Teaching Life Skills Through Theatre

Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast
– the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening. Welcome to Episode 123!
You can find the links for this episode at the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode123.
Has anyone ever said to you about your program, “It’s just drama – drama. It’s just
drama. It’s just theatre. It’s not important.” It happens all the time, right? All the time,
it happens to me! And, you know, it’s because the drama classroom looks different and acts
different than all the other classes. And so, it must not be like all the other classes
and it must not be useful or important or worthy and it must not be worthy of being
included in the curriculum which is a big problem because that means drama programs
disappear. Except that all drama teachers know the importance
of their program, right? The drama classroom is one of the few places
where real world life skills are taught. You know them. Say them with me, everybody. Communication,
self-confidence, self-evaluation, creative thinking – these are the skills everybody
– all teenagers – everybody needs beyond the classroom, beyond school, right? A test
– testing, one, two, three – testing does not prepare a student for the real world.
Life skills, that’s what students need, and my guest today, Shandra Gallant, artistic
director of the Landgon Theatre Association, she thinks so, too. So, that’s what we’re
going to talk about today. Let’s get to it.
LINDSAY: All right. Hello, everyone! I am happy to be sitting here talking to Shandra
Gallant. Hello there! Hello there, Shanny! That’s what your students call you, right?
SHANDRA: It’s true. Hi! How are you doing? LINDSAY: I’m great. Tell everybody where
you are. SHANDRA: Well, I’m technically in my house
right here in Calgary, Alberta. LINDSAY: Alberta, excellent! And the reason
that we’re talking here today is that you have done some of our plays.
SHANDRA: I have, yes. We really, really enjoy your plays and lots we’ve used for our final
projects that we do with our group. LINDSAY: Yeah, and what is your group?
SHANDRA: I work with the Langdon Theatre Association and we’re a little program. We meet once
a week for a whole year and we work on life skills through theatre and we put on a final
performance. LINDSAY: And that is something which was very
interesting to me – the whole notion of using drama to work on life skills. That’s
actually one of my big mantras, I guess, because I think drama is one of the few places where
students are getting any backing in life skills. So, I’m really interested to talk to you
about that. But, first, how did you get into this? What
is your background in theatre? SHANDRA: Well, I have my BFA and I kind of
dabbled in directing. But, originally, I was a stage manager and loved it, and this group
actually hired me many, many years ago to stage manage one of their shows and I was
so impressed by how they worked with the kids and I was super impressed by the kids’ performance
that I wanted to be involved and they hired me to teach these kids and I’ve been doing
it for over ten years and they still amaze me.
LINDSAY: And why do you think you were drawn to a teaching element as opposed to a performing
element? Or staying as a stage manager? SHANDRA: Well, I think that I like to be the
helper, of course, but I also like to see everything and I think, when you take a step
back and you can look at everything, you know, especially with these kids, being able to
watch them grow from the first read of a play to when they get up on their feet and do it,
it’s just I love to see that and it makes me happy and I want to encourage that.
LINDSAY: So, let’s talk about that’s a very specific pathway to say, “We teach
life skills through drama.” Why that specific path?
SHANDRA: Well, we don’t want to focus so much, it’s not for kids who want to be actors.
It’s an extracurricular activity and, you know, not everybody out there wants to be
a sports kid. They don’t want to do the dance and, you know, the hockey and that kind
of thing and we wanted to offer them something else by doing the life skills through theatre.
Theatre is such an amazing, amazing platform that we can really address so many things
and kind of get a practice run at things that we don’t really get to practice in life
sometimes. It’s just so open. We use it in so many different ways and it just became
our way of doing things because it is so adaptable and we can use it to help the kids through
pretty much any problem and we find that they really enjoy it. They enjoy taking a moment
to watch their friends or taking a moment to be the center of attention.
LINDSAY: What are the ages that you work with? SHANDRA: We go from kids six up until they
turn eighteen. Once they’re eighteen, we have to send them along on to their real life.
