Self-Esteem Through Culture: An Interview with Donald Lewis, Jr.

An Interview by Alex Ates with Donald Lewis, Junior 

Donald Lewis, Junior is a beloved actor, teacher, storyteller, and community icon in New Orleans. He is the head of the Talented in Theater program for the Recovery School District (RSD), the state-run emergency school district responsible for taking over failing public schools in New Orleans post-Katrina. Since then, the RSD has been delegating the operation of its New Orleans schools to independent charters and downsizing its New Orleans central office. 

Donald was born in New Orleans, but has lived all across the country. Donald has taught in camps, artist residencies, conservatories, and schools in the New Orleans area. A written interview really doesn’t do him justice. He has a voice as big and round as the Superdome (it would make any television announcer jealous). He lives in the historic Treme neighborhood, wears science fiction tee-shirts, and in addition to being a fixture on local stages, you can hear him weekly on WWOZ, New Orleans’ community radio station. I’m also proud to say Donald was an actor in The NOLA Project’s second production ever, Get This Lake of My House

He agreed to sit down with me at a coffee shop to discuss his experiences and perceptions of theater education in New Orleans schools. 

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Donald Lewis, Junior

Alex Ates: You’re the head of the Recovery School District’s (RSD) Talented Theater program. How long have you done that? 

Donald Lewis, Junior: Oh, since ’07? 

AA: When did you start teaching?

DL: I want to say 2001 at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts). I didn’t know this at the time, I was making a transition between working actor to actor-teacher and then a teacher-actor. I first started doing summer camps, then storytelling, children’s theater, and then I was on the road for five years doing children’s theater. And then I came back to town and started working in after school programs and very specialized residencies where you may be in a school for like eight weeks or three weeks and I did two or three of those a year. And then, I got full time employment. 

AA: You made a distinction between working actor, actor-teacher, and teacher-actor. Could you define those? 

DL: It’s really the volume of where your money comes from. For five years, it was mostly acting, doing theater especially when I was on the road; I was hired by a company and we would do African-American storytelling, basically, African-American history and folktales. We did it around the country—literally. So it’s possible to make a living as an actor. 

AA: When do you think you made a transition to being a teacher-actor? 

DL: It was gradual. Definitely at NOCCA. 

AA: You taught me at NOCCA for, like, two weeks, before Katrina. 

DL: I did! 

AA: Now, at this point in time, what occupies most of your brain space? Do you think about education or are you still thinking more about theater and acting? Or is it a mix?

DL: Lately, I’ve been making a transition in my mind to being an artist who happens to teach. So it’s a philosophical shift of: I’m still an artist and I’m teaching the art form, which is still artistry. It’s more endearment and respect for myself and both positions, so I’m still an artist doing ‘the thing’. Because I know some teachers who are not theater artists who are teaching the art form of theater. Which is a little disturbing to me. There’s an intense lack of respect for the art form of theater. A musician, you can’t fake that, but with theater, some people can navigate (teaching) and they haven’t really done it. 

AA: It’s hard to define how to teach theater and how to do it well. It’s still something that boggles my mind. 

DL: You have to look at what you like. Whatever your strengths are, you should teach. It’s a misunderstanding, the old phrase, ‘you teach best what you most need to learn.’ How could you teach something you need to learn? 

AA: In the RSD, can you describe what your position is? Is it mainly administrative, do you oversee other teachers? Do you hop around between different schools? What is the nature of your job now? 

DL: Well, I’m the head of the theater part of the Gifted and Talented Department of the RSD. It’s basically me and Sherri Marina and we are the department. So I do my part and Sherri does hers. And that really kind of is it. We’re both itinerate so we might be doing the same thing in a different facility, though, it’ll be slightly different each time because of 1) the facility itself 2) the administration and the teachers, and 3) the students who attend that school. 

AA: Can you describe the origin of the RSD in New Orleans and what it is now? It’s my understanding that after Katrina, the State Legislature allowed the RSD to take over failing public schools in the city with the intent of eventually handing those schools over to the Orleans Parish School Board or the community, by way of creating a charter which is approved by the State. 

DL: After Katrina, it was supposed to create charter schools with or give them back to Orleans Parish, well the Orleans Parish part, that agenda disintegrated, I’m not sure why. I think some corporations, some in town, some out of town, realized the enormous amount of money that was available for teaching here and created charters or have charter management organizations that took schools over. 

AA: How many schools do you work at and what’s the age range? 

DL: Initially it was K-12, because I was the only theater teacher for the RSD. 

AA: And how may schools does the RSD have? 

DL: Well, it’s chartering everything out now. There won’t be any. I was working at three. Now, I’m at two: Benjamin Banneker is K-8 and New Beginnings is K-12. New Beginnings is interested in identifying gifted and talented children. 

AA: What—on a regular school day—what does your schedule look like? 

DL: It depends on the day. Because Banneker had the largest population, I’d be there on, say, a Tuesday and I’d be there all day with first graders through eighth graders. And other days I’m at a school for two hours because I’m dealing with third through sixth grade. With special education, you should only have three grades at a time. So at a charter like New Beginnings, they wanted second grade through fifth and I had to divide them into two different classes because, obviously, that’s too big a spread. 

AA: The developmental stages are so different for those age ranges. 

DL: Absolutely. In one class, I’m working with Dr. Seuss and then in the other, I could be dealing with Shakespeare. 

AA: From what I’ve been able to assess from working in public schools in New Orleans and speaking with other theater teachers, it seems like our work and the resources we’re given are so overshadowed by the drive for greater test scores. Is there an inhibitor keeping charter schools from investing in the arts? Are they not focussed on this at all or have they simply not been getting the right message? 

