The Art of Teaching

January 14, 2010

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.

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