But, yeah, we have young’uns and then we go all the way up to eighteen.
LINDSAY: So, how do you think you’re preparing them for real life?
SHANDRA: Well, you know, I’ve seen them change and I’ve seen them, you know, learn
things, but I think mostly we’re creating a self-confidence in them and we’re creating
teamwork and group work and just kind of the main skills that will help them to be the
best human that they can be. So, whatever their path – you know, whatever they want
to do – some of them, yes, want to be actors and that’s why they’re in this performing;
but some of them just, you know, are kids that may grow up and may go to university,
may not, and we see them being able to create really good – well, they get good listening
skills, they’re adaptable. We try and help them learn the balance between, you know,
help them to not be stressed, to deal with those things. Problem-solving, I guess, is
really what it kind of narrows down to. But listening skills is huge and that one really
helps with all the other skills. LINDSAY: So, how do you do that? How do you
promote listening skills? SHANDRA: Well, these kids are really awesome.
We split them into four groups just to kind of divvy up the age ranges because the six-year-olds
seem to work better with other six-year-olds and the eighteen-year-olds, you know, work
better with those ages. So, we have four groups and they each have their own teacher, and
the teachers are theatre professionals – whether they’re directors or actors or stage managers
– and they meet once a week. The one thing that we always do is a group
check-in. So, at the beginning of class, the kids sit in a circle – we always do a circle
so that everybody can see everybody’s face and no one’s the head of the table – and
they check in. They’re like a little family; they tell each other what’s going in their
lives, their highs, their lows. You know, sometimes, they just do one word to describe
how they’re feeling in that exact moment. And so, the kids know how their group is doing.
They’re learning empathy, sympathy, that kind of stuff.
And then, obviously, through theatre games, they get a lot of great experiences and they
can practice their loud voices and their quiet voices. They can try different emotions. They
can pretend to play, you know, different characters that they don’t always get to be but maybe
they want to experience those emotions and those feelings.
LINDSAY: We talk to a lot of teachers where the thing that they emphasize is how their
theatre class is a safe space. SHANDRA: Absolutely.
LINDSAY: I wonder if it’s even more of a safe space when it’s an extracurricular
where there might not be any kids from your school so you could actually open up without…
retaliation is not the right word but you know? If you are able to share openly with
a group and then you never see them until that exact same thing, do you find that you
learn that some of your students are very different in your group than they are in other
parts of their lives? SHANDRA: Oh, absolutely. It’s strange because,
you know, we get some kids, their parents bring them to us and say, “Oh, he’s a
ham at home! We want him to be in theatre,” and we’re like, “Oh, well, here he’s
quite shy and he’s learning to open up and he’s learning to project,” so kids, of
course – just like anybody – are different humans depending on their situation and the
group that they’re with; we all kind of change depending on what the situation is.
In Langdon, there’s a bunch of different schools and we also have kids that come from
other areas. So, yeah, these kids sometimes don’t see each other for a whole week. Some
of them are in school together, some of them are homeschooled. So, it is a safe place and
they’re almost creating their own little community.
LINDSAY: Which is so important. Well, just that whole notion of communication and collaboration.
SHANDRA: Yeah. LINDSAY: When you’re working with students
and they’re there for the whole year, what’s the process? Do you do a show? Do you start
with icebreakers and theatre games and then you build up to a show? How are you incorporating
taking this community and moving to forward throughout a year.
SHANDRA: That’s a great question. Obviously, each teacher has their own kind of way of
doing things. But, in general, the first couple of weeks of class are getting to know each
other, getting everybody comfortable with each other, creating that safe place, and
we actually just performed for each other. We do kind of a Christmas showcase for the
parents. So, the kids work on theatre games, getting comfortable, and they also work on
something to present at this Christmas showcase, and it doesn’t have to be, like, a scene
or a skit or a play. One of the groups actually just showed us some of the theatre games that
they play and it was really awesome. The whole point of this is to let them have
a chance to be in front of an audience and practice those confidence skills and those
speaking skills, and also for the parents to kind of see where we’re at. I know parents
kind of wonder; they drop their kids off and they pick them up and I’m sure it’s like
school, “What did you learn today?” and the kid’s like, “Oh, stuff.” So, the
parents get to see, you know, what their student is doing and they get to see their child in
the community that, you know, is their group. So, we do the Christmas showcase and then,
after Christmas, this is where you come in, Lindsay.