DL: There is a lot of money in the assessment process. 

AA: Do you mean testing? 

DL: Yeah, I think about everything necessary for assessing. You have to have a pre-test, pre-program, pre-curriculum and a lot of times it’s done on paper, so you have to have bindings. Then you have to have the actual test, which is more documents. Then you have to have someone assess the assessment. Then after that, you have to have someone who will recreate the program based on their scores—good or bad—from the assessment. This person, or team, come to your town. They get a salary, they get per diem, they get travel for their car, they get a hotel, they get their flight (because usually they’re not coming from Baton Rouge!) So all of those fees are just to bring them to town. Now they don’t come once, if they’re doing their job they could come up to four times a year! And that’s one year for each individual school, not one school district. Each. Individual. School. And they’re making a lot of money! So the triangle has become inverted. Instead of the money trickling down to the people, the smallest point is the one that gets to the kid. 

Unfortunately, these tests do not include a lot of indigenous culture. I see generic world history, but when you have a city—a state—that’s so diverse in culture—I mean in this state we created gumbo! When I say this dish is 400 years old based on Native American sassafras, African okra, and German and French spices—it all came together because the people were here! When I say that’s a cultural phenomenon manifested in a dish, and it comes from here, that, to me, is an exciting concept!  

AA: Why is that important to students? 

DL: To me, it’s important because of self-esteem! The assessment process is not necessarily designed for self-esteem. 

AA: Do you think theater education in this city should be designed—in part—for self-esteem in culture? 

DL: I do. I do. Some of it. When you have jazz walking around, why would you not put that into education? Some people might think I’m anti-charter. That’s not true. I’m pro-great teaching! 

I’ll give you an analogy. After Katrina, we got a lot of help. Some of that help stayed. Some of that help came knocking on the door, “Hey, how’s it going? We’re gonna come over here and help you out and we’re going to stay here and we’re going to tell you how to do you and assess that process and you are going to pay us to do that, and, based on your score on our assessment of you, it will determine how well you keep doing.” At Katrina, the schools were already behind and so the powers that be took advantage of that situation. In some ways—on paper—a lot of the scores are higher. The downside of that is there are a lot of students who are disenfranchised. 

AA: What are the benefits of having a theater program in a New Orleans school? 

DL: Getting children to express themselves clearly, teaching the art form, the social implications, looking at the symbology of it—these are formulas for life and it’s important for you to understand! You can use your intuition, your intelligence, your hutzpah to overcome a situation if you think creatively! It’s not just expression, it’s actual life lessons! The other side is huge self-esteem. We’ve come to praise data. When I say this child is feeling better about his or herself because they just had a lead in a play, that’s not quantifiable!  

Donald Lewis, Jr. is the head of the Talented Theater Department of the Recovery School district of New Orleans. He is a graduate of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and also taught there. He attended University of New Orleans and College of Santa Fe, NM. He received the lifetime achievement award from the Alliance for Community Theaters. He is a member of the Chakula Cha-Jua Theater Co. He is the stage manager of the Kids Tent of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He volunteers for WWOZ radio station and is on the board of WRBH radio station. He was invited to Sundance Institute for the Film, “Heaven Before I Die.”  He also was in the New Orleans Premiere of, Fragments written and directed by Edward Albee.  

Alex Ates is a New Orleans native. He comes from a family of Orleans Parish Public School teachers and administrators. He is a company member with The NOLA Project, where he directs and acts. Next season, he will be the Interim Education Director. He is the Producer and Director of The Shakespearean Jazz Show and Chasing Ballerinas. This past year, he worked at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans. Next year, he will be on the theater faculty at Lusher Charter School. Alex graduated from Emerson College in 2013. 

This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series. 

New Orleans and the Studio Thinking Framework

By Sean Glazebrook

In 1967, the philosopher Nelson Goodman founded Project Zero, a research institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to study education in the arts. This name, Project Zero, was chosen because Goodman believed that “zero” research had been dedicated to the area of arts education. Fast forward nearly 50 years and Project Zero has built a substantial body of work. 

One of the most powerful research projects to come out of Project Zero has been the “Studio Thinking Framework” and more specifically, the “Studio Habits of Mind”. The “Studio Thinking Framework” is a lesson and unit-planning framework that seeks to recreate the processes used by artists in the classroom to generate and perfect their work. The “Studio Habits of Mind” are the habits that are present in successful visual arts lessons. These habits can be consciously utilized in a non-arts classroom setting.

Research on the “Studio Habits of Mind” provides support for the concept of arts integration—that is, the side-by-side teaching of an art form and a non-arts subject aimed to deepen students’ understanding and retention of each. For example, a science teacher might teach a music-integrated lesson in which students learn the fundamentals of songwriting (pitch, rhythm, melody, verse structure) alongside the mechanics of the cell (nucleus, mitochondria, etc.). Students cement their understanding through a constructive process in which they use their knowledge of songwriting to write their own songs detailing the structure of a cell. 

Arts Integration has proven to be a remarkably desirable pedagogical structure in New Orleans. As test preparation has become increasingly important in schools across the city and all subjects outside of English and Math have been increasingly excised from the school day, an integrated curriculum allows students to receive exposure to subjects they might otherwise miss (including Science and Social Studies). A school administrator, squeezed for time from all sides and needing to post continuous gains on state LEAP testing in order to remain in existence, may decide that arts-integrated classes are better than no arts instruction at all. 

