Radical Inclusion (Or, Scottish Youth Dance's Horizons)

Back during Fulbright Orientation, someone told me to say “yes” to everything. Even if it has nothing to do with your inquiry project, just say yes. Someone wants you to observe a pre-K physical education class? Say yes. Someone wants you to observe professional development for social workers? Say yes. While I don’t have a university education department scheduling my observations for me, I use the same mantra when I’m reaching out to organizations. I downloaded a list of recently funded organizations from Creative Scotland and visited all of their websites. From there, I identified a few that looked interesting and asked if I could come in for observations.

Scottish Youth Dance (YDance) was one of them. They sparked my interest because of their involvement in Let’s Dance, a project where four countries (Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland) come together to create a collaborative movement work about migration. YDance’s Horizons company had signed on to the project and had already participated in two international exchanges. While YDance has many different programs (including the elite National Youth Dance Company of Scotland), Horizons focuses on inclusive community dance. I didn’t know much about inclusive dance; my research focuses more on cross-race/class projects, as opposed to cross-ability. But I decided that the two fields were closely enough related that Horizons was worth a visit.

Everyone working in educational equity should study inclusive arts programs. As my last school moved towards serving a special education (SPED) heavy population, with collaborative team teaching classes and a variety of push-in/pull-out services, I kept feeling like we were trying to slam square pegs into round holes. We have an incredible SPED support team that advocates relentlessly for our students — writing detailed individualized education plans, providing professional development for our teachers, and having the patience of an entire parthenon of saints. But with our school’s rigid rules (for instance, “stand in straight, silent, single-file lines in the hallways and track forward”), I kept feeling like we were setting our students up for a kind of failure that had nothing to do with low academic expectations.

Inclusive dance isn’t about working around what students can’t do; it’s about focusing on what students can do. As Marta (one of the Spanish Let’s Dance participants) told me, “We all have different needs.” One dancer might only have four months of contemporary training, compared to her peers from the conservatory with years of experience. One dancer might be in a wheelchair; another might dance with crutches. One dancer might be fluent in Spanish and be able to communicate with the choreographer, while another might require the aid of a translator. Everyone has different strengths. It’s up to us, as educators, to use these strengths to create transformative art. In the words of Wilfried Van Poppel (the German dance company director): “I don’t work with handicaps; I work with people.”

Kelly, the director of the Horizons program, does an extraordinary job meeting all of her students where they are — but then pushing them to become the best dancers possible. When I observed Horizons at their home theatre (Tramway on Glasgow’s Southside), I noticed that she used a lot of Teach like a Champion techniques in her workshops. When she was warming her students up, one of her learning disabled students moved into “starfish” position instead of “ball.” Instead of leaving him alone to stretch, she demonstrated “right is right” — giving him specific and clear verbal corrections so that he could join the rest of the ensemble. She also demonstrated “no opt out,” providing a chair for a physically disabled student to lean on while getting up for a standing exercise, but not letting her “opt out” of trying it. When I asked Kelly about her teaching philosophy afterwards, she said that she maintained high expectations for her disabled students and didn’t treat them any differently than her other dancers; she made sure that they were pushing themselves to their individual best. She said that too many educators leave disabled students alone in the classroom in order “to be nice” instead of giving them corrections and further instruction. However, Kelly avoids giving specific modifications when she can because the disabled dancers “know their bodies better than [she’ll] ever know them,” so she trusts them to make the best decisions for themselves. For instance, one of their dancers with cerebral palsy does her pliĆ©s with her feet pointed inwards or sometimes only works on the arm motions for a specific part of the class. These modifications (that she selects for herself) make it possible for her to participate in every component of the class.

Horizons meets once a month, and every class involves an hour-long stretching segment followed by creative work. At the Tramway rehearsal, students made a pathway of four different points (their floorplan) and then were told to freeze. During the freeze, students labeled #1 made an interesting shape with their bodies, while students labeled #2 had to continue on their floorplan and find an interesting way to get around any obstructions (the #1s). Students explored new ways of not only interacting with bodies but also interacting with wheelchairs and crutches. Afterwards, students were told to pick a partner that they don’t usually work with and then given body parts that needed to touch while they created movement (like hand-to-hand, back-to-back, shoulder-to-elbow, finger-to-nose, etc.). Students experimented freely with the limits of their movement — rolling around with their partner on the floor, jumping on their partner, etc. Students were clearly comfortable physically interacting with each other in an intimate manner; there was a ton of trust demonstrated in the rehearsal studio. Kelly also encouraged students to be aware of what other members of the ensemble were doing, giving the direction “if you see something that you think is gorgeous, start doing it.” This created moments of synchronized movement in the improvisation and helped build a more unified company. (I noticed that most of the synchronized moments revolved around movements that every member of the ensemble could complete, like floor-work.)