LINDSAY: Yay! SHANDRA: Yay! We pick plays and we pick plays
that we feel have good morals and are appropriate to our motto of life skills through theatre
and we rehearse these plays and then we do a final performance for the parents in April
or May. So, that’s kind of our process. So, still doing all those theatre games, still
doing those important check-ins, but also rehearsing.
LINDSAY: So, how does a rehearsal process look for you guys when your focus is life
skills through drama but, at the end of it, there has to be a product? How do you balance
process and product? SHANDRA: Well, it’s definitely process over
product. We do do the end performance and we do it in the theatre to kind of make it
fun and wonderful, but we’re not focused on the performance. We all know, as in life,
that nothing is ever perfect and we only get one chance to do the end product in front
of an audience so we know it’s not going to go, you know, the way we all imagine in
our heads and that’s okay. One of the other things we work on is forgiveness and, obviously,
instant forgiveness in acting. If something goes horribly wrong, the people on-stage smile
and nod and you keep going. To be able, as a child, to have instant forgiveness – not
just for yourself but for your peer who has messed up the line – is something that we
really do work on a lot so that the end performance goes as smoothly as it can, but it really
is about the process. So, we’d still have a check-in. We’d rehearse
the lines, obviously. Talk through the play. What does it mean? Why would those characters
do that? Has anybody been in a situation like that? Share a story. And really try and find,
you know, kind of the meat of what the authors have written and try and portray it to the
best of our ability. There’s lots of story-time which, you know, in school, we’d say, “Oh,
not a story!” but here we want to hear those stories. We want to understand how they’re
feeling and maybe be able to relate it to characters.
LINDSAY: Isn’t that interesting where it’s like, you know, “No, it’s not story-time
for you,” but that’s an encouraged thing? Well, you know, students are told throughout
the day to sit down and be quiet and listen and not share what’s going on inside of
them in the majority of their classes. SHANDRA: Yeah, it’s true, and I think that’s
where theatre, it’s a lovely mechanism because it’s so organized in the fact that you have
to have everything memorized and get in the right order and you have lights and sounds
and all these things. But it’s also so free in that they’re exploring a character. Every
time they say the line, it could come out differently and someone’s going to respond
to them differently, and by using those stories and by using their experiences, you know,
they get to make it their own. LINDSAY: I love that notion of organized and
free because so many people, when they walk into, well, a theatre classroom, the last
thing they see is organized and yet that’s exactly right! Like, there are steps that
need to happen in a play in order for it to reach its conclusion.
SHANDRA: Absolutely, and I think that that’s why it’s such a lovely, lovely balance,
and balance is another big key thing that we’re trying to teach them. It’s that,
you know, you have to balance not only your life and your school work and your friends
but just yourself as a person. You have to make sure that you’re doing things to make
you happy but also that you’re not harming other people. So, balance is such a key thing
and just being able to be confident and sure of yourself that you can explore and that
you can share in order to, you know, do the best job you can.
LINDSAY: So, there’s two things that you’ve said that I really want to get into more.
One is the notion of balance and also the notion of forgiveness. Are these two things
that you and your teachers are just incorporating in their language and just in terms of repeating
it during a class and during the year? Or do you have specific exercises that kind of
highlight these principles? SHANDRA: Well, like I said, each teacher does
their own way of doing things. Like, I get to direct one of your shows and I will definitely
include those things and it does kind of depend on the age range, you know? If you try and
talk to six-year-olds about balance, it’s not going to go very well.
LINDSAY: They’ll be like, “The beam? The balance beam?”