Arts integration has consistently received the enthusiastic endorsement of classroom teachers, who are the experts when it comes to what their students need for success. Because charter schools are free to set their own pedagogical methods, any strategy or framework that excites teachers can be well-positioned to thrive. 

An increased acceptance of arts integration practices in New Orleans schools is a positive development beyond the profusion of arts exploration in the classroom.

The “Studio Habits of Mind” are sometimes referred to as hidden curriculum. When quality arts learning occurs, students are not simply demonstrating an increased interest or having more fun—they are quite literally learning a hidden series of habits that will serve them throughout their lives. For example, an artist must “Engage & Persist” (one of the Studio Habits) to create a quality work of art.  When students engage in theater-science integrated learning, for example, they are engaging with the material and persisting in creating something meaningful with it (a play, a tableau). This challenges a more traditional approach where students may engage with the material and then are asked to persist so that they may ultimately pass a test that has no deeper, reoccurring meaning in their lives.

In many ways, it is hidden curriculum that makes me most excited about the presence of arts integration in New Orleans schools. Students who learn through the arts are not just having fun, they are building the skills and dispositions that artists have drawn on for thousands of years. The ability to “Envision,” to “Stretch & Explore,” to “Engage & Persist”—these dispositions will be powerful tools for students no matter where they go or what they do. The ability to access these skills will give students choice, power, and opportunity. And don’t the students of New Orleans, who have been underserved by corrupted curriculum for so long, deserve that access? That access is provided through the arts.  

Sean Glazebrook is The NOLA Project’s Education Director. He has worked at KIDsmART in New Orleans. In August, he will be attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Arts in Education program.  

This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series. 

Teaching to Cut Ties: Home Values and “Catch the Wall”

By Gabrielle Reisman

In my four years as a teaching artist in New Orleans, I worked at a spectrum of public charter schools—from the crumbling (now-defunct) Capitol One Charter Network’s Capdau Elementary, to eager transformation charter, ARISE Academy. I was an artist in the classroom with KIDsmART, a really lovely non-profit that pairs artists with classroom teachers to integrate the arts into state-required curriculum. (I’d say things like, “Hey scholars, let’s make a play about The Energy Cycle or American Explorers or Fractions.”) I worked alongside veteran educators, and many first-year teachers from Teach for America. Like those first-year teachers, my training was largely trial by fire. I had just gotten my BA from the University of New Orleans in Theater Arts and had minimal experience as an educator. From the first week though, one thing was clear—the kids were the reason.   

I went to public school my whole life. Growing up in Illinois in a town of 40,000, all kids attended one middle school and one high school. The children of farmers went to school with the children of professors and janitors and insurance salesmen and garment workers. Socioeconomic and racial diversity was the norm. Being taught by an educator with less than five years experience was rare. Teachers belonged to unions. Teaching was their profession, not a stepping-stone to somewhere else. 

The achievement gap between the public schools I attended as a kid and the public schools I taught in in New Orleans blew me away. It was not a gap really, but a deep and widening chasm. My students were sharpened anthropologists and wizened empaths. They knew in a heartbeat how you placed in the larger social strata. But many were reading three years below grade level. Many had learning and emotional disorders made worse by a corporate education model that valued assimilation over individual attention. Resiliency is a required trait for surviving most childhoods. But the chasm between what my students needed and what they were being offered, and the chasm between the priorities of their non-New Orleanian teachers and their families’ own values was so vast, that students exhausted all resiliency trying to span the two. 

I began writing Catch the Wall after I had given up working as a teaching artist full time. In the fall of 2010, I was in the MFA Playwriting program at UT Austin. Trying to explain the educational make up of New Orleans to my first year pedagogy class, I became gripped by an intense fear that the charter schools I had taught in—which overwhelmingly favored national best practices over local cultural ties— would push students to cut bonds with their community in a way that was so insidious that if another Katrina-like disaster were to hit the city, this new generation would not return and rebuild. 

New Orleans has a heightened gravitational pull. Though it affects everyone differently, it often feels like a deep and complicated personal relationship between yourself and the city. In exile the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I felt like I was living outside myself. I felt I could see myself on television right past the reporters’ shoulders. I wanted nothing more than to come back. I believe New Orleanians rebuilt with such zealousness because so many people here have a variation of that feeling. It is Home in a way that is much deeper than property or history. 

In the last charter I taught in before grad school, students repeated the call and response mantra,“Where are we going?” “We’re going to college!” College was where their teachers had gone- Brown, UCLA, The University of Nebraska. The school was pre-k through 2nd grade so college was a vague endgame, some sort of distant heaven of success. We repeated the call and response multiple times a day but we never had any discussion of what college was. All that was really made clear about college is that it was somewhere else. Not here. Not family. Not New Orleans. 

Catch the Wall looks at this tension—between leaving and staying, between fetishizing New Orleans and fetishizing the far away Elysian Fields of an Ivy League education. It is a play about cultural collision and cross-pollination. It is a play that does not present solutions, but pushes us instead to ask more questions. One of the cultural clashes I saw most often in my time teaching was over the relationship my students had to bounce music. Bounce is loud and raunchy and unapologetically local. It calls up to now-extinct housing projects and calls participants to shake their ass as a form of celebration-resistance. In my neighborhood, in the Upper 9th Ward, bounce is ubiquitous, blasted from every car window or child’s birthday party. Bounce, also, is at a crossroads of living only in New Orleans and being exported nationally by the music’s most visible artists. 

