Teamwork. Creativity. Leadership.

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Theater arts education in public schools

Julian Nicholson, a high school junior, first got involved in theater at Waco High School two years ago. As a freshman he played a small role as an actor in “Antigone,” which was something he had never tried before. 

“Being an actor was a fun and unique experience, but I discovered it wasn’t for me,” Nicholson said. “I still wanted to be a part of the program.”

Soon afterward the troupe started working on the musical “Tarzan,” and Nicholson took on a different role, this time as a technician. 

“I helped build the set, and for the run of the shows I controlled one of the spotlights,” he said. “I decided to stay with tech because of the friends I made and because of our awesome technical director, Cory Garrett.”

The next year Nicholson took on even more responsibility as a technician in the school’s production of “She Loves Me.” For this show he built a significant part of the set, and by the time performances started he had earned the job of light board operator.

“Being trusted to use my own ideas and create new ways to get the show running makes me feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment in my work,” Nicholson said.

K'Lynn Childress, director of theatre arts at Waco High School

K’Lynn Childress, director of theatre arts at Waco High School

“Over the last two years Julian has become invaluable to our program,” said K’Lynn Childress, director of theatre arts at Waco High School. “He started out as the little brother of a former theater student, and he jumped in and took on some tech roles. Now he’s our go-to lighting guy, and we can always depend on him. It’s been neat to see him grow from Jessica’s little brother into his own, an irreplaceable part of our department.”

In core classes like math, science and social studies, students learn what’s expected to advance their education. But the arts often provide them with opportunities to learn unexpected skills and find hidden talents they may not have uncovered in a traditional classroom — like being a light board operator. Add to that opportunities for teamwork and leadership, learning to be a gracious winner and how to bounce back from disappointment, plus a place for self-expression and confidence-building.

Just like in core classes, Texas assigns TEKS standards, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, to theater classes, based on the level of the class.

“These TEKS start on a basic level for Theatre 1 classes — like identifying parts of a stage, creating a basic costume design, performing a monologue — to advanced skills for Theatre 4, like writing or directing a short play, implementing a technical design, complex character analysis,” Childress said.

Jill Wilkinson, theatre arts director and fine arts department chair at Midway High School

Jill Wilkinson, theatre arts director and fine arts department chair at Midway High School

“High School can be a difficult place,” said Jill Wilkinson, theatre arts director and fine arts department chair at Midway High School. “I want students to have an opportunity to discover their hidden talents, find a place for themselves, build on their strengths and [improve their] weaknesses.”

Students who study theater work to build a broad base of theater content and other skills.  

“Students learn and develop skills differently,” Wilkinson said. “But it is important that they have the opportunity to develop their highest potential. Theater students also develop skills in critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, communication, individual and collaborative planning and implementation, historical and cultural understanding, self- and social awareness and research.”

The goal is not to get every student to love theater or become an Oscar-winning actor, Childress says, but rather to give them the opportunity to explore the world through a different lens, to learn to collaborate with a team and to express themselves creatively.

“If they leave my class having taken advantage of at least one of those opportunities,” she said, “I consider their time in my class a success.”

If the storyline of “High School Musical” was exact, one might think every theater class is spent preparing for the next big production. But much of that work is done after school and on weekends, as class time is set aside for honing specific skills that can later be utilized in a production.

“It depends on the class,” Childress said. “In Theatre 1 or 2 classes we usually teach a concept in-depth on Monday and explore it the rest of the week. For instance, on Monday we’ll talk about pantomime, look at some examples and play a few games that teach the basic idea. Then we use the rest of the week to create duet pantomime scenes and perform them for the class. In Theatre Production, we use the time to apply those concepts to the actual shows we’re working on at the time.”

At Midway, Wilkinson starts her classes with a warmup so students can take their minds off whatever else has happened that day — a test, a breakup, a problem — and prepare to focus.

“The perfect theater class would be seeing students up and doing things for themselves,” she said. “We try and make the experience as hands-on as possible. To others it might look like chaos, but to a theater teacher it is a student-centered environment of learning. Students should be working on movement, voice, researching time periods, social and cultural reflections, etc. In other words, you open the theater classroom doors, and you see the world.”

If this creates an image of a stereotypical theater student — one with a constant flair for the dramatic or always dressed in black — think again.