One of the consistent themes that I’ve heard in the UK is “work from what students can do, don’t work around what they can’t.” A few years ago, I attended an Uncommon PD on strengths-based leadership. This philosophy says that we should work on developing our strengths, on moving from good to great, because students are more likely to be engaged (9% vs. 73%, according to Gallup), and they can “grow” their strengths much more quickly than their weaknesses. UK arts education seems to focus on strengths-based leadership, developing new devised works with their students that respond to their abilities and their interests. This allows students from different skill-levels and backgrounds to work together in a meaningful way. I used to think that a national youth theatre should be composed of the most talented students from across the country; now, I’m wondering if building a company based on diversity of experience (instead of who can perform the best monologue) might be a better approach.

Once More, With Purpose (Or, PACE Youth Theatre)

Update: I'm currently posting from Granada, Spain where I've been observing the Let's Dance program. I'll post more about my findings next week.

(Last week's observation was in Paisley, Scotland. While the teardrop pattern "paisley" was developed in Persia, its name comes from West Scotland's Paisley, a textile center that manufactured paisley designs. Paisley's competing to be the UK's City of Culture in 2021, and their branding for the campaign is centered around [you guessed it] paisley.)

Do you know how you can tell that someone's a master teacher? You watch to see how much she does in the classroom. Last week, I had the privilege of watching PACE Youth Theatre's rehearsal for The Monstrum, led by Mhairi Gilbert. Mhairi was able to spend a significant portion of the rehearsal sitting on the sidelines, talking to me about the work that PACE does -- because her students could lead most of the rehearsal themselves. Not only were they able to lead the activities, they were able to reflect on and evaluate the results afterwards. One of the most valuable pieces of teaching advice that I ever received was that students should be the ones doing all of the "heavy lifting"; they should always be working harder than you (the teacher) are. This sounds strange but the more superfluous a teacher seems in the classroom, the more I know that she's a master of her craft. It takes a lot of instruction -- in terms of classroom routines, technical skills, and character building -- for students to be able to manage their own learning.

Angus (a student who's been involved in PACE's National Theatre Connections program for four years) directed most of the warm-up activities. The first major one was Ice-Rat-Wolf -- an exercise in which students stood in a circle and passed the titular words to each other. So if a student passed "wolf" to someone across the circle, that student and the ones immediately next to him would start acting like wolves, howling loudly and stalking their prey. However, the exercise started to transform, each new iteration led by a different student who would seamlessly call out directions. First, the students started moving around the rehearsal studio while still passing the words. Then they eliminated all sound from the exercise, relying only on their physical movements and facial expressions. Eventually (with the instructor's prompting), they added sound back into the exercise and moved back into a circle -- taking them back to where they first started. Mhairi and the PACE students graciously let me film some of their work. You can check out Ice-Rat-Wolf below:

(Notice how few times Mhairi has to give them directions. Also, at 0:09, you can see a student giving directions for her peers to "spread out." She wasn't a designated student leader from what I could tell; all of the PACE Youth Theatre members seemed comfortable leading exercises and making adjustments.)

Then, students went into an exercise where they walked around the studio. Whenever someone called out "stop," one student would start walking and then stop. As soon as she stopped, two more students would start walking -- and then three, four, etc. However, if more than the prescribed number of students start walking (i.e. after the first student stops, three students take a step forward), the entire company has to begin walking around the studio and the exercise re-starts. It's an exercise that builds a sense of ensemble and encourages students to focus on what their fellow actors are doing at any given moment.

Mhairi directed the group to split into two: the villagers and the infected. She divided the rehearsal studio by shifting a door-frame into the center, and the students played their own separate games on different sides. Their movements were based on the group to which they belonged (ex. the infected writhed around on the floor), but they weren't limited to only walking. Students would shout out directions about what their group members should do next: "Villager company. Scrubbing the floor. Walk. Stop. One."