In Catch the Wall, I wanted to show the ways I saw my students subtly resisting the etic values of their schools. I wanted to show how New Orleans takes everything that enters into it and remakes it in its image. I wanted also to touch on the complicated relationship between the celebrated chaos of this city and the plague of localized violence that many of my students dealt with on a daily basis. I do not know how to extricate this violence from New Orleans’s self-identity. I do not know how to measure what is lost when a student privileges her teacher’s starched kakis over her father’s security guard uniform. But I know that what these young New Orleanians choose to value will affect the future of this city in a real and tangible way. I hope that that relationship can live on as a series of questions, a continued, ever-changing call and response. 

Gabrielle Reisman is a playwright and director based in New Orleans and New York. She is founding member of Underbelly- a theater collaborative that stages immersive journey-plays in forgotten spaces, as well as a member of The NOLA Project, and former artistic director of The Alamo Underground. She’s taught playwriting and theater-making at UT Austin, The Kenyon Playwrights Conference, and at public schools throughout New Orleans. 

Gabrielle is an NNPN Playwright in Residence at Southern Rep in New Orleans. Her play Catch the Wall won the Kennedy Center’s 2012 Rosa Parks Award. Other plays are published by Smith and Kraus and Hot Lead Press. Gabrielle received a BA from the University of New Orleans, MFA: The University of Texas at Austin. This summer she will be in residence at The Orchard Project, and with Page 73 at Yale.  

This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series. 

(school) ARTS and (school) CULTURE

By Chris Kaminstein

According to the DICTIONARY, culture is defined as, “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” I think of it as our “group events”; the gatherings that shape and define a community. We can all name the things that bring New Orleanians together like a mantra; Saints football, crawfish boils, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, Second Lines. However, I like to remember that culture is not limited to the event itself, but the way in which the community interacts with the event; the discussions and relationships that emerge. Culture is the tradition that allows discussion (discussion, here, should be read in the broadest possible terms – dance is a discussion of bodies, just as music is a discussion of rhythm and feeling).  

One of the many new buzzwords popularized by the charter school movement in New Orleans is SCHOOL CULTURE. Administrators use the term as a way to define and separate their schools from the pack of educational options in the city. SCHOOL CULTURE is meant to denote high behavioral standards and achievement-focused learning goals, “no excuses!”, and rigorous academic instruction. Although I think some of these goals are laudable, I find that too often culture is something done to students, rather than something defined and shaped by students.  Culture as defined by the dictionary is something different; shaped by community, it is a reflection on ourselves, our world, and our place in this whole crazy mess. It is, “achievement regarded collectively.”  

All of this can put New Orleans artists—and in particular theater artists—in a sort of bind. Artist communities, in America at least, tend to thrive in environments that offer cheap housing and plentiful part-time labor. In New York, the restaurant industry helps support an entire economy of part-time actors looking for a break. In New Orleans, actors and theater artists often work in education. The privatization of the public education system since Katrina has created a variety of out-sourced positions available to artists. In fact, the charter structure has endorsed a corporate culture where most services in a school are out-sourced. So how does an artist promote culture and community, one of the main jobs of an artist, in environments where those ideals have become a bit…mangled?   

Since 2009, the theater company at which I am co-artistic director, Goat in the Road, has been running an educational program called Play/Write. It is our attempt to create and promote culture created and shaped by middle school students. Here’s how it works: 

  1. Teaching artists visit a classroom over a 20-week period to teach some basic playwriting skills. 
  2. Students (at the end of the residency) write a final play.
  3. Students receive a bound and published copy of their play.
  4. Ten student plays are presented by local theater companies with professional actors.  

Play/Write is now in its fifth year, and operates in a variety of different school settings; private, public, and charter. The program is a reflection of our belief in both process and product. The process of creating something, of working on it over time in a collaborative environment is a powerful experience. So too, there are moments when a piece of performance cuts through us like lightning; moments that have the power to change our minds. Goat in the Road hopes that Play/Write offers both of these things; the process of good writing, and a product that can amaze and inspire. Most of all, though, our hope is that Play/Write promotes culture, the kind of culture that builds discussion.  

We have had plenty of silly moments in Play/Write plays (at our last showcase, one of our student plays featured a dog fart that made his ex-girlfriend, Kitty, expire), and we’ve had some serious moments too; about violence, missing parents, and feelings of sadness. But it’s important to us that these silly or emotional moments belong to the students. We need to keep our educational system in the city accountable (like Rethink New Orleans and other student-focused organizations), ensure that students are able to create and perform in their own artistic events, exhibit their work, present their science projects, be part of cultural moments that belong to them. I’m not naive. I understand that violence, that lack of educational opportunities and social services are not solved by some nice words on a page or a dance done at a talent show. But I do believe that the first step, before anything else, is to ensure we all have a voice, and that students have a voice to decide what they want, collectively.

Chris Kaminstein is a performer, writer, and teacher based in NOLA. He is a teaching artist with KIDsmART, co-artistic director of theater company Goat in the Road, and a member of improv duo machine A. 

This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series. 

The Extinction of Art Teachers in Charter Schools

By Francesca McKenzie

Teaching is no cakewalk. There are endless hours spent writing lesson plans, dealing with disruptive behavior, and attending professional developments. Not to mention confiscating love notes, stopping fistfights, or taking care of students when their relatives fall victim to street violence. However, the biggest struggle specific to public charters is keeping the art in schools. The New Orleans charter school system—or ground zero for the nation’s neoliberal education reform movement—is trading arts programming for stricter, data-driven school models in order to attain higher test scores, the standard that our society measures the worth of schools and students now.