“There is no typical theater student,” Wilkinson said. “They are the melting pot of the school. They are the artists, the athletes, the loud, the quiet. They really are the student body. And our goal is to provide a place for all students.”

Of the combined 650-700 students who enroll in theater at Waco High and Midway each year, there is a definite mix of serious students and those who need the credit.

“My Theatre 1 classes are definitely a mixture,” Childress said. “You get a sprinkling of students who are really into theater, thanks to our awesome middle school theater programs, but a lot of students decide on theater as a way to get the fine arts credit they need to graduate.”

For the students who just need the credit, there’s still an opportunity for them to be successful and take away valuable knowledge.

“I usually take each concept we’re working on and give the students several ways to show that they’ve mastered it.” Childress said. “For example, when talking about plot structure, a student that isn’t interested in acting might create a poster illustrating the idea. A student that enjoys acting can perform an entire story in 30 seconds, hitting all the points of proper plot structure. The goal is to let each student explore the world of theater in a way that best suits them.”

Bringing together students with a wide range of passion for theater can be a challenge, Wilkinson says. For her students who cannot imagine a life without theater in their future, Wilkinson is working on starting an audition class that would focus on auditioning for colleges or for local theater.

“We want to provide more opportunities for those who want to pursue theater in their future [while] still making a place for all students at Midway,” she said.

While getting the role of leading lady or comic hero certainly is on the minds of young actors, learning teamwork is a skill that will serve them both on and off the stage.

“Theater is literally impossible without teamwork,” Childress said. “I’m always amazed at how quickly students figure this out! Everyone depends on everyone. If one actor’s lines aren’t memorized in time, the whole show suffers. If one technician doesn’t show for a work day, it makes it that much harder on all the others. Our students know the value of teamwork as much as, or maybe even more than, any athletic team.”

One of Childress’ students, senior and four-year theater student Kaleigh Huser, remembers a time when the WHS cast and crew worked together and how they bonded.

“Two years ago while building the set for ‘Tarzan,’ we had to set up a large, very tall set piece,” she said. Huser was cast in the role of Jane. “We needed everyone to help, whether they were actually doing the lifting, spotting the people lifting, watching out for obstacles or footing the bottom of the platform. [Experiences like this] teach us how to work together smoothly, mixing tech students with acting students. It was so rewarding to see our masterpiece at the end.” 

Christopher Coley, a senior and four-year theater student at Midway, says he’s come to understand the importance of actors, directors and technicians working as a team.

“Being part of any show, everyone involved must work together as a team to produce a great show,” he said. “While the audience only sees the people on stage, the reality is that many more people are involved behind the scenes. From the directors to the tech crew to set design and costumes, everyone is essential.”

And when working with heavy equipment, working together can be imperative.

“Theater has taught me a lot about teamwork, especially in the tech department,” Nicholson said. “Communication and trust within a team plays a large role in getting a task done. For example, when you’re using a table saw without the guard, it can sometimes be difficult to keep it on a straight line. The team must work together and talk to each other in order to make sure everything goes fine.”

Theater is all about collaboration and teamwork, Wilkinson says.  

“Actors, technicians, directors all have to work together,” she said. “One of the best ways we describe theater is [that] you become a family. Sometimes you get irritated with your family, but you try never to let them down. You have to learn to work together to make the characters and the story come alive for the audience. Every night, every rehearsal, you always discover something new and fresh.”

Leaders naturally emerge from any team, and opportunities for leaders abound in theater.

“At Waco High we put a lot of responsibility on our students,” Childress said. “They serve as stage managers, choreographers, crew leaders, dance captains. Not only do our students learn how to be leaders, they learn how to respect their peers as leaders, which I think is equally valuable.”

At Midway a theater organization called Panther Players, a group of students, helps decide the goals and mission for the year.

“This involves a large group of students under the direction of the sponsors, a president and vice presidents,” Wilkinson said. “We want to help students become better leaders.”

And Coley has stepped up to lead.

“Theater has given me many opportunities to develop leadership skills,” he said. “From being a part of plays and musicals, I have been given many opportunities to further my skills as a leader. Theater and acting are so fun that [at times] it can be very easy to get off task and caught up in the fun of putting together a production. This makes it especially necessary to have student leaders to keep people on task and ready to work. While this is still a struggle for me, I have improved my abilities to lead and keep people motivated.”

