welcome you as another pioneer moving toward a new, or perhaps, recycled, practice of theatre education.

It was really good to contemplate the positives of our practice! It got me thinking about adjusting how I'm thinking about everything in our field. Focusing on the negative – because it will always be there – is not very productive. And focusing on the positive does not mean that you have to be naive about what is not working in our field. Jennifer Chapman


Change of any kind – moving, switching jobs, financial loss, or losing a family member – is fraught with a wide range of emotions. There are many reasons I continue to be catapulted into change as a theatre educator. Sometimes I change to accommodate new mandates or initiatives, shifts in programmatic thrust, changes in administration or facilities, or reduction in funding. Often, I change because of some restlessness or dissatisfaction I feel in my work or just from the desire for something new, something better. One thing I am learning is that whatever the catalyst for change, I have three choices:

1. I can hang on to my old views and behaviors, determined that if I just stay the course or work harder and better surely all will be well or change will not come.

2. I can go into denial that there even is a problem or that change is needed or imminent.

3. I can reflect on my views and practices and actively recycle them into something new.

Just talking and thinking about change makes me take stock of what really is my present situation, a thing rarely easy or comfortable to do. Inspired by the work of David Cooperrider, I know that a look at what is brings with it the realization of what is not, that my vision is not yet my reality. If I try to envision what could be and what ought to be, I get wildly enthusiastic, but then I face fears of what may never be (Cooperrider et al. 2000; Cooperrider 1999). I sometimes get myself stuck in a cycle of denial, ambivalence, hope, and fear. Whether I initiate change or it is imposed, if positive change is to occur, I must take action that may be at once hard, thrilling, risky, hopeful, and daunting.

I recall the many changes I encountered during my years teaching high school theatre. In one school, I had over one hundred students involved in the thriving program, which included theatre classes, productions, touring plays for young audiences, a group doing drama in the pre-schools, a The spian troupe, and various other performing entities and enterprises. Although I was insanely busy at school every day from before sunup until well after sundown, I felt restless, like there was more, or something different, I could or should be doing to reach students more effectively.

I attended conferences and learned what I could, believing the problem was in what I did not know and that the elusive solutions were "out there" for me to discover. I found my way to a graduate program that helped me expand and investigate a new range of approaches and techniques. It was when I implemented that learning with students that I saw fundamental and enduring change begin to take place in my teaching and directing practice. I began adapting, exploring, experimenting, and making these new approaches my own. I allowed myself to make mistakes, to not know, to learn with my students. Thus began my present journey, one in which I am learning how to embrace change. My long-held passion for teaching and theatre is now being grounded in my day-to-day practice.


In the pages that follow, I consider the state of theatre education, the need for change to ensure a future for the field, and the emergence of best practice. Before looking at these aspects of our work, it is helpful to examine the broader context for the challenges and opportunities we in theatre education face. This requires an honest look at the present state of our schools and a backward glance at what shaped our current educational system.

The changes in my personal teaching practices began amidst the rush of reform movements in the late twentieth century. I have heard that change accelerates at the close of each century and this was certainly true over one hundred years ago as the world moved from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. It is difficult to imagine how rapid those changes really were and how significant an impact they had. Farm families lost children to big city factories. People from around the world moved to the United States. More women began working outside of the home and in jobs previously reserved for men. With the advent of child labor laws and mandatory education, a space between childhood and adulthood was created and adolescence emerged. Where and how people lived, worked, communicated, and traveled changed dramatically in a relatively short span of time.

These changes rolled and rippled into the twenty-first century. They led to the revolutions in technology and information that today have increasing impact on the way we live, work, and interact in our homes, with family, and in our local and global communities. In addition to the enormous benefits we have received from twenty-first century advances and conveniences, we have been left with some "hazardous debris" from the twentieth century. Poverty, discrimination, disenfranchised youth, dysfunctional families, failing communities, faltering public institutions, corrupt private enterprises, and threats to the environment – while not entirely new to this century – are also part of the legacy of change.

I find it ironic that while we move ever faster in search of better and more efficient material goods and services, much of our thinking remains stuck in early twentieth-century models. This is most apparent in public schools where, despite the trappings of reform, thinking is fixed in a schools-as-factories or "schooling machine" model of education. Kirsten Olson, writing about schools that actually wound with their outdated policies, describes this "Old School culture" as

a set of old-fashioned ideas and attitudes [...] that construct teaching as hierarchical, learning as passive, and the bureaucratic structures of school as about serving adults, not kids. Old School culture also says: "We can't change school, that's just the way it is," or "It's too hard to change school, it's too complicated, this isn't the right moment. Just wait." (Olsen 2009, 203)

Entrenched, Old School thinking about education has a direct impact on how theatre is typically taught in our schools.

This view of education took hold at the beginning of the twentieth century when public schools were literally re-formed to prepare factory workers for the emerging Industrial Revolution. Teachers were being "trained" in record numbers. Students were being taught to follow directions, repeat tasks, and be responsible citizens. Now, in the twenty-first century, many schools still use that same model of factory worker education when in fact the world has need of creative thinkers and independent, innovative problem-solvers. While our schools have embraced technology and various educational reform strategies, these "advances" have not procured the hoped-for panacea, but rather short-term and spotty relief from the systemic problems embedded over one hundred years ago. Many reform efforts continue to treat schools like machines with various broken parts. Each has tried to fix what is "broken," be it the teachers, students, curriculum, standards, buildings, equipment, or the textbooks. Truly effective change has only come about when there has been a fundamental change in the way we think about teaching and learning.