I have been an arts integration theater teacher in New Orleans since 2011. Arts integration is a form of experiential learning that engages students with academics through arts-based curriculum. The job is ideal: it pays well, the schedule is flexible, and I get to share what I am passionate about and bring creativity into schools. Since it’s part time, it also frees me up to pursue my artistic endeavors. 

I won’t get into detail about the experiment that is New Orleans’ charter schools, since there are many writers that are doing it so eloquently. I’d like to focus on arts learning; many schools are cutting independent arts programming at an alarming rate. The rationale is that part time arts integration teachers or after school classes are enough, therefore full-day arts programming is unnecessary. Many art teachers are being forced out of schools or must suffer pay reductions and slashed budgets. Most of the art teachers that are getting cut out of schools are veteran New Orleans teachers. 

At the first New Orleans school I taught in, there was the most phenomenal dance teacher I have ever met. She had been teaching in New Orleans since the 1990s. We called her “Mama” and she would choreograph dance pieces that would bring the school community to tears. In her class, students had a place where they felt creative, safe and beautiful. The last year we worked together the business-oriented charter management organization split her between two schools, doubling her amount of students. She was taking the public bus back and forth every day from Mid-City to Uptown. She felt a decreased effectiveness in her teaching and involvement in either school’s community. This story is not uncommon and the ending is always the same. Eventually she left to find a place that valued what she did. 

The way many charter schools in this city de-prioritize the arts and teaching artists makes me sick. It is indicative of much post-Katrina pro-privatization policy. What makes me feel even worse is that I am a part of these changes. Many of these veteran teachers lose their jobs so that schools can hire contracted workers that aren’t paid benefits and don’t work full time—like me. 

Independent arts education is hard to quantify, but the value is immense. The students that are most successful in my classroom are the students who are struggling the rest of the academic day. In schools where students walk in straight lines, eat silent lunch and are without recess, art class is when students can speak to one another, move their bodies freely, and nurture their ability to be curious and critical thinkers.

Schools love having arts integration because it kills two birds with one stone: having art in the academic class—and not as its own subject—allows more time for more “important things” like state testing prep. I absolutely believe in arts integration for student engagement and as a pathway to liberated forms of education; however, arts integration must be in addition to and not a substitute for full arts programming. 

As an artist, I do work because I believe it makes the world a better place; but I compromise these values when I am working in schools that feel unjust, militant, and culturally insensitive. How do I bring the arts into schools where the students are being taught to be compliant and not creative thinkers? The larger question is how are New Orleans schools changing? Is this change something we support? Some educators and community leaders are speaking out against the way schools have changed, such as the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) and the New Teachers’ Roundtable. They are holding a mirror up to what is happening in our schools and demanding something better. Arts educators, including myself, are joining their ranks, and only time will tell what will come of it.

NOTES: If you want to learn more about the education system in New Orleans, here are some of my favorites: 
  • Catherine Michna has a great blog and recently published an article in Slate about why she won’t write recommendations for Teach for America (TFA). 
  • Andre Perry, Davenport University dean and a former New Orleans charter CEO often writes about charter schools.
  • For students’ perspective, check out these opinion pieces that were created in collaboration with The Hechinger Report and high school students at Bard’s Early College in New Orleans
  • Lastly, teacher and comedian Sophie Johnson wrote an incredibly honest and articulate blog series on her experience as a transplant TFA-educator in New Orleans.

Francesca McKenzie is a theater-maker, educator and yogi. A company member of Cripple Creek Theatre company since 2010, Francesca has worked with numerous New Orleans theaters including The NOLA Project, Southern Rep and Goat in the Road Productions. She moved to New Orleans in 2009 as an Assistant Garden Teacher at the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans through the Louisiana Delta Service Corps. For the past three years she has taught theater arts integration classes in numerous New Orleans charter schools through KIDsmART, whose mission is to use the arts to engage children in learning about themselves and the world in which they live. She is also a teacher with Goat in Road’s Play/Write program and The NOLA Project’s High School Intensive. Catch her at the Tulane Shakespeare Festival until July 12 as Titania in A Midsummer Nights Dream.

This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series. 

Standardized Thinking

By Andrew Vaught 

The partnership of theater and education seems a natural fit in the city of New Orleans. This is a city where the greatest civic benefit is the belief and celebration of the uniqueness of the individual. One simply needs to stroll down the street to observe the living theater of New Orleans. It is everywhere. Combining education and art represents an amazing opportunity to use the artistic culture of the city as a way to cultivate and encourage the individual voices, aesthetics, and philosophies of the city’s youth. The education system currently presents multiple opportunities for the theatrical artist of this city to engage with students in a variety of ways. Strangely enough, the very system that allows for theatrical engagement through education represents the greatest threat to the objectives of that combination.

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans quickly transformed into the New Jerusalem of Charter Schools. Privatized Public Education became readily available replacing the inefficient and ineffective traditional Public Education. With the phasing out of traditional public education, the arts programs associated with that type of education made way for organizations whose mission focused on marrying art to the academic curriculum of the schools. This has served as a boon for theater artists in the city of New Orleans. Thanks to organizations such as KidsmART and Young Audiences, artists have access to employment in the hundred or so charter schools in the area. They get paid a living wage to employ their toolbox of artistic knowledge towards the active betterment of the students across all grade levels. Artists are now filling a real need in our schools and this is something to be celebrated. However, special attention needs to be paid to the given circumstances that enable this opportunity.

