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Welcome to the Arden Theatre Company blog, where we share behind-the-scenes stories and current happenings with you. You will hear from the Arden staff as well as actors and other visiting artists, and we hope to hear from you, too. If you have an idea for a topic, please post a comment about it. We can't wait to hear what you think!

On an unseasonably warm and rainy late Wednesday afternoon in early February a group of timid yet very excited and curious Philadelphia public school teachers arrived at the Arden’s Hamilton Family Arts center to partake in the first of three professional development workshops that will be offered at the Arden to the participating faculty of Arden for All partner schools.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers work together to strengthen team building skills in the classroom.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers work together to strengthen team building skills in the classroom.

The evening consisted of a meet and greet and then a fun and active workshop on how to integrate improv and theatre games into the classroom. These games and activities are designed to  inspire 21st-Century skills, such as collaboration, team work, and utilizing creative imagination. Taught by local improv teaching artist, Tara Demmy (a former Arden Apprentice), the workshop also instilled “thinking quick on your feet” skills to enhance classroom engagement. The night ended with a light dinner and a performance of the Arden’s production of Funnyman.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers enjoy a laugh during an improv activity.

Arden for All Partner School Teachers enjoy a laugh during an improv activity.

The workshop began quietly with teachers getting to know each other through a name game and by the time we were 15-20 minutes into it, the sounds of uproarious laughter and applause permeated through the Hamilton Family Arts Center! By the end of the workshop, the teachers created a common bond and this energy spilled into conversations while having dinner about how they planned to use the exercises not only with their students but also with fellow colleagues at their perspective schools! They vowed to share their results via video and photos with each other and the Arden! By the end they became a team and felt a part of the Arden family. As we headed to the theatre to see a show together, it definitely felt like a mission accomplished!

Arden for All Partner School Teachers with Improv Teaching Artist, Tara Demmy (far left) and Director of Educational Outreach, Jose Aviles (far right).

Arden for All Partner School Teachers with Improv Teaching Artist, Tara Demmy (far left) and Director of Educational Outreach, Jose Aviles (far right).

By Shanna Tedeschi, Arden Professional Apprentice

Greetings friends! Shanna here–an Arden Professional Apprentice and Teaching Artist.

Did you know that every year over 2, >pharmacy 500 excited kids in Philadelphia, Ridley Park and Camden get free books, free classes and free show tickets to our Children’s Theatre productions? All this magic is possible through a program called Arden for All.

As a Teaching Artist, I was sent to bring some enchantment to the 3rd and 4th graders of Eddystone Elementary. What ensued were moments of imagination, hilarity and discovery–watch this slideshow to see for yourself!

Bi Jean Ngo, the actress who plays Arietty in The Borrowers, >pharm is also a Teaching Artist for the Arden’s educational program – Arden For All.  Here Bi recounts her first few days at McCall Elementary. The lesson challenged the students to “borrow” classroom objects to make Homily a spoon and Arietty a hairbrush.  But just when they figured out how to do this – an obstacle came their way – they ran into a giant puddle on their way home.  How will these tiny Borrowers cross the puddle with all the new items they have “borrowed”?

By Bi Jean Ngo, Arrietty in The Borrowers

All of Dr. Geller’s class had a strong understanding of the scale of The Borrowers. They had all visited the Arden and seen James and the Giant Peach, Peter Pan, and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and were incredibly excited for their next visit to the theatre. The whole class has been reading the book, and they have completed seventeen chapters so far. When asked to name their favorite moments, there were plenty of hands raised, and I’m happy to report that all the students seem to retain much of the detailed descriptions in the book.

All of the groups had ideas for crossing the puddle as Borrowers. At first, the students formed lists of objects that they’d use to cross a puddle as borrowers. I then asked them to create a how-to instructional together with me, using the peanut butter & jelly exercise. Having done that, they re-visited their list of objects and wrote their how-to instructional guides for crossing the puddle as borrowers.

Actress and teacher, Bi Jean Ngo, with students from McCall Elementary after they saw The Borrowers at Arden Theatre Company.

