[Looking] Through the Door Frame — Supporting Youth Artists in the Rehearsal Room
An Interview with Dr. Desi Cameron by Carolyn Marie Wright
When I stepped into the role as ElevAATE Editor, I reached out to mentors and practitioners who had a significant impact in my life and career as an artist and educator. This included Dr. Desi Cameron.
I first met Dr. Cameron during my graduate school days at NYU Steinhardt where I was studying Educational Theatre with a focus on Youth Theatre and Community-Engaged Theatre. She was my advisor then, and I am delighted to now call her my colleague. To me, this full-circle moment is one of the highlights of being part of the AATE community.
This conversation all started with an email. Which led to a Zoom call. Which led to a series of Google doc exchanges. What you see here is the fruition of these efforts and a chronicle of Dr. Cameron’s rehearsal process with a particular cohort of 8th grade students at Westside Neighborhood School (WNS).
The biggest takeaway from our Zoom conversation was how to explore the moments when students wrestle with the following scenario: Who I know I am & Who I say I am versus Who they say I am.
The following interview is what then transpired.
Dr. Cameron, you shared stories about your group of 8th graders at WNS, many of whom you have worked with for several years now. So you have a history together. I recall you saying to students that “this is a platform for you.” As in, theatre is a platform for students. The room, space, the experiences shared. From the moment they walk in the door, they are empowered to be their authentic selves and tell their stories. The story you shared about the door frame in the rehearsal room stands out to me.
Can you provide an overview of your work and history with this particular group of students?
I’ve been teaching the eighth grade class of 2022 since fifth grade. The last time I worked with them for a whole year in person was when we worked on their fifth grade show, which focused on who they were, who they are, and who they want to be. Sixth and seventh grade was a modified, reinvented curriculum designed to work more independently and weaving in a lot more digital media since we were mainly online due to COVID. Luckily, I had already built a rapport and some in person theatre experiences with masks and puppetry with this group of students before shifting to online teaching & learning.
The eighth grade year culminates in a student devised production crafted from the collective minds and hearts of eighth graders. While I’ve been working on student devised shows for over a decade, this year, I was stumped. I wanted to have a theme broad enough, yet flexible enough to have significance. The first day of class, there was a door set piece on our black box theatre stage. Instead of pushing it out of the way, I thought it would be fun to have our first class “revolve” around doors. The students asked why the door was there and I said: “Let’s find out.” Initially, students created characters based on knocks and the first thing they said without us being able to see them. We talked about the importance of dialogue and raising the stakes and how much of an impact sound and emotion has on an audience before we even “see” a character.
We then improvised scene starters. Some were hilarious, and some were poignant. Some reflected our time: “I’m sorry, we’re closed — COVID” or “I’m sorry to tell you this but you’re being evicted.”
That’s when I realized we had a show. Doors represent beginnings, transitions, endings, and can often be metaphorical.
In fact, my favorite scene written by a student was entitled “Metaphorical Doors.” The scene is about how the voices in her head that year knocked her down until she finally decides to kick them all out. She gets her self-esteem back. For both our student and adult audience, this scene resonated the most and touched many of our students and adults’ hearts. My principal was in tears, because the student articulated something personal that we all experienced.
The student was initially hesitant to share the piece with her classmates. She felt it was a personal experience that would surprise others to know that she truly feels that way at times. When she shared, it showed how universal her words are and how it strikes a chord of truth inside all of us. She performed in the scene herself, playing herself, while her classmates played the other voices and personalities in her mind
It was a powerful piece. It was real, it targeted what people think, and it revealed something new. Isn’t that what theatre should be about? A platform to speak our doubts, fears, worries, our hopes, our dreams and to find our universal connections, even when they feel like our very own personal stories? Theatre reminds us that we’re not alone.
What are some best practices that helped you to create and care for the space in this way?
I make it clear to my students that they matter. Their words, their feelings, their opinions, their silence, their outrage, it all matters. They know that my classroom isn’t a place of judgment but rather a playing space to be brave, take risks, and try things out.
I also put in energy to build real caring relationships with my students. I pay attention to them as individuals. I notice them in other settings, and I remember the things they do and tell me, even years after. I also spend time getting to know something about my students before I even meet them in my class for the first time. I often drill myself to at least memorize their faces and names so I can greet them by name.