Though managed by the Recovery School District or the Orleans Parish School Board, a charter school answers to its own board, its own president, and its own charter. Each charter advertises an educational product—better test scores. Their philosophy equates students with figures and results. The better the results, the more funding a school gets. This comes from the No Child Left Behind legislation, but it is in the proliferation of charters across the city and country where this act of congress has been made manifest. Test scores might improve, but there is a cost. The commitment to the singular fulfillment of improved test scores plays directly against the civic independence that is celebrated in the communities of New Orleans.

The drive for achievement on a test becomes the drive for uniformity. If a citizen were to take a tour of our many charter schools they would be struck by the uniforms, mnemonic hand signals, enforced straight and silent lines, dogma on the walls, and the firm rigidity of instruction and learning. These schools exist and prosper based on their abilities to push enough students past a certain number on a standardized test.

The definition of educational success in this country is now a number and it’s unrealistic to blame a school for trying to survive and achieve according to the rules of a system. However, it needs to be said that, intentional or not, this style of education inhibits the free spirit that we associate with our city. This freedom needs to be cultivated so the city’s children have the ability think, decide, and act for themselves. Theater’s power comes from its ability to show action from multiple perspectives. It is powerful nurturer of critical thought (something that is in short supply in our communities, states, and country). Can theater’s mission of propagating this type of creative thinking be accomplished in organizations that promote standardized thinking to achieve success? Cities improve because of original ideas and charismatic citizens to carry those ideas through. Theater in this town, and in any town, can help develop the people to originate ideas and empower them with the courage to act.  Is this happening in our schools now? I know what I would say. Do you?  

Andrew Vaught is the Artistic Director and a Co-Founder of the Cripple Creek Players. Andrew is a native of Covington, LA. and studied Drama at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. As an arts educator, he has supervised the creation and performance of student theater work and created and designed curriculum aimed specifically at inner-city and at-risk youth. 

This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series. 

The Surge

By A.J. Allegra

When a group of NYU students first formed The NOLA Project in March of 2005 to produce The Cripple of Inishmaan, many people (a great many of them being New Orleanians) asked, “Why would you want to start a theater company in New Orleans?”  I was one of those graduates and I remember the implied, “this is not a place for that sort of thing.” I don’t mean to say that the reception was an unwelcoming one, but more of a quizzical one.  For us, the easiest answer was opportunity.  New Orleans, a major American city, gave some college-aged actors the ability to work on a project (thus our name) and very likely get it seen by audiences.  In the five months that followed our inception, everything changed. Hurricane Katrina, for better or worse, pushed New Orleans to the forefront of the American social consciousness.  Suddenly, it appeared as if we were standing in the front of a trend. 

The clean slate that devastation can leave so frequently is the fertile soil of artists.  (I hope that didn’t sound like a pretentious artist talking. So sue me.)  Artists began flocking to New Orleans in greater numbers, drawn here simply by word of mouth and that indescribable feeling people get when they are young, restless, and ready for action. Theater began occurring everywhere. In a short amount of time, the decision to base a theater company in New Orleans went from a “Why New Orleans?” to “Why would we look anywhere else?”  We all might have been broke and drunk a little too often, but, by God, we were alive and ambitious and—most importantly—making art!  

I think of those immediate post-Katrina years as something akin to the Parisian Belle Époch: a time of tremendous output and risk-taking ideas where anything seemed possible and anything went. But as reality once again began to settle into this new New Orleans, the artists that flocked here now also faced the financial realities of the time: rising rents, rising gas prices, and a higher cost of living. This is where the artists meet education.  

In order to make a living and to sustain doing what we loved, many theater-makers, including myself, looked to the education sector.  In public, private, and charter schools, theater artists popped up in more classrooms than one could count—occasionally even matching the number of theater students in the room.  I know a great handful of theater teachers who have struggled to come up with lesson plans for a class of one.  But they do it.  

So many post and pre-Katrina New Orleans theater artists have crossed over into the world of education. It feels at times like nearly every theater artist I know teaches theater to children somewhere.  Chris Kaminstein, Andrew Vaught, Emilie Whelan, Donald Lewis, Megan Harms, Abby Murrell, Meredith Long, Scott Sauber, Jason Kirkpatrick, Michael Santos, Ashley Ricord, Mike Harkins, David Hoover, Lucas Harms, Liam Kraus, Molly Ruben-Long, Nick Slie, Amy Alvarez, Janet Shea, Lisa Shattuck, Sean Glazebrook, Francesca McKenzie, Gabrielle Reisman, Alex Ates… And that’s only a fraction of the theater artists/teachers I can think of off hand.  In a town with what could be considered a small or tight theater community, the opportunities young people should have to learn the art of theater is astoundingly abundant. This is an opportunity unparalleled by any other city of a similar size and composure of New Orleans. 

But as time barrels forward and as the new New Orleans simply becomes New Orleans, the creeping questions are:  Will it last? Did it ever really start?  Is the glut of theater and theater educators the new normal or a fleeting reality spurred by response to a crisis?  I don’t have the answer to this question, but struggle with it daily nonetheless. 

As a theater educator I want to encourage my students to look outside their home city for college and personal growth, but I also deeply wish for their return some day to keep theater alive, prospering, and growing in New Orleans. I hope that this influx of theater teaching artists influences a new generation of New Orleanians who appreciate and understand the art form. 

What do you think?  Please share your thoughts.  I don’t wish to write an essay, but rather start a conversation.  As we move beyond the post-Katrina age of New Orleans, what does the theater landscape—and in turn, the theater-education landscape—have in store?