They all had found objects in the classroom with which to construct boats and paddles. There was a bunch of rubber ducks lined up on a shelf, and most of the students latched onto the idea of using those. One group thought to use a pencil caddy for a boat, pencils and popsicle sticks as oars, and paper products as sails. I was really impressed that several students were adamant that they create anchors for their boats, so the Borrowers wouldn’t lose the boats. All the groups enjoyed sharing their solutions to crossing the puddle, especially when I held up objects they described.

After my first visit, the class had a science lesson about magnets. When I returned, the kids were really excited to tell me about new solutions for crossing the puddle based on their science class. I was so happy to see them have an interdisciplinary stroke of inspiration. That’s what we hope for, isn’t it?  The students suggested using multiple magnets to attract the borrowers’ flotation devices across the water.

Ms. Hantman’s third grade class is full of incredibly enthusiastic, awesome kids. Her students have all read the book, and they could all name the characters and their favorite parts. Most of the students have a strong understanding of the scale of the Borrowers. There’s a lot of academic support in this class, and the students are intelligent and unafraid to volunteer their thoughts and opinions. Ms. Hantman, for one, is a veteran teacher, and she has a student teacher and an ESOL teacher in class with her. There are three ESOL students in class, and they were eager to participate in the Arden lessons. While some of the language may be difficult for them right now, those students were just as enthusiastic in trying to do the warm-ups and the independent/group exercises as the rest.

I think Ms. Hantman’s class might produce at least two future engineers. When coming up with ideas for crossing the puddle, there were a few physics-minded students who dreamed up possible catapult devices, bridges, and flying mechanisms. One clever idea was to hitch a ride from an animal that might carry the Borrowers around on its back. I had them brainstorm character ideas for each of their families, and because they are a set of really bold, independent thinkers, I let them come up with their own Borrowing family names. We all created a dialogue together as a group, as a framework for how to write one.

One a side note, I was just reading the article in Philadelphia Magazine about why this generation of young people will not be as smart as generations preceding it. However, my two classes at McCall show me that there are wonderful teachers and wonderful children who are eager to learn and have fun while doing it. Both 3rd grade classes are near completion or have completed reading The Borrowers. They completely invest in the Arden sessions, and they ask questions when they are confused so they proceed with an exercise with clarity. It’s a great group of kids.

By Courtney Spiker Martin, Arden’s Business Manager and Teaching Artist for Arden for All

Walking the halls of Washington Elementary in Camden, NJ may just be the closest I ever get to stardom.

“Miss Courtney! Miss Courtney! You’re baaacckkkkk!” is all I can hear as 30-some 3rd graders run in for one massive Monday morning hug. What a way to start a week.

It’s been a few months since I was first introduced to Ms. Candelori’s 3rd graders but it’s clear that they haven’t forgotten me or the Arden’s production of Peter Pan which they attended in January. As soon as the chaos subsides, the questions and murmurs begin.”I know that book! Can I tell you what happens?” “Mouse, Cookie!! If we are good we get to see If You Give A Mouse A Cookie!” Their enthusiasm is contagious, and I do my best to feed off of it as I introduce the focus of today’s lesson which I am admittedly slightly nervous about; sentence structure and cause vs. effect.  As a theatre artist, teaching academia can be intimidating. I quickly realize that with my bright red If You Give A Mouse A Cookie t-shirt on, these kids might be willing to watch me teach anything. They know the end reward is huge and are willing to work for this field trip.

After a rousing warm up round of the Name Game (say your name and give me a movement that tells me something about you) we are off! (Full disclosure: I am lucky that this group is incredibly animated and one round of the name game wears them out just enough for an hour long lesson.) This is a class full of smart kids who love proving that they are smart. They quickly catch on to my cause/effect identifying game and have no problem coming up with a ton of creative examples which add to the simple scenarios I’ve provided. “I bet he overslept and missed the bus because his brother snores so loud!” During group work the class divides up into pairs and works on combining simple sentences into complex sentences to form cause/effect stories. Most groups even move on to detailed drawings which illustrate their work.