David O'Fallon (2002) has been a theatre teacher, scholar, arts education advocate, and arts activist for decades. Reflecting on the state of education, he calls for major shifts in our thinking and practices and voices concern that the old educational models place little emphasis on learning that requires imagination. He alerts us to the dangers of schools structured in much the same way they were in the 1920s when his mother was a young teacher.

She taught a school year of about one hundred seventy or so instructional days, with a six or seven period day. [...] That is still just about the length of the school year and the school day. [...] It's the same size box that we had [nearly a hundred] years ago, and we're [...] trying to stuff more and more [...] into that box. And it's exploding.

In these extremely crowded, Industrial-model schools, there's hardly any room left for the imagination. [...] We need some profound transformation of how we think. [...] We are at the end of the Industrial Age of education. (O'Fallon 2002)

Kim Wheetley (2009) describes the twenty-first century education needed for our "increasingly complex, diverse, globalized, and media-saturated society."

Education must be reinvented to meet the needs of our ever-changing twenty-first century world. Students have to be able to function, create, and communicate personally, socially, economically, and politically in local, national, and global venues. Schools must develop an interdisciplinary culture of inquiry where students work independently and collaboratively, employing critical thinking and multiple intelligences for imaginative problem solving. (Wheetley 2009)

Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde (2005) agree. They highlight the futility of repeatedly using methodologies proven to be ineffective.

Unfortunately, we are coming to understand that the basic things we do in American schools – what we teach and how – don't work; we don't empower kids, don't nurture literacy, don't produce efficient workers, don't raise responsible citizens, don't create a functional democracy. If we really want to change student achievement in American schools, we must act directly on teaching and learning. More of the same is not the answer. (Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde 2005, 5, original emphasis)

Clearly the time has come, as O'Fallon says, for "some profound transformation of how we think" about learning and education (O'Fallon 2002).


It is the artist who must midwife the new reality that we [...] eagerly await. Viola Spolin

Can this view of the current state of general education be a rallying call to theatre educators? I have seen theatre teachers who do empower students, nurture literacy, and teach responsible work ethics and characteristics of healthy citizenry. What is happening in these theatre classrooms that has eluded many other teachers? What makes some theatre programs grow and thrive while others die, stall, or are marginalized? Might theatre teachers bring another view of education to the table?

Dee Hock, in his forward-thinking work, Birth of the Chaordic Age (1999), gives reasons for hope as we pursue answers to these questions.

In truth, there are no problems "out there." And there are no experts "out there" who could solve them if there were. The problem is "in here," in the depth of the collective consciousness of the species. When that consciousness begins to understand and grapple with the false Industrial Age concepts of organizations to which it clings; when it is willing to risk loosening the hold of those concepts and embrace new possibilities; when those possibilities engage enough minds, new patterns will emerge and we will find ourselves on the frontier of institutional alternatives ripe with hope and rich with possibilities. (Hock 1999, 78)

Theatre teachers who grapple with Industrial Age thinking and practices are pioneers on "the frontier of institutional alternatives ripe with hope and rich with possibilities." If, as Hock asserts, the problems and solutions we are encountering at all levels of our society, including our schools, are not "out there" but "in here," we must confront in our own "consciousness" the threats to effective education in general and to effective theatre education in particular. It means changing the way we think about theatre education and letting that thinking shape our actions. It means looking anew at why we teach, whom we teach, what we teach, and how we teach. This self-reflective practice examines fundamental assumptions, values, policies, and objectives and side-steps resistance or merely reworking the same strategies that have failed repeatedly. This reflection results in positive action and change and is what Argyris and Schon (1992) refer to as double-loop versus single-loop learning. Only double-loop thinking embraces shifts in understanding and brings about change.

Most theatre teachers already feel overwhelmed with work responsibilities. Some may see educational reform as change of such magnitude that, given their schedules, they do not even enter the conversation. Others may wonder, "Can thinking about and embracing change in this way really evolve more effective practice and make a lasting difference?"

As so many in this book testify, when even a few teachers reconsider their practice and make manageable changes in their classrooms or production work, it does make a difference – a difference in students' lives, the theatre program, and the school. Each step of change made by a teacher or teaching artist has an impact and is essential to the survival of theatre in our schools. This is practical and effective change we can hope for right now. Work at the national, state, and district levels create a foundation and sow seeds for a shift in thought, but real change must be seen in what happens in a classroom each day between teacher and students. Without these changes, I question if theatre education will still be in the schools by the end of the twenty-first century.


Secondary school theatre education is at a crossroads in America. Down one road there are programs still in the box of Industrial Age thinking, removed from contemporary practice in theatre and emerging theories and methodologies in education. In these settings, theatre work with students is often hierarchical, teacher-centered, and is an attenuated or dated version of college or conservatory study. Focus in some schools is almost exclusively on production of plays and musicals from the Broadway and regional theatre repertoire, more often than not unrelated to the lives of the majority of students in the school community. In many schools, theatre work is undervalued, fragmented, and accessible only after school and mostly to white, middle-class, able-bodied students (Lazarus 2000, 38). In a time of budget cuts coupled with the ever-shifting sea of education reforms, theatre education programs around the country are eroding. In many areas, as personnel move or retire and funding shifts to other priorities, theatre education is losing ground. Some states are not offering or are discontinuing certification of theatre teachers. Despite national and state standards in the arts, theatre as an academic subject is not mandated to be taught, and, in fact, is a classroom subject rarely offered in many states (National Center for Education Statistics 2011).


Excerpted from Signs of Change by Joan Lazarus. Copyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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