After they began to get the hang of the exercise, Mhairi moved the door-frame out of the way, and the students were tasked with playing their two separate games in the same space; they had to focus exclusively on their game, ignoring whatever the other group was doing. Mhairi encouraged groups to strategize about how they could successfully get their entire group walking. She eventually had to huddle up with the infected (the younger company members) when they were having an especially hard time focusing on their game; they decided to stick to the perimeter of the room. Take a look at the walking exercise below:

(At 0:06, you can hear Mhairi directing the infected company to sit down. Watch them strategize a way to successfully run their own game alongside the villagers.)

Afterwards, the group analyzed why the exercise was successful or unsuccessful and thought about how they could translate their lessons learned into the actual show. Mhairi mentioned that she sensed the ensemble was "trying to be clever" instead of focusing on the purpose of the activity; they were moving around the space with unbelievable energy and making bold physical choices, but they weren't focusing on their fellow company members so that they could get everyone walking. How might that impact the actual show? "We might lose the meaning of the play," one company member commented. Mhairi helped guide them in their analysis by asking questions like:
- What did you notice about the energy in the room?
- Were you listening to each other?
- Were you paying attention to each other?
- Did you give yourselves identities while you were moving?

All of the warm-up exercises served a purpose, focused on developing students' understanding of the play and building their characters. Since The Monstrum takes place in Siberia, the characters are always struggling with bitter cold (ice). The walking exercise required students to perform various movements like their characters (the villagers and the infected). During The Monstrum, students portray rats and wolves in various sequences. There was an especially interesting moment during the rehearsal when, during a dream sequence, students flicker little lights attached to their fingers. This represents wolves blinking, as they stalk the main character. Mhairi led a sequence of "break-it-down" questions that increased the rigor of the sequence exponentially:
- Why are you moving your fingers during that dance? (They're the wolves' blinking eyes)
- Who are you blinking at? (The main character)
- Why are you blinking at him? (We're threatening him; we want to eat him)
- Can you honestly say you're thinking that when you're moving your fingers? (All of the students responded "no")

This was for a five-second moment in an extremely intricate dance sequence. But it's that attention to detail, even during moments where teachers can afford to "let it slide" (because the audience might not notice if the actors aren't fully committed to their wolf-characters during the dance sequence), that makes Mhairi a great instructor and that will bump her students from good-to-great as well.

One of the first things that Mhairi told me was that everything done during the National Theatre Connections process is in service of the journey. And NT Connections certainly does provide a journey for its students: a physical journey (to the regional Connections festival and possibly even to London*) and an artistic one. Students make this journey every day in the rehearsal studio when they traverse the distance between warm-up exercises (where they build their skills, movements, and characters) to rehearsing actual scenes. They track the journey that the characters make in the narrative, identifying the main event of each scene and listing key words that set the mood. They also make a journey as an ensemble -- learning how to trust one another, listen to one another, and create work together. The ensemble created a journey board that mapped out their experience of the rehearsal process. Sometimes, this reflects their feelings during the different weeks ("rollercoaster ride," "vulnerable") or specific events that they want to remember ("our Winter's Tale" when they took a group field trip to the Citizens' Theatre or, my personal favorite, "the day she dabbed"). Find some highlights from their journey board below:

* I'll be writing more about National Theatre Connections, as I'll be following PACE'S production of The Monstrum throughout their journey from the home theatre production to the regional festival in Edinburgh. It's a fascinating program that's been replicated in countries across the world -- but not in the United States.

Authentic Learning (Or, Why I Love the Royal Exchange Young Company)

Last week, I took a day-trip to Manchester to visit the Royal Exchange Young Company (RXTheatreYC). First of all, can we all take a moment to acknowledge the MIND-BLOWING architecture of this theatre? From the outside, the Royal Exchange looks like any other proscenium-style house -- but then you walk into the lobby and notice the gigantic metal sphere that looks like the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. "What is that?" I asked Matt Hassall, RXTheatreYC's outstanding program leader.

"That's our theatre."