I set the tone of each class with what I call “focus” breaths. It’s a way of settling into the space. They all enter, find their binders and then lie down on the floor. They allow themselves to be fully present in the moment. They do a body and heart scan to check in with their current feelings and to be aware of any tension. They listen to affirmations or imagine they’re in their happy place, or any other kind of imagery I describe that may be related to the heart of the lesson. This settling in often feels like the nervous, loud hallway energy dissipates and a peaceful calm environment remains where we all are starting from the same place. A reset button so to speak. Students also rarely get a moment to catch their breath and force themselves to be in the moment, but it’s such a critical skill as a performer.
We also spend time appreciating and noticing positive growth in one another. Our classroom is a collaborative space not a competitive one. We’re in it together. That feeling permeates all the work we do.
I often hear from fellow practitioners that it can be challenging to capture student progress and success, especially during this pandemic. For me, the past two years of teaching and directing has encouraged me to show more grace and be patient with students. I am also conscientious about providing rubrics and grading policies that serve the expectations at my school. In my role as a theatre director, I place a stronger emphasis on process than product. However, in my role as a 10th grade English teacher, I cannot give “completion grades’’ for every assignment and still have benchmarks to meet. I am constantly negotiating with cura personalis (the care of the whole student in Jesuit teaching pedagogy) and how to offer flexibility and empathy for students when absences, illness, and pandemic related stress factor into the work.
EVALUATING STUDENT SUCCESS
What does student success look like for you? For your program?
Success = pride. Can each individual truly feel proud of the work they did on and/or off stage? If so, then I’m sure the work/production was successful. (And, of course, the work has just got to be good! 🙂)
Success = connection. I have so many alumni still in touch with me year after year. Whether or not they chose to pursue performing arts for their career, an indelible mark was made that impacted who they are in a positive way. Seeing that rooted in an arts classroom is another sign of success for me.
Obviously, students landing gigs in movies, TV shows, tours, etc, is quite nice, but more impressive to me is their ability to creatively problem-solve, collaborate, empathize, and love themselves and others better.
Also, many of my graduates tend to have large roles behind the scenes and on stage and in film, even as freshmen in high school! This speaks highly of their preparation, skill level, and work ethic.
What foundational steps are essential for facilitators to take in order to set up student success?
- Be prepared
- Build authentic relationships
- Make it matter to the students
- Be passionate about it yourself
- Model the work ethic
MENTAL HEALTH & SOCIAL EMOTIONAL LEARNING
How does mental health play a role in your work with students?
Theatre class is a class on social and emotional learning! We get to learn about ourselves and others. How to be with and express and understand emotions. We navigate stories where we see relationships fall apart and consider what could have been done instead. They get to examine stories through a safe lens, where they get to try on identities, thoughts, and feelings in ‘character’. And with student devised work, students get to tell their own stories.
This interview also operates as a case study and provides a glimpse into the benefits of theatre-making with youth artists and cultivating culture in the rehearsal room. My cheeky title “[Looking] Through the Door Frame” refers to Alice Through the Looking Glass. What fun to imagine the possibilities of student curiosity, growth and development when the facilitator allows wonder and imagination to guide the time spent in the room with young people!
In the Lewis Carroll classic tale, Alice ponders, “I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” She is in charge of naming her own identity — a desire that many practitioners desire for young people.
Dr. Cameron’s insights into best practices and guiding questions for facilitators provide an additional framework for practitioners and educators who want to explore this work in their own communities.
What will YOUR students discover about themselves through dramatic play and exploration?
Dr. Desi Cameron is director of visual and performing arts at Westside Neighborhood School, an instructor in UCLA’s Visual and Performing Arts Education program, a sought-out keynote speaker and workshop facilitator on arts education, theatre education, and social and emotional learning. She was awarded the teaching excellence award at NYU and the Teacher Eddy award, recognizing top teachers in Los Angeles. For more information about Desi, visit: www.drdesicameron.com.
Carolyn Marie Wright hails from upstate New York and splits her time between NYC and the Catskills. She is a faculty member at Fordham Prep, Theatre Program Director at Onteora Club, and Artistic Director of Humanity Play Project. Proud member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA, and AATE.
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