Preparing for Competition (Or, When High Standards Leave Low-Income Students Behind)

My students are in the final stages of preparing for this year's statewide theater festival. This will be our first time participating and, as such, has been my first time looking at the standards and requirements. I have to admit that I was a little bit shocked the first time that I accessed the document library and discovered that there was only one set of standards for grades 6-12. And I was even more shocked when I started reading through them and realized how drastically they put my low-income students at a disadvantage. These were my three main takeaways:

1. The standards were written with affluent schools (and students) in mind.

When I started reading through the design standards, the thing that struck me the most was that they were clearly written for students at affluent schools (and that students at performing arts schools have a noticeable advantage). The standards that caused the most concern were the ones for lighting design, which are clearly meant to tie into your school's facilities. For lighting design, students are supposed to submit:

A light plot (1/4" or 1/2" = 1'0" and no larger than 24"x36") which may be rolled, folded, or mounted indicating:
- Color medium
- Set and masking
- Areas
- Lighting positions with labels
- Type of instrument
- Unit numbers
- Circuit
- Channel
- Focus/purpose
- Gobos/patterns/templates
- Practicals
- Special instruments (LED, moving lights, foggers, hazers, fans, relays, etc)
- Instrument key

My Title 1 school has a rundown auditorium with three operational lights. These are controlled via switches backstage so that when you're working the lights backstage, you cannot actually see what's happening out onstage. I had to purchase work lights on poles this year, just so my students could have the experience of cutting gels (and then sticking them to the lights with packing tape). At first, I thought that my students might stand a chance because of programs like Virtual Light Lab. Virtual Light Lab simulates a professional venue and gives students the opportunity to experiment with different lighting instruments, color filters, and even gobos. Students can digitally "hang and focus" lights in over seventy different positions. They can build, record, and playback cues -- something that they could never accomplish in our actual auditorium since, as previously mentioned, we don't have a lighting console. Programs like Virtual Light Lab open up so many opportunities for students in under-resourced schools.

But they're just not enough.

(Ophelia and Claudius from Hamlet)

If the standards were adjusted so that students were evaluated on their analysis of the script (and subsequent design concept), their visual lighting composition, and the quality of their cues, then my students could possibly present in the lighting design category. However, there are so many technical requirements in this category -- circuit and channel notations on the light plot, a magic sheet/cheat sheet, an instrument schedule, etc. This is the kind of paperwork that I'd expect to see from high school seniors applying for a paid job with the National Theatre for Student Artists (and, in fact, we based our application around these exact standards). It's not what I'd expect to see from a middle school student who doesn't even have access to a working ellipsoidal. With our limited resources, I cannot imagine that any of our students -- even the most theatrically inclined -- could ever complete these materials and participate.

2. Theoretical designs are acceptable -- but realized designs are better.

The standards clearly state that "designs for either theoretical or realized productions are acceptable" -- except that the standards demonstrate a clear preference for realized designs. In the lighting and sound design categories, you're even supposed to include a title block on your plot with the name of the facility. What do you put there if you're creating a theoretical design? World of Pure Imagination Theatre, Inc.? And what about set design when you have to create a floor plan for a theoretical venue that clearly indicates the performance space, backstage space, audience areas, and sightlines?

(Gertrude [beginning of play] and Gertrude [end of play] from Hamlet)

There's a workaround here. You can easily download the floor plan or light grid for a professional venue like New York Theatre Workshop's Fourth Street Theatre online. In fact, our national team of student designers for Expedition completed all of their work online without ever stepping into the actual space. We forwarded them the documentation and uploaded our video tour of the venue. But, once again, all of our students were graduating high school seniors from elite performing arts schools. And even THEY sometimes struggled to complete the work without having seen the space firsthand. How are we supposed to expect our middle school students, many of whom have never even attended a professionally-staged play before, to design for a space they've never been in? If you have easy access to (and have been trained to work in) the facility, you're obviously going to have a clear advantage in this category.

I'm running into a similar problem with my costume designers. There's a portfolio requirement where you're supposed to include budgetary constraints. We're working on theoretical designs -- so what are we supposed to put in this section? I suppose that we're supposed to mention the prices of the fabrics that we swatched and what might be problematic if you were creating an actual production. But my eleven-year-olds are still learning different techniques for using colored pencils, not thinking about how to negotiate prices with Garment District vendors. Which brings me to my final problem with the standards . . .

3. The middle school standards are the same as the high school standards.

This makes no sense to me. How are my sixth graders supposed to be capable of the exact same type of work that a twelfth grader can complete? That's not to say that I don't think students should be held to a rigorous standard; they definitely should. But high school students have, in some cases, more than half a decade more education than my middle school students. They've had time to learn more content, to master more objectives, to explore more aesthetics. A graduating high school senior SHOULD be able to submit a sound system plot with rack diagrams and microphone schedules and patch assignments and preliminary sound levels. You know who probably wouldn't be successful with that assignment? A sixth grader who has never operated a microphone, has never seen an audio rack, and doesn't know anything about patches or levels. A quick revision of the standards so that middle school students exclusively submit sound cues (so that teachers can focus on script analysis, design concept, and recording/mixing effects, soundscapes, and music compositions) would enable our students to be successful instead of overwhelmed.

(Katherine and Bianca from The Taming of the Shrew)

On that note, even in a Title 1 school, I'm writing from an extraordinarily privileged position. Our school has two Chromebook carts and, thanks to the Voya Unsung Heroes Award, my classroom has four MacBooks. We're able to access software like GarageBand and Virtual Light Lab and Final Cut Pro. In my Teach for America placement school, we didn't have any access to technology. If you wanted your students to publish on a word processing program, you needed to sign up for the desktop computer lab at least a month in advance (and, even then, good luck actually getting a reservation). So if we really wanted to make these standards equitable, and if we really wanted to open up opportunities for low-income students to participate, we would need to take technology out of the requirements almost entirely. (Although I have a feeling that students capable of using technology in their projects would still have an unfair advantage. Part of that comes down to the fact that the judging panels usually consist of theater professionals and college educators who aren't used to working in facilities without any technology available. It can be a challenge to understand "how the other half lives" unless you've experienced it firsthand.)

I'm a major supporter of the statewide theater festival and the work that they're doing to elevate theater education in New York. I've volunteered with them for three years now, and I'm always so impressed by the students who attend. They have the very best intentions, but it's impossible not to sometimes overlook the little things that restrict access for underserved populations of students.

(Harpy from The Tempest)

Day Three (31 Days of Trip Planning): Researched three new theater companies in the UK/Ireland with young leadership that I'll reach out to tomorrow

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