When students get the chance to see things through a teacher’s or director’s eye, it benefits the entire group.

“I have had the privilege of heading up choreography and teaching dances to other students,” Huser said. “It is helpful for me, as a student, to see what the directors see and help communicate that to others. As a choreographer, I have been through many talkative rehearsals, so I now know just how frustrating the process can be. When the students are aware of these kinds of problems and understand why the directors expect so much out of them, we can make amazing shows. I have developed better communication skills with my peers that have really helped the shows move along smoothly. Also I have become a much stronger actress by being a mentor to younger students.”

Nicholson says he relishes the opportunity to lead a team that creates exactly what the director is looking for.

“Sometimes your director gives you an idea of what he wants for a finished project,” he said, “and then I have to step up and work with my group to make his dreams a reality.”

As with anything in life, theater is full of successes and disappointments. But teachers and students agree that it’s how you respond to them that makes a difference. One competition where students get to experience and learn from constructive criticism is UIL One-Act Play, better known to insiders as OAP.

“It’s an amazing contest,” Childress said, “and we work with our students to prepare a 40-minute play that we take to the district contest. From there, we can advance all the way to the state level. This last year our OAP advanced from district and received alternate at bi-district. We instill very specific standards of behavior in our students for both of these situations. They know that on any given day they could be the best performers there or the worst.”

Wilkinson agreed that OAP is one of the best opportunities for learning how to win and, well, lose. Its ideals include fostering an appreciation of good acting, directing and good theater; satisfying the competitive, artistic spirit with friendly rivalry among schools; emphasizing high-quality performance in the creative arts; and learning to lose or win graciously, accepting the judge’s decision and criticism with good sportsmanship and a view toward improving future productions.

“These goals work for every theater program,” Wilkinson said. “You are constantly auditioning for certain parts. There are never enough parts to go around. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn. When you audition, you put yourself out there, and it is hard to accept that sometimes your best at the time isn’t the right fit. Just like in One-Act Play, a student can have an amazing audition but still not be the right fit for a role.”

That is something Wilkinson says her department is constantly working on, to help the students keep developing their skills and not give up.

“We try and provide several opportunities for students to perform, direct, construct, design, etc., so that if students do not make a part in the musical or the One-Act Play, they still feel like they have a place and a purpose,” she said. “This is a constant work in progress. I always tell students there will never be a perfect show, never be a perfect performance. There is always room to improve, and they should be able to listen to constructive criticism and figure out how to use that for their benefit.”

Win or lose, Childress makes sure every student knows he or she is important.

“The beauty of theater is that your show is only as strong as your weakest company member,” she said. “We place a huge emphasis on the fact that the smallest role or position is just as important as the lead role or stage manager. In our OAP company we assign every member a very specific job outside of their role. An actor, for example, might also be in charge of costumes or making sure that props are packed properly for travel days. The ‘small role’ actor might also be in charge of warmups or truck pack. Every single member of the company is valuable.”

In the long run, learning teamwork, leadership and how to win and lose with grace all make for well-rounded individuals with a wide range of knowledge and experience.

Coley has enjoyed opportunities to make memories that will last a lifetime, but he has also faced rejection.

“I believe that God has a plan for me, and I know that there are lessons to learn from both situations,” said Coley, whose favorite role was playing a deaf child in “Sweet Nothing In My Ear.” “I have had many losses in auditions, and it has taught me not only to be considerate of others when they may not have gotten the part they wanted but also how to handle rejection and let it motivate me. Rather than losing hope after not getting a part I want, I have learned to let it motivate me and to trust my directors. Theater is so full of ups and downs and successes and rejections that it is really important to trust your directors and keep your head up because you can’t always win.”

Huser says she has experienced ups and downs both individually and as a group.

“I was not expecting to be cast as anything in my first show,” she said. “I was so happy to even be a part of our One-Act family. I see every role as something earned from hard work. Theater has taught me to be gracious and accepting of what I receive. I have realized over the years that it is not about how big your role is because there are no small roles. Two years ago my school was nominated for three awards at Dallas Summer Musicals High School Musical Theatre Awards [DSM], and we won two [awards]. This year we were nominated for two but did not win any. We were a little disappointed, but I realized that we were so lucky to have even been nominated and even more so that we were able to attend the DSM awards. We set so many goals, and there will always be bumps in the road that prevent us from reaching them. In the end it is not about winning anything. It is about creating art with a great group of people that you feel comfortable around.”