SHANDRA: Yes, the balance beam! They might get it if it’s a teeter-totter – who knows?
LINDSAY: So, how do you do it with a younger kid? How do you do it?
SHANDRA: Well, with the little kids – and I don’t teach them as much even though I
think they’re probably one of the funnest groups just because they’re so imaginative
– I think that it’s about making sure that there’s games where there’s taking
turns and that there’s games where people lose which may sound a bit harsh but you have
to be able to be out, to be wrong, and be able to walk to the side and wait for your
other group members to finish the game, right? There has to be that. So, I don’t know what
drama games you play but we play Director’s Daughter quite a bit which teaches the children
stage directions. LINDSAY: Okay.
SHANDRA: So, upstage left and all these things, but we kind of throw in a few things. It’s
like the boat game. But being able to be told, “Oh, you’re out!” makes it okay to be
wrong and, you know, sometimes, they have to sit out which is not fully balanced but
it kind of teaches them that it’s not always going to be them, them, them, them. I think,
you know, six-year-olds have a hard time not being the center of someone’s world, right?
LINDSAY: Yes. SHANDRA: Because they’re still the center
of their world and they haven’t quite learned that – believe it or not – even though
your moment revolves around you, the whole world doesn’t revolve around you. So, with
the little guys, you have lots and lots of games. We’re not saying at the end of the
game, “That was about balance.” It’s very subtle. Maybe we should!
LINDSAY: “And now, the lesson for your class!” SHANDRA: “The moral of that game, children,
was…” So, they’re kind of getting those experiences indirectly – like, indirect
games. I’m trying to think of other games right now but I can’t just because it’s
been a while since I taught those little guys. LINDSAY: Okay. The ones that you’re more
involved with, how does that change for when they get older?
SHANDRA: Well, the older guys, obviously, they have a bit more that you can talk through
it and they understand a bit more, but they also do well when you get them to guide each
other. So, it’s hard. It’s hard to share and it’s hard to be the leader and it’s
hard to be a follower but, if they take turns doing all of these roles, then they kind of
learn that. They learn that forgiveness and they learn that balance that, you know, if
they’re the director for one scene, they’re going to hope that their performers in that
scene are doing their best. And then, the next week, when they’re the actors in a
scene and they’re being directed, you know, so they kind of gain the balance like that.
And, also, forgiveness, you know, it’s easier to forgive – well, not for everybody; some
people have a really hard time forgiving themselves but, if you’re working with your friends
and your friend’s directing you and you’ve messed something up or you haven’t memorized
your lines as you were supposed to, they have to work through that together and, you know,
they talk about it. They talk about, you know, whether they’re grumpy at someone else because
they didn’t do their job and it’s really about opening up conversation and letting
that conversation happen and, you know, after our showcase, we had another class where we
just talk about what went well, what didn’t go well and – not that they would blame
each other but – you know, saying, “Well, so and so didn’t come in at their cue and
it messed me up,” and saying, “Okay, great. So, how can we fix that? We have to be able
to trust each other on-stage and, you know, that’s a big part of it. If someone’s
never there when you need them, we’ve got to talk through that.”
LINDSAY: You know what, I find a lot, more and more, I’m meeting students who aren’t
able to forgive themselves. They get in that moment on-stage and it’s so troubling. And
then, I’ve also seen what you’ve discussed about how, when someone’s messed up, others
come to their… come to their arrival, come to their…
SHANDRA: Aid. LINDSAY: Aid! It’s word of the day over
here at the podcast. I think that is the most amazing thing that I think you can teach a
student, particularly in a theatre situation, if someone’s having trouble, to find a way
to leave the script because you have to, “Okay, we’re not in the lines now. We have to help
the play move forward.” SHANDRA: Absolutely, and I think that that’s
where they work together as a team and it’s those team-building skills that they’re
not going to jump on someone else’s lines but, if they’re struggling, they’re going
to throw something in there. They’re going to push through and make it happen. You know,
we do a lot of that through improv games. We work on those kinds of skills.