The Royal Exchange Theatre, courtesy of Bioshock

It's an entirely self-enclosed theatre-in-the-round. And it is AMAZING. Because of their unique space and blocking needs, all of the shows produced by the Royal Exchange are created in-house. When I visited, they were staging Sweet Charity, and I had the privilege of observing a master class with the dance captain. She talked about how they had to completely re-choreograph "The Frug" (one of Bob Fosse's most famous works) because the lines and angles of Fosse's movements wouldn't have worked in their space.

The View from Inside

The RXTheatreYC and YEP (at the Everyman Playhouse in Liverpool) are some of the most innovative education programs that I've ever seen in professional theatres. RXTheatreYC values its young artists as members of their professional company, advertising their productions right alongside the mainstage shows. On occasion, the Young Performers will even get to perform in their mainstage shows -- taking on the roles of the Players, for instance, in Hamlet. Students receive twelve months of rigorous training and work experiences. RXTheatreYC only retains 25% of their company members each season, intentionally leaving 75% of spots open for first-timers who want to get involved. RETheatreYC members join specific groups that meet once a week: Young Creatives (directors, producers, and facilitators*), Young Communicators (marketing/PR), Young Performers, Young Writers, and Young Technicians. There's also a Young Associates track for students who are just interested in attending master classes once in a while.

* I'll undoubtedly post more about facilitators later. I was unfamiliar with this term until I visited the UK/Ireland over the summer. In many ways, facilitators are the UK equivalent of teaching artists. They're freelancers who teach workshops at youth theatres and other arts education organizations. The facilitators that I've met are especially well-versed in creating devised works with young adults. I haven't had the opportunity to sit in on a performance-based workshop yet, but I'll make sure to write more about facilitators when I do.

The first workshop that I attended during my day in Manchester was the dance master class -- which was a joint master class for members of the Young Company and the Elder Company. Every season, the Young Company and Elder Company not only take classes together, they also create a joint production. This season, they'll be performing The Space Between Us, a devised movement work. The script was created based on their collective warm-ups and writing activities. Director Andy Barry would ask them questions like: "What are your feelings about death?" And then he would synthesize their answers. The company rehearses every Saturday from 10 AM-5 PM. Marianne, a member of the Elder Company, told me that she was concerned at first that she wouldn't be able to keep up because rigorous physical movement was challenging for her. "I kept worrying, 'I hope we don't hold them back,'" she told me, referring to the younger ensemble members. At this, Young Technician Rose piped up: "It was never a problem!"

"The age barrier . . . It's just in your mind really," Marianne assured me. The two of them spoke at length about how, because the work had been created specifically for them, the director and choreographer had only been concerned with what they could do, as opposed to what they couldn't. Both of them praised Barry who works hard to create an environment where both the Elder Company and Young Company members feel comfortable sharing (or "playing"). Perhaps most interestingly, company members had a chance to fully explore their similarities during the rehearsal process. They were able to connect with each other because they had all experienced the same "milestones" at different times -- falling in love, losing a family member, disagreeing with friends, moving to a new neighborhood, etc. And both the Young Company and Elder Company members talked about how they'd felt "patronized" in the past; both of the groups valued facilitators who approached them as equals instead of talking down to them. I never thought about how much teenagers and elders might have in common, especially in regards to how they're treated by society.

Flicker and the Flying Books, 2016 Season

The dance captain teaching the master class did a fantastic job of providing accommodations for those who struggled with physical movement. All members of the Young Company received free tickets to Sweet Charity, so everyone was familiar with the choreography that they were learning. There were three groups in the combination: Groups 1 and 2 had the most complicated movements, while Group 3 had a much simpler arrangement. The dance captain let every participant try all of the different groups, but then chose participants' "permanent" groups based on what seemed most comfortable for them. (She noticed, for instance, that there were more elders with stiff knees in one section of the studio, so she put them in Group 3 where they wouldn't have to get down onto the floor as often.) When the dance captain gave them a break, I noticed members of the Young Company and Elder Company rehearsing the movements together -- helping each other learn the material. Up until now, I'd thought of diversity exclusively in terms of race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic region for the purpose of my inquiry project. However, Royal Exchange has done a fantastic job recruiting from two divergent communities (youth and elders), thinking in advance about what these groups might have in common, and providing them with inroads to explore these similarities through devised theatre.