Nicholson agreed.

“I’ve learned a lot about accepting awards and not quite reaching the goals that we have set,” he said. “This was harder on me than I expected because of the larger role that I played working with the lights in ‘She Loves Me,’ but it taught me that you can’t win every single award that you shoot for. But if you work hard enough, there is a chance.”

Whether or not they reach every goal, students learn a variety of skills through participating in theater.

“Our theater students have experience in the things you’d expect — acting, singing, dancing — but they’ve also gotten to have experiences you’d never expect, like [with] aerial silks, gymnastics, circus skills and more,” Childress said. “Our technicians, under the leadership of our tech director Cory Garrett, have built jungles with waterfalls, constructed hundreds of flats and then created a Parisian world out of them and figured out how to setup a post-apocalyptic Shakespearean kingdom in less than seven minutes. Students use research, troubleshooting and creative skills they might never tap into otherwise.”

Theater students have to collaborate, problem solve, understand historical and cultural differences and become critical thinkers, Wilkinson says.  

“Even if you do not want to pursue a career in theater, having the skills above only makes these students more marketable in whatever pursuit they desire,” she said.

Coley, who does plan to pursue a degree in theater or musical theater, says he has learned a variety of things in high school theater beyond the stage.

“I have learned the value of listening to other opinions and also of being detail-oriented,” he said. “I have learned how to take criticism and grow from it and how to accept rejection and be humble. Theater is full of lessons that I will carry with me well beyond the theater classroom or stage. I have learned how to respect everyone’s talents and abilities. For example, although I mostly act on the stage, I have found an abundant appreciation for those who work behind the scenes and contribute equally to the magic of a show. Along with this, theater has helped me become more confident in myself and my abilities through the encouragement of my peers and especially my teachers.”

Huser, who hopes to have a career as an actor or theater teacher, agrees.

“Theater has made me so much more comfortable with myself,” she said. “We have the unspoken rule that theater is a safe place, and I have learned to trust others. I have built up my confidence over the years to sing, act and be myself. It teaches you to let go of your insecurities and just try something.”

Nicholson has also gained confidence and says he plans to continue being involved in theater but not as his profession.

“There are things that I never thought that I would be able to do but found out I can,” he said. “This has been a huge boost to my self-confidence, and through theater I feel like I can achieve more.”

Waco’s quality theater teachers, who desire to see students succeed on stage and in life, give their time, talent and energy to the students.

“I’m having to learn how to balance my personal and work lives,” Childress said. “We get so invested in making the best possible show and giving our students every opportunity that it is easy to neglect ourselves. But it is important to teach our students the art of balance and priorities, so we’re working on that as well.”

Wilkinson agreed that finding balance is key to being the best she can be for her students.

“Theater leaks into every area of your life and being a wife, mom, daughter, sister and friend can sometimes take a back seat if I let the balance get off,” she said. “I think of my students as my own kids, so I am not only mom to my Emma and Jack but also to the hundreds of students I have each year. High school can be a tough place, and I just want to help students not only get through it but also find a place to enjoy themselves and be connected.”

But seeing students come out of their shell — and learn to soar — makes it all worthwhile.

“My greatest joy is watching students discover hidden talents, bring a character to life and come off the stage flying,” Wilkinson said. “Seeing their joy and knowing their sense of accomplishment is one of my greatest joys as an educator and director. Watching students discover who they are and going after their dreams is a treasure. I have had students who were afraid to do a monologue or duet their first year of theater, and by their senior year they were one of the main characters in the One-Act Play. That is one of my favorite things.”

Lasting relationships and fond memories are icing on the cake.

“The relationships you build with your students as a theater teacher are like no other,” Childress said. “In the process of creating a show your company becomes family, and those bonds stick. I’m still in touch with many of my former students, and it’s so neat to see them grow into adults. One of my favorite things is to tell people I’m a theater teacher and hear them say ‘Oh, I did theater in high school! I loved it!’ They always have some experience that they still treasure. I just hope my students can have those same conversations someday, no matter what field they end up in.”