LINDSAY: How long does it take, do you find, because you’re working with, it must be
that some of your students you’re working with year after year…
SHANDRA: It’s true. It’s true, yeah. LINDSAY: How long does it take to build these
communities with your students? SHANDRA: Well, it’s funny because, you know,
I feel that, depending on the age group – again, the older kids always seem to move a little
faster and that’s kind of a given – but at Christmas time right now, like, the one
group, one if my teachers, her group is solid. Like, they are a team, they support each other,
they run their lines when they don’t have to, they text each other and say, “Hey!
Let’s do this!” and they’re just an amazing group. So, it could take, you know,
a few months, but sometimes it takes the whole year and then, when we start again – you
know, we have summers off and we start again in September – you’re going to have new
group members in your group so we’re starting to build a new community with another group
and I think that’s part of the process, too – just being able to be open to people
and learning to trust them and that kind of thing. So, it could be months, it could be
a year. LINDSAY: Oh, it’s not like it’s math.
Do you have a favorite story? Because you’ve been doing this for over ten years now so
there is a reason that you stay. SHANDRA: Yes, for sure. You know what, I have
so many stories. I’ll try and give you the Coles notes version because these kids make
me so happy. We had one little guy, when I started teaching, he must have been about,
I want to say six or seven, and he had an incredible stutter. You know, he just couldn’t
get any words out without the stutter happening and his mom had taken him to a couple of different
speech therapy classes and done a whole bunch of that stuff and it hadn’t helped him at
all. It wasn’t like an overnight turn. He was probably in class for two years before
we kind of realized – because we watched an old video – that his stutter was gone.
Like, it had happened over, you know, a long time and we just were so there with him that
he became a part of our community. I didn’t even realize, you know, that he had the stutter
still, and we watched a video from his first year performance where it was, you know, very
obvious and it was gone. Like, he just worked through it on his own and I don’t know if
you’ve had this experience but sometimes, when kids are on-stage and they’re portraying
a character, the little things that they have in real life – whether they have a twitch
or whether they get super quiet – those things go away. So, his character didn’t
have a stutter but he, as a little boy, you know, still once in a while would have his
stutter. Anyway, it’s just amazing that he was so comfortable that that was not what
he was thinking about it and it went away. LINDSAY: I love that.
SHANDRA: I love it, too. LINDSAY: Well, you know, it’s that moment
when the light bulb goes off or the actor, the student who says, “I’d never go on-stage,”
goes on-stage. To me, that’s what drama in education is. It’s not math or science;
it’s sort of developing a human being. SHANDRA: Yeah, and I think you hit it on the
head. That’s what it is and it’s not like we’re focusing, “Let’s get rid of this
stutter.” We’re focusing on the human. We’re developing this little person to be
kind and sensitive and adaptable and all these kind of skills and then that’s when they
amaze us and they get on-stage or whatever it is – whether it’s stage or whatever
he needed to do that day and he did it with confidence.
LINDSAY: So, in your own process of working with students and developing your own process,
what are you struggling with in terms of teaching drama and having this drama in education focus
and having this life skills focus? What are a couple of struggles that you see on a regular
basis? SHANDRA: Well, we always struggle with, you
know, we’re telling the kids to be open and to be free but, as the authority, the
teacher in the room, you can’t just let things go crazy, right? And we always ask
them to be respectful and appropriate but sometimes there are things that kids want
to talk about that are inappropriate. And so, you know, there’s a funny balance there.