While walking around the classroom to assist I find so many small reasons to celebrate these kids and what they can accomplish. Two for today:

1. The student who crossed his arms during my first two Peter Pan lessons and told me that “No one should have to write on a Monday” (really, he might have a point..)wrote two pages of complex sentences and illustrated both of them.

2. The student who’s voice I only heard once during my winter sessions volunteered to stand in front of the class and read a page of  sentences on her own.

When I mention that this lesson is helping to prepare them to become authors of their own children’s books their jaws drop and their feet begin to stomp. One student wanted to know if he could write a play instead (!). It is incredible to see how much of an incentive a theatre trip can be and refreshing to know how an arts -related approach to standard curriculum can breathe new life into a classroom.

I invite anyone who doesn’t see the importance of keeping the arts alive in schools to join me in Ms. Candelori’s 3rd grade class. (And anyone who questions my celebrity status, I invite you to do the same.)

By Hilary Rea, Arden Teaching Artist

Cause and effect. If I teach these kids about sentence structure they will have fun. But will they really have fun?

That is what was going through my mind as I approached McCall Elementary School for my very first If You Give a Mouse a Cookie Arden For All lesson with 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classes.  I knew that the hour and fifteen minute lesson was going to be chock full of information about how to make simple, compound, and complex sentences and I was nervous for groans and eye rolls from the kids I was meeting for the first time. Aren’t you supposed to be the fun teacher? We wrote and acted out scripts for Peter Pan! Why do we have to do this?

Surprisingly I did not get any of the comments and complaints that I imagined above. Knowing the effect of Lesson One in the lessons to come also motivated me to teach what at first seemed more like an English lesson than a theater related one. They are learning to write complex sentences consequently they will end up writing their own children’s books by the last class.

Ms. Johnson’s 3rd grade class greeted me with excitement and was anxious to talk about the play they were going to see in just a few short weeks. By the middle of our warm-up, I knew these kids were going to be fantastic. We warmed up with a name game and each student came up with clever nicknames and a movement to go with them. Back at their desks they volunteered to identify the cause and the effect of every example sentence and then came up with terrific sentences of their own.

At the end of the class we brainstormed different ways that the Arden could turn a book that takes one minute and 30 seconds to read into a play that is one hour and 30 minutes in length. “Maybe it will take a long time to clean up the mess that the mouse makes?” one student suggested. “There might be more characters,” said another. “Lots of action!” was another thought. The fact that these kids were thinking like directors and actors, made me eager to return for next week’s lesson where they will have more a chance to be on their feet and creating pictures and silent scenes with their bodies. And just wait until they create their own children’s book!

By Maureen Mullin Fowler, Education Director

For many in the theatre industry, Monday is the day of rest.  No one would think that 8AM on a Monday would be a high traffic time at the Arden.  But last Monday it was, and it will be for the next two months.  Three caravans of cars being driven by Arden Professional Apprentices, actors and teaching artists all headed out for their first day of teaching the Arden’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie residencies. Third, fourth and fifth graders in Philadelphia, Camden and Ridley Park were eagerly anticipating the return of the Arden teaching artists with whom they had so much fun during the Peter Pan residencies.

Excitement was thick in the air.  Not only was it the first day back from spring break, (translation = kids still think they are on spring break) they also had a double dose of energy upon learning their favorite theatre teachers were in the building.  They were ready to play their favorite improv games, learn about the next Arden production, and get to act out scenes of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

This residency concentrates on some common Language Arts themes.  Cause and Effect.  Simple vs. Complex sentences.  Writing narratives and dialogue. And at the end of each residency not only will each student have traveled to see If You Give a Mouse a Cookie here at the Arden; they will also have written their very own children’s book to share with their young brothers, sisters, cousins, and neighbors.

It’s exciting to know over 2,000 students throughout the region will be taking their first steps at become authors over the next few week.  Check back here for more updates on our budding children’s book authors!

By Brittany Howard, Arden Professional Apprentice

I come from a family of teachers. Literally, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents—they are all teachers. So, growing up, I was determined that I would be something completely different. Even though I always had a knack for working with kids, I pushed that away, put on a stubborn face, and said, “I’ll never be a teacher.”