My next stop was a Young Communicators workshop on editing trailers. All members of the Young Company work together to create productions and special events. A show devised by one of the Young Creatives and presented at Open Space (RXTheatreYC's space-sharing program which enables young adults to rehearse and perform their own works in their studio) might be publicized by the Young Communicators and acted by the Young Performers. This enables RXTheatreYC to create a strong sense of ensemble, even as their students are specializing in different subjects. Essentially, RXTheatreYC is its own fully-functional theatre company, complete with an administrative team.

The Young Communicators workshop was held at the Apple Store. Apparently, if you contact your neighborhood Apple Store, they will teach workshops to your students for free. Seriously. You just tell them your teaching objects (ex. SWBAT make an engaging cinematic trailer), and they'll manage the rest. In this workshop, Young Communicators uploaded footage into iMovie from previous RXTheatreYC productions and then used editing techniques to create a short, fast-paced trailer. The instructor helped them brainstorm the type of clips that they might want to use in the trailer and analyze editing tempo (beats and rhythm). In Young Communicators, three of the students were assigned to work on a documentary as their final project, while three were specializing in copy writing and three were focused on social media promotion. While all Young Communicators received the introductory workshop on film editing, the three filmmaking students would go on to have a closed group at the Apple Store a few weeks later to learn more advanced skills and then would periodically drop by to receive feedback/guidance from the specialists at the Genius Bar.

Apple Store Workshop (i.e. another point for Team Apple in the eternal Mac vs. Windows debate)

As you can probably tell, there's a focus on real-world application in RXTheatreYC's work. That became even more apparent in my final workshop of the day with the Young Creatives. These students are responsible for planning and producing the Royal Exchange's annual winter fundraiser, an event worth £15,000. The directors assist on productions and are matched according to their interests. (I had the opportunity to speak with Yandass, an outstanding young artist who had been a Young Performer before transferring into Young Creatives. She's specifically interested in how choreography can be incorporated into theatrical works, so she was assigned to assistant direct the Young Company/Elder Company movement work.) When I visited, the Young Creatives were taking a workshop on facilitation. All of them are responsible for facilitating at least one session during the Children's Book Festival in Manchester; three Young Creatives have a specialization in facilitation and will do pre- and post-show workshops for Nobody, one of the Young Company's annual productions. During the workshop, students learned the basics of lesson planning -- almost identically to how I learned them in graduate school at the University of Houston. The only difference being that some of these facilitators had just graduated high school and were already teaching their own classes.

One of my biggest takeaways from the UK in general has been an indifference towards university education. In the UK, students conclude their statutory education at age 16. From there, they can choose to continue on to further education (FE) college from ages 16-19. FE colleges allow students the opportunity to obtain qualifications (like the GCSEs, Higher National Diplomas, and A-Levels if they're planning on pursuing a university education), as well as completing apprenticeships and earning skills diplomas. I've met so many successful professionals here who haven't earned a university degree. Like an engineer who designs subway stations constructed from glass and even worked on the Freedom Towers in NYC. He terminated his education after college and never went on to university. Take a moment to let that sink in. An engineer without a university degree. In the US, we would require someone to have a master's degree in architecture or engineering before we would let them anywhere near a project of that scope and importance.

I've been skeptical of the value of the university degree for a long time now. The price tag on education is unbelievably high in the US, and Forbes reported that over half of college graduates have jobs that don't actually require a degree. I would argue that most jobs that require a degree shouldn't. Did my undergraduate education make me a better middle school English teacher? Not at all. Teach for America's Summer Institute and continuing professional development at Uncommon Schools taught me everything that I needed to know about managing a classroom. This is not to devalue the work of teachers -- but rather to devalue the quality of most universities in the US. There are few, if any, university programs that need to last for four years. When you've been taking general education courses from pre-K through high school, you should be able to invest in specialization. I've watched my classmates struggle through a decade of debt repayment with no end in sight, all because a university told them that they needed a degree but really just wanted to drain their wallet.

RXTheatreYC's Young Creatives are allowed to teach classes without having a bachelor's degree, master's degree, professional teaching certificate, or continuing education credits. And yet, they manage to be successful. If only the US would recognize that having a university degree does not necessarily make one more intelligent or more qualified.

Back to Top