A.J. Allegra is the current Artistic Director of The NOLA Project and a public theater educator in New Orleans for the past seven years.  He has taught theater in Chicago and in New Orleans at the Metairie Park Country Day Creative Arts Camp and NOCCA, where he taught acting in the Musical Theater Division for the past seven years.  Next year, he will begin teaching in Lusher Charter School’s Musical Theater Creative Arts program.  

This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series. 

Theater and Education in New Orleans: A Series of Articles

By Alex Ates

New Orleans has a unique community of theater-makers who work as teachers in the biggest educational experiment in the nation: the post-Katrina charter school movement. Some teachers are from New Orleans, but many are not. Some teachers are older, but many are not. Most are active in the theater community of the region. They’re artistic directors, managing directors, actors, producers, and designers in a city that is fertilizing one of the most active indie/bohemian, non-Equity theater communities in the nation. Two remarkable movements are refracting in the New Orleans prism: a change in K-12 education and a charge in American theater. The NOLA Project will be using this blog as a platform to publish a series of articles exploring theater education in New Orleans written by the people on the ground—the artists/educators of New Orleans who are right here, right now. 

“Theater and Education in New Orleans” hopes to spark a conversation and direct a focus on the state of theater education in the heat of New Orleans’ educational and artistic transformations. Additionally, it hopes to serve as a record (not the record) of the experiences of some theater educators in the city. 

This series only assembles the accounts of teachers in the area, no students or parents were interviewed or asked to write accounts. I hope that a series of that nature will emerge, especially once the gift of time is granted, when students and parents have the ability to retrospectively look upon their experiences in the New Orleans theater classroom and share how it influenced their longterm future. 

The voices of this series will be: A.J. Allegra, Andrew Vaught, Chris Kaminstein, Francesca McKenzie, Sean Glazebrook, Gabrielle Reisman, and Donald Lewis, Junior. These writers are all theater teachers or administrators in New Orleans charter schools. Three are artistic directors of prominent local companies, some are playwrights, some are actors, all are (or were) teachers who work with students everyday. They will explore everything from charter culture to arts access. 

This series is only a step—it’s a moment for us to see where we are, reflect on where we’ve been, and consider where we’re going, as theater teachers in New Orleans. We want you, the reader, to participate. Please leave comments on articles. Share the article. Add to the conversation. Influence this record. 

As Kaminstein points out in his piece, “(school) ARTS and (school) CULTURE,” unlike in some cities where the service industry iconically subsidizes theater-makers, in New Orleans the education industry subsidizes us. But, as one could imagine, the passion that is necessary to work in education infuses itself into the DNA of our artistic chemistry. The NOLA Project, in collaboration with these fine teachers, is excited to examine the implications of this unique landscape for the public to view and interact with. 

UPDATE (June 16, 2014): It was noted by a reader that instead of saying that all writers in this series work for New Orleans public schools, it would be clearer to identify them as teachers in New Orleans charter schools. Our writers work in a variety of environments including: state-operated specialty schools, direct run Recovery School District (RSD) schools, RSD charter schools, and Orleans Parish School Board charter schools. However, none work in direct run OPSB schools. Currently, there are only six direct run OPSB schools in operation. 

Alex Ates is a New Orleans native. He comes from a family of Orleans Parish Public School teachers and administrators. He is a company member of The NOLA Project, where he directs and acts. Next season, he will be the interim education director. He is the producer and director of The Shakespearean Jazz Show and Chasing Ballerinas. This past year, he worked at Morris Jeff Community School in New Orleans. Next year, he will be on the theater faculty at Lusher Charter School. Alex graduated from Emerson College in 2013.

This article is a part of The NOLA Project blog’s Theater and Education in New Orleans series. 

Interview with Pete McElligott, Playwright of “Adventures in Wonderland”

Pete McElligott is one of the funniest people I know. Period. You will see what I mean when your read this interview and watch his plays. He is a founding member of The NOLA Project and has appeared on the stage in foundational company productions like The Cripple of InishmanThe Lieutenant of Inishmore, and Cloud Nine. In 2010, he wrote With a Bang, which premiered here in NOLA. His most recent work is our current production of Adventures in Wonderland. This new piece is actually three plays operating simultaneously, requiring the audience to be split into different sections and shepherded throughout the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden. This is a new venture for The NOLA Project and only Pete could create the story we needed. I interviewed him about this project via email. Here it is. 