In the past months, the Arden has taught me many things (including how to remove fake blood from just about anything), but there is one lesson for which I have the most gratitude. I now know and respect why all my relatives have devoted themselves to education. There is a unique kind of gratification that comes when you get to be a part of bringing a great play to a theatre full of students (even if it is at 9:30 in the morning).

They live and die with these characters, experience every emotion, ponder every confusion, and deal with every anguish.  I get goose bumps when they gasp at Mercutio’s death, or when they cry out, “No!” as Romeo drinks the poison. I’ll never forget the day that a theatre full of children chanted, “Peter! Peter!” as Peter Pan fought Captain Hook.

These students all know how these stories end. They know that Romeo and Juliet don’t live happily ever after. And yet—they allow their imaginations to be captured, and they fall in love just as the characters do. And when every wall and foundation begins to crumble—they too try to hold the cracks together.

Children see hope where adults see inevitability. They see romance, where others see tragedy. They see boy meets girl, and despite the fact that many students have already experienced the harsh realities of this world, they still see the possibility of a happily ever after. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Why wouldn’t you want to remember a time before you’d heard “That’s Life” so many times that you started believing it?

Teachers do their best to show their students a world of possibilities, and the truly great ones open the gates even wider.

I was lucky this past week to be able to accompany Evan Jonigkeit (Romeo) to the Camden Creative Arts High School for a small class with their acting students.  The theatre classroom was a tiny space that was shared with a dance class (only separated by a dividing wall that did little to block out the music from the other room). And I at once felt jealous and pitied these students. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and went to a tiny school, but I at least had a full stage. However, these students were learning things about theatre and being challenged in ways that I didn’t experience until college. I was amazed that this tiny school still managed to create so many opportunities for their students.

So I’m thankful for teachers, my full family included. I’m grateful for every educator that works to give their students a better chance at success. And the Arden is indebted to all of you who donate to the Arden for All program, which allows us to go out and teach in Philadelphia and Camden and brings over 5, 000 students through our doors free of charge.

And I’m gratified that every time I start to stress about how I’m going to make ends meet—a student matinee arrives to remind me that just because you’re told a story goes a certain way, that doesn’t mean you have to sit in your seat and wait for the expected ending.

By Donna Ellis and Brian Morrison from Hands UP Productions

In order to bring the magical story Peter Pan alive for a Deaf audience, Hands UP Productions and the Arden collaborated on a shadow interpreted performance that brought three sign language interpreters onstage and made them part of the action. As opposed to the more ‘traditional’ method of having the interpreters standing off to the side with the action taking place behind them, shadow interpreting brings the interpreters on to the stage while they ‘shadow’ their characters. The result is an exciting performance that allows the Deaf audience the opportunity to experience the play on a level equal to the audience members that can hear.

In order to make this happen, the interpreters; Donna Ellis, Katie MacKavanagh, and Brian Morrison participated in rehearsals with the cast and crew. This was truly a collaborative experience and the excitement for creating the performance was shared by all. The cast learned some of their lines in American Sign Language and worked with the interpreters to find ways to interact with their ‘shadows’. You could feel the creative energy in the room during both rehearsals and the performance.

Having worked with the Arden last year in the first shadowed performance, A Year With Frog and Toad, the Arden is quickly moving toward the forefront in accessible theatre for Deaf audience members. Hands UP has encountered nothing but wonderful experiences with everyone from the Arden staff and the cast and crews of every show we have interpreted there. We look forward to continuing this incredible relationship in bringing unique and creative theatre experiences for Deaf and hearing audiences alike.

At right, Jacqueline Real (Wendy) and Chris Bresky (Peter) with Cade and Cal who attended the shadow-interpreted performance.

By Matt Ocks, mind Manager of Institutional Giving

My boss Terry just asked me to pull a quote from Alan “History Boys” Bennett, and it got me to thinking.

But first off, here’s the quote:

“…theatre is often at its most absorbing when it’s school.”

The History Boys, of course, is set in a school in northern England. During the run of Peter Pan, a whole bunch of us Ardenites got to visit actual students in actual schools thanks to Arden for All, the theatre’s educational outreach program. Blue Door, which opens next Wednesday, is not set in a school, but it is the second play in the season to feature a teacher in turmoil.

