Three times during the year, the hand-labeled, hand-stapled, hand-bound, hand-sorted bulk Mailing went out to our huge mailing list and in addition to advertising the upcoming shows, it also advertised the Education Program. Almost as soon as The Mailing had left the building, the class registrations started coming in. Before long, the class lists were full and waiting lists were started and then within weeks, the halls of the theatre would be full of the sounds of fledgling young actors.
There's a reason that the Wheelock Family Theatre has such a successful education program. In fact, there are multiple reasons -- not the least of which is its director, John Bay. I recently had a chat with John about some of the philosophies behind the education program at WFT and what makes the upcoming Summer Program such a success.
Robin Matthews: What is your history with Wheelock and WFT?
John Bay: Well, I have been at the college for over 25 years. I spent roughly the first half being part of Theatre Department with Sue and Jane and that position grew from quarter time to half to ¾ time over the years, as I got more involved in designing my own courses. Jane and Sue had their areas of expertise in Creative Dramatics and Story Theatre and Public Speaking and my niche was mime and movement and mask work as well as designing new interdisciplinary arts courses that focused on the connection between different performing art forms. So I did that and then they asked me to switch over to being the Education Director. For a few years, I continued to teach in the Graduate Department -- a course that I had developed called A Thousand Doors, Learning and Teaching Through the Arts. That course was later adapted into a team teaching course that I did with Sue and Ellie Friedland. It continues to have a life as a course that Sue teaches in the Singapore program. It’s proven to be a popular and helpful course for people who are going to work with families and children in any way.
RM: Why did you decide to accept the offer of becoming the Education Director?
JB: It offered new challenges to me. I had been both a performer and working in Arts Education for a number of years with my professional touring company, Studebaker Theatre, and while I’d had a lot of experience in those two areas I really had very little experience in administration and managing people and I thought it would be an interesting challenge. Also, the main reason I got my Master’s in Child Development at Wheelock College is from learning about Gardner and his theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI.) And this notion was really the first thing in academia that matched my experience on the ground. I took every opportunity to study Gardner’s theories and practices and when I was asked to take over as the Education Director, from the beginning I wanted to merge theatre ed. with MI in a sort of hand-in-glove relationship. That combination of using an MI approach to teaching and learning in order to not just to learn theatre skills but to learn life skills such as improv in the broadest sense of the word, how to critically think about everything, including theatre and performance.
RM: What are you most proud of in your work as Education Director?
JB: I think what I’m most proud of is really choosing to focus on the quality of the teaching artists that I hire; that has been the key to the blossoming of the program. If it weren’t for the expertise and the resiliency of the core teaching artists or artist educators that I have at WFT, many of the initiatives that I have designed and implemented over the years would not have been able to happen. I think I am proudest of maintaining a high quality of instruction and also we have been an open and welcoming place to youngsters of all kinds. Ethnicity and Socio-economic, special needs, however else…not jut a tolerant place for kids to come and learn but a really welcoming place that celebrates differences, not just tolerates them.
RM: What is one of the biggest challenges in running the Education Program at WFT?
JB: As the program has expanded, it’s been an increasing challenge to maintain the integrity of the experience and I think one of the ways we’ve been able to do that is to always retain a student - teacher ratio that is less than 10:1 and by encouraging various teachers to co-design and teach classes that offer a synergy of their areas of expertise. For example, beginning last summer, we took a Shakespeare course and a Stage Combat course and synthesized that into a Shakespeare and Stage Combat course where Shakespeare scenes are used as models in which to do the stage combat. I am looking forward to helping my faculty come together to spark innovation in the offerings we have.
RM: How is the Summer Program different from the courses run during the school year?
JB: The summertime is the time of year with, along with the vacation week intensives, we can count on the classes being really well attended. Sometimes we do need to even close classes and have a waiting list. It’s the best time of the year to introduce new and innovative practices that sometimes can be extrapolated into other times of the year.
RM: One of the things that sticks out in my memory from my summers at WFT is the vibe in the building. This exciting, excited group of kids having fun and making noise. How would you describe the "vibe" in the building nowadays?
JB: Well, first of all, it’s actually two buildings. Half the program happens at WFT and half at Temple Israel, a 5-minute walk away. Kids get together at lunch and are all together in the morning and afternoon. But overall, it’s a place where most of the kids have chosen to be there rather than being sent there or having to be there, like school, so there are very few discipline problem and the kids bring a lot of energy and willingness to experiment and learn. It’s a fun place where a lot of friendships are formed because so much of theatre and learning about theatre is based on trust, so in a way when you meet new friends in this setting, the bonding that happens is often times accelerated just because the time is so intelligently used.
RM: What are some of the great things kids get to do and experience in the WFT Summer Program and Education Program?
JB: Kids are challenged to change the way they look at other people and to look at the way they see themselves in a more expansive way. It’s really a place of experimentation and trying out new roles and helping kids to redefine themselves in many ways and to support them in ways they may not have been supported in other venues because we’re not school and we’re not home and they kind of get a chance to start from zero. It happens in a well-supervised and safe environment. We spend a lot of time training people to spot trouble before it happens. We don’t allow any bullying and we keep a lookout for any cliques. The kids learn how to think critically, but are supportive and kind while they are being honest. And I think that the combination of the ability to experiment and also feel safe is one that produces and environment that kids really thrive in for the most part.
RM: Do you find that there are kids that come back year after year and have their group of “camp friends?”
JB: There is quit a contingent of those kids who are “camp kids.” I particularly get satisfaction from watching a kid who arrived at a younger age and has returned time and again to stretch themselves. And It gives me faith that we are indeed helping kids and families to transform their lives through live theatre. My best example is that now we’ve been around long enough that we’re starting to have kids who have completed the whole cycle. Sophie Rich, for example, who this summer is Director of the new Extended Day program as well as a co-teacher, started as a young child and took many classes and now has become a teacher and director and is part of the core faculty. There are a number of other youngsters who are in college and are close to completing that cycle. Kids who are tremendously satisfied with their experience at WFT and those experiences are important enough to them that they have guided their key life choices and they have figured out for themselves a life path that involves working with families and children.
RM: With these “camp kids”, is it hard to be a new kid in the summer program?
JB: That is not usually the case. Almost any class that we have is a mixture of students –old and new -- in the same way that we always have a mix of learning styles. I think it's one of the things that makes our education program stand out. When I say that we have outstanding teachers, that’s what I mean. Our teachers know their fields of expertise well, but they also know how to teach a classroom that has many levels of challenges and many different kinds of learners. That’s how the MI approach comes in. They don’t have to dumb it down or compromise the integrity; they learn through internal professional development how to approach problem-solving in many different ways so that in any class, each child will feel comfortable at some point because the activities are focused on one of their strengths of their learning style. And since the strategies are constantly shifting based on the MI model, everybody gets to learn the way he or she wants to at least some of the time and at least some of the time they are challenged to learn in one of the ways that they have a chance to shore up and nurture.
For more information about the Education Program, visit http://www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org/classes.aspx