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Pete McElligott, playwright of Adventures in Wonderland
ALEX ATES: How were you approached about writing Adventures in Wonderland
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PETE MCELLIGOTT: I was emailed by a young A.J. Allegra.  I believe his exact words were something like “So we’d like to do Alice in Wonderland in May 2014 in NOMA’s sculpture garden.  We’d like it to be a fun, audience-traveling production that is no more than 80 minutes in length.  And we’d love for you to write it.  I want a show that can appeal to kids well enough but really have the adults laughing more.  Ideally, we could do the thing with 10-15 actors.  What say you?  Interested??”
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I had never read either of the books, and I couldn’t really remember the Disney animated film, but I had just seen the Johnny Depp version so clearly I was the right man for the job. Honestly, my initial thought was that A.J. and Andrew probably both wanted to do it themselves but were too busy. 
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AA: Did you end up doing any research? 
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PM: I watched everything that I could, and I mean everything.  I’m not proud of all of it, but I did it.  I watched the movies, I read both books, and I played every video game adaptation.  Not many people know about the pornographic musical version of Alice in Wonderland. I not only watched it, I made others watch it too.  I would be surprised if Alex Wallace’s performance isn’t lifted entirely from that film.
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AA: How did you write a play that’s so specific to the location of The Sculpture Garden, using certain sculptures and paths to influence characters and stories, when you live in New York City? 
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PM: On that front, all credit goes to Andrew Larimer. He crafted a digital map of the space with close ups of the sculptures and where they were positioned through out the garden. I could not have done it otherwise.
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AA: How did you write three scripts that operate concurrently? I remember you mentioning something about screaming the lines at your computer… 
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PM: How did I write three scripts that operate concurrently…  Not well, would probably be my answer. I tried though. Man, did I try. The results are entertaining to say the least. They should probably be studied. The original drafts had the individual tracks cycling through twice so that it was possible for the audience to watch two tracks in one night. When that idea was abandoned (for very good reasons), I had to immediately write an Act 2 for each of the tracks which took me well past my initial deadline. Regardless, you asked how I tried to do it. I timed myself performing each track. I then added to that the time that I thought maybe it would take for a group of thirty people to travel between stations. Using those times I tried to line everything up. But obviously I never walked the space, and it’s groups of seventy. So Andrew has added bits and cut lines to make things work best.
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AA: What influence did The Simpsons have on your writing?
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PM: The Simpsons, The Muppets, Monty Python, Preston Sturges, Peter Sellers, and Rocky and Bullwinkle are probably the reason that I write. James Bartelle once told me that “there has to be great craftsmanship in comedy. You’re balancing things, setting things up, keeping distance between punchlines, and trying to earn as many small laughs as you can and at least two big roars.”  He said that almost a decade ago, and I really don’t know why it has stuck with me, but it has. The Simpsons is just one of many shows over the years that raised the bar on what you could build with great craftsmanship. The amazing thing is that so many people agreed that it was special, which almost never happens. There are a lot of things that are nice about the NOLA Project, but my favorite thing has always been that we share a sense of humor. They are a group of very smart people who are eager to be laughed at.
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AA: What about Alice in Wonderland makes it so iconic and timeless?
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PM: It is imagination. It’s a kid’s imagination. Everybody starts there. Before the world tells you what everything is and always should be, you’re allowed to see things as whatever you want. It’s a really nice thing to celebrate.  
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AA: What’s your favorite NOLA Project memory? 
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PM: I mean… the easy-out here would be for me to say “when I met my fiance”.  So I will say that. But my favorite non-fiance memory, would be going to see Alex Ates in a production of Twelfth Night that was narrated by two cockney prostitutes. One of them sat on James Bartelle’s lap. I wanna say she was maybe fifteen. I mean, she looked fifteen. When you go to see Shakespeare, you don’t except to find a fifteen year old prostitute sitting on your friend’s lap. And that’s what’s nice about Theatre. The unexpected!
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An Interview with NOMA’s Alice Enthusiast, Brad Caldwell

Brad J. Caldwell is the public programs manager for the New Orleans Museum of Art. For the past three seasons, he has helped bring The NOLA Project to the sculpture garden for thousands of New Orleanians to see. He is also an avid Alice in Wonderland enthusiast, having dedicated several pieces of art to Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel. Because of his expertise and passion towards Alice and the characters of Wonderland, we asked him to design the production poster for our upcoming immersive theater experience, Adventures in Wonderland. Here is an email interview with Brad where he discusses his relationship with the fantasy of Alice in Wonderland. 
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NOLA Project: What is so fascinating to you aboutAlice in Wonderland

Brad Caldwell: It is the idea of being able to escape to another land to get away from one’s own reality. Ever since I was a kid I would have loved the chance to be able to go down the rabbit and say goodbye to my reality. But like Alice, I would want to return home. I think everyone would like to escape for a little while. I feel the same for Alice in Wonderland as I do for The Wizard of Oz - just a chance to escape, but always to come back home.

NP: When did you start painting and drawing scenes from it? 

BC: I having been sketching these characters since I was a kid. It has been the last 10 years that I have been exploring them more seriously.
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Brad Caldwell’s “Welcome to the Tea Party, Alice”
NP: What is the Alice in Wonderland aesthetic? 
BC: Like Wonderland, it is what you want it to be; it’s totally free. But, I do believe in maintaining a respect for the story and the original illustrations.

NP: What makes it so timeless? 

BC: gain, like the Wizard of Oz I think it is that idea of escapism.

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Brad Caldwell’s “Wobbleland: We’re All Mad”

NP: What makes it so compelling to people of all ages? 

BC: The characters are all over the place mentally and emotionally and therefore all ages can relate in one way or another. There is nothing preachy or overly adult in the story or characters - there is a perfect blend of silliness inside a compelling story.

NP: What was your process in designing the poster for this production? 

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Brad Caldwell’s poster design for Adventures in Wonderland

BC: I looked to the original illustrations. My favorite illustration is the one of Alice facing and meeting the Chesire Cat, so I played with that one. I like the idea that the viewer cannot see Alice’s face because of the way our story is told. I also couldn’t resist the idea of the Chesire Cat in the tree because of the Oaks that live in the Sculpture Garden, which led me the Beaded Necklaces sculptures in the garden.

NP: When you paint scenes from it, what POV do you like to use? Is it from a specific character or viewpoint? 

BC: Alice. I try to see the characters through her eyes. In my mind she is not intimidated by any of the other characters nor does she take them seriously.
For more of Brad’s work, check out his website here and his Facebook fan page here

For more on our exciting, new, unique production of Adventures in Wonderland click here