And maybe this is a stretch, but even our recently closed Rabbit Hole with its scenes of intergenerational connection, could be viewed as a play about teaching. In my favorite scene, when Becca and her mother Nan clean out Becca’s son’s room, Nan teaches Becca a lot about what to expect from her grief in the coming years.

Romeo and Juliet has student/teacher-ish relationships as well, such as Romeo and Friar Lawrence and Juliet and her Nurse. The main character in Sunday in the Park with George gets frustrated because the people he cares about don’t fully grasp his art. Who knows? Maybe if George was a better teacher, he and Dot wouldn’t have to – ahem – “move on.”

The interweaving of school and theatre is especially important to me. I help put on plays, but my mom is a school librarian. Storytelling – whether on stage or in the classroom – is the family trade.

I’m often struck by how much our rehearsal hall resembles a classroom. Dramaturgs come in to share historical background with the actors. A director shares a personal story to make a challenging passage in a play more relatable.

Teachers also make great protagonists for plays. Hector and Mrs. Lintott are mightily compelling. I know from talking to my pals Frank X and Maureen Torsney-Weir that they are also very satisfying to play. I’ll bet playing Lewis – the math professor in Blue Door – is equally satisfying, and not just because the guy doing it, Johnnie Hobbs Jr., is a teacher himself at the University of the Arts.

David Howey, who played the Headmaster in The History Boys, also teaches acting at the University of the Arts. One of the joys of assistant directing that play was watching him work with several of his current and former students. I have no doubt that he is a great instructor at school, but at the Arden he taught by example.

Teachers tend to be colorful characters in life and in plays, and the connections between theatre and school are deep and varied. I’m loving the responses to my colleague Ed Sobel’s entry about season planning for next year. I’m also loving this season because it’s all about the art of teaching.

As people continue to chime in with play suggestions, can anyone recommend other plays about teachers? Even if our Artistic Department doesn’t program them next year, this particular blogger would love to add them to his syllabus.

By Jennifer Peck, the Arden’s General Manager

As part of our commitment to providing programming for everyone, The Arden offered two accessible performances of The History Boys. C2 Captioning provided open captions for all of our audience members, especially those who are hard of hearing or deaf, and for our low vision and blind patrons, we offered large print programs (which we provide for all of our performances) and audio description.

I audio described my first show in the fall of 2007. It was Assassins and it was the first time the Arden offered audio description. Since then, I’ve described several Arden shows including the several costume changes that Ian Merril Peakes made in the Barrymore-Award winning Something Intangible to our first fully accessible Children’s Theatre performance of A Year With Frog and Toad, made possible by Art-Reach. Audio description is when someone uses the natural pauses in dialogue or narration to insert descriptions of essential visual elements of a production to ensure that people who have blind or low vision enjoy equal access to cultural events. Descriptions are delivered through a wireless earphone to permit people using the service to sit anywhere in the audience. (The Arden is fortunate enough to provide audio description thanks to the equipment lent to us by VSA Arts of Pennsylvania.)

Each show has its particular audio description challenges. With Assassins, it was figuring out where, as an Audio Describer, I should sit. Our seating changes for each show and, if you remember, we flipped the seating in the Haas around for Assasssins. Because of this staging, I couldn’t actually see the stage from the booth and so, I had to describe Assassins while watching a live feed of the show on a television set up in the booth. While History Boys didn’t have the sightline challenges of Assassins – I got to share the booth with the show’s Stage Manager, the lovely and talented Kate Hanley – it was still the hardest show I’ve ever had to audio describe. (And not just because I really like 1980’s British post punk dance music and often found myself trying to figure out which New Order remix was playing when I should have been describing where the boys were putting the desks on stage.)