So, again, you’ve got to find the happy medium where parents aren’t going to be
like, “What were you talking about in class?” and then, also, you know, encourage them,
“Talk to your parents about that.” The other one I have a hard time with is that,
because it is theatre and our focus is life skills, we do get those kids in the class
that are there and they just want to be performers. They want to be the shining stars and, because
of the way we run our program, when we cast our roles, we don’t cast them for, like
I said, it’s not for a good show. We’re not here to do Broadway. We’re about the
process so it’s maybe not for everyone which is hard to say but, you know, we’re not
trying to create perfect actors. LINDSAY: No, but, if the growth happens, really,
who cares what the performance is like? SHANDRA: Absolutely. Absolutely, that’s
what it is. LINDSAY: Yeah. Okay. And then, as the last
question, if you look into the future, you know, five years, ten years from now, what
is your ideal theatrical life? SHANDRA: Oh, my goodness! Well, I still hope
to be doing this. I hope to be directing these kids and having classes with them where, you
know, they teach me something – probably every class – and working with these amazing
teachers that I work with that are just so encouraging. You know, it’s also about the
teachers. We all have such different backgrounds that we pick up on different things. And then,
when we do get together as a big group, you know, we’re such a good balance for each
other and such a great support system for the kids that we’re all approachable for
different things. I wish we could have more classes, you know? We can only have four groups
because of our space limitations and that kind of thing. So, I think I just need to
win the lottery and build a space. LINDSAY: Build a big space.
SHANDRA: Yeah, find a bunch more teachers that, you know, feel the same way and understand
that we’re about the human growth and we want to see kids, you know, be confident in
themselves. But, yeah, just finding great parents, too. Our board of directors is amazing
and these parents get their kids to class every week, right? It seems like a simple
thing but it’s so important, right? Like, if the parents were like, “Meh. We’re
not doing it.” So, I hope that this can keep happening and that everybody understands
what an important role it plays in, you know, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s
a must but these kids, I think, when they’re adults will be really cool, honest, fun humans,
you know? LINDSAY: Well, where else are they going to
learn it? Like, if our focus in school is testing, that’s great. But we don’t do
a lot of testing in the real world. We talk to each other and we have to work with each
other and we have to have ideas and then we have to implement those ideas. Like, where
is that happening if not in drama? SHANDRA: And that’s it, right? Like, they’re
doing these tests in class and then all of a sudden they’re in the real world and they
have to solve a problem. If they haven’t practiced it, whether they failed when they
practiced or not, what are they doing to do, right? So, it’s important. It’s important
to practice, you know, and it’s important to fail and try these things before you get
there, right? LINDSAY: Absolutely. Absolutely!
Well, thank you so much! It was a real pleasure talking to you and just learning what you
do. We are very big supporters of the whole life skills through drama notion and I wish
you all the best in your future with this. SHANDRA: Well, thanks so much for having me
and I support the cause fully so I hope that people are hearing this and understanding
that we’re trying to make it amazing. Thank you so much, Shandra! I can tell, we
are on the same page. I think you can tell, too! We’re on the same page!
So, before I go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!
So, today, we have Rainbows vs. Bunnies: Annihilation by Bradley Walton and, I have to tell you,
every time I read the title or I see the title, it makes me laugh. For me, that’s a good
start. A lot of our plays, well, you know, let’s
be frank, we don’t have the Death of a Salesman, we don’t have the well-known musicals; people
have to get into our plays to read them and connect to them and, you know, we do a good
job of making sure that everything in the Theatrefolk catalogue is for middle school,
for high school. You know that going in. but then, to actually open the door to a play,
you need a very inviting door and I think titles, they are the entryway into getting
someone to read a play. I really hope that Rainbows vs. Bunnies: Annihilation opens a
lot of doors because I think it’s a great title. It’s a good start. I love it.
So, what’s going in this play? Well, did you know that rainbows and bunnies, for centuries,
have been locked in a bitter rivalry, bitter struggle to make people happy, and that teenager
Aaron who is failing history is right in the middle of their struggle and strife, and that’s
really all you need to know. There are bunnies. There are rainbows. They
are fighting. Teenager’s in the middle. What is he going to do?
So, go to theatrefolk.com for sample pages. Find out! Read! You can read majority of the
play for free on our website or get the link at the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode123.
Do it! Finally, where, oh, where can you find this
podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook
page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app. You
can also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

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