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.

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