Here’s two things to know about audio description: You can not talk while the actors are talking and you need to be absolutely unbiased in your describing. Both of these rules, while usually challenging, were especially difficult with History Boys which, if you saw it, you know is a very ‘talk-y’ show. (Up there with David Davalo’s World Premiere of Wittenberg which I described in the spring of 2008, trying to get a word in between Scott Greer’s Faustus and Greg Wood’s Martin Luther.) But while there are a lot – A LOT – of words in History Boys, there’s also a lot going on when characters are not talking. While it is mentioned by actors, it’s very important to know that the boys, or Hector, always locked the door and, in our production, pulled down the blinds, when Hector was teaching. Scripps told the audience that Posner always looked at Dakin and so Dakin knew that Irwin also looked at Dakin but it’s important that you see that in the play, too. And think about how important Alison Robert’s costumes are to the production. Each of the boys in the show wore the same uniform but they each wore it differently. Rudge carried a gym bag and, sometimes, a rugby ball. Lockwood wore sunglasses and black and white tennis shoes. There were subtle and sometimes not so subtle details (like a wheelchair) in Irwin’s character when the story flash forwards. The sighted audience knew that Hector often carried his motorcycle helmet with him and that Dakin was not wearing pants when the Headmaster entered the classroom during the French lesson and so it is necessary that those who can’t see were aware of these details as well.

All of the above needed to be described and, as I said before, it needed to be described when the actors weren’t speaking and with as little personal opinion as possible. “Like a police report,” is the advice that Bill Patterson gives. Bill Patterson is one of the founding members of the Audio Description Coalition and he trained me (as well as Sally Wojcik and Stephanie Borton, others who have described performances at the Arden) in preparation for the Festival of Disability Arts and Culture that took place in Philadelphia in the fall of 2007. (I was also lucky enough to take Bill’s audio description workshop this past summer as part of the Kennedy Center’s LEAD conference.) Bill stresses the importance of being completely unbiased in your description. Mrs. Lintott might have looked frustrated when she called the Headmaster a twat but as a describer, you can’t say that she looks frustrated. What made her look frustrated? How do you, as a sighted patron, know that she was frustrated? It is not fair to say Irwin looked young or Dakin was good looking when describing. These are personal opinions. What drew you to these conclusions?

The example I always give when discussing audio description training is of the movie “Love Actually“. Remember that scene when Sarah, Laura Linney’s character, turns the corner to hide from her crush and freaks out from excitement and then returns composed? That’s the scene we had to audio describe in training. It’s easy to say that Sarah “freaks out” but it’s important to describe, in the most unbiased terms, what that freaking out entails. “Sarah jumped up and down. Sarah shook her head frantically. Sarah’s lip spread across her face in a giant smile.” And you have to say all of this in the time between the dialogue.

I am a writer. I have a graduate degree in writing. I have spent a great deal of my life dedicated to words. This both helps and hurts me as an Audio Describer. It helps because I thrive on the challenge of finding the perfect word to describe someone or something. One of the most beautiful moments, to me, in History Boys, was when Hector collapsed at his desk and broke down. Posner got up and gently put his hand on Hector’s back even though Scripps, as Scripps told us, was closest to Hector and Dakin, and some of the other boys, just looked away. I love being able to describe scenes like this to the audience. The flip side of this however; is that, like I said, I am a writer. And I love words. And I like to use a lot of them. And, as an Audio Describer, I need to find a way to describe Hector’s breakdown moment in a very short amount of time. (Especially since Scripps starts talking about it as it happens. Thank you, Alan Bennett, for making it even more difficult for me.) And I can’t use the words breakdown because that’s a judgement. So how did I describe it? “Hector collapses at his desk, puts his head into his hands, his chest rose and fell, his eyes filled up with water. Posner gets up and gently puts his hand on Hector’s back.”

After the audio described performance of Assassins, I received feedback from a blind audience member who told me that her favorite part of the show was the irony of Zangara reading a newspaper from the electric chair. I knew that she would have never known that Zangara was reading that newspaper had I not been describing it for her. I hope that the audio description provided during History Boys similarly added to patrons experiences while attending the show and I look forward to describing Romeo and Juliet in the spring.

The next audio described performance at the Arden will be Rabbit Hole on Saturday, December 5 at 8:00pm.

You can read more about accessible arts and culture all around Philadelphia in this Inquirer article.

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