As You Like It Act 2, scene 7
Like a traveling minstrel of Shakespeare’s day, my adult life has found me front-and-center on all sorts of stages in a long-scrambled accounting of locales and situations; small towns, big cities, rural and urban.
I’ve been the star attraction and the stagehand, watched from the wings and took some center stage bows, brought up the lights and brought down the house. Sometimes I’ve been the guy quietly sweeping up the stage after everyone else has gone home.
I started out with twelve years in broadcasting, spent a decade working in the hotel business then moved into social services, then training. I finally got my college degree, and now find myself at midlife as a high school English teacher working with at risk youth.
A real traveling production; five states and counting.
The first curtain went up about three-and-a-half decades ago.
Like a first love, I remember very distinctly the first real stage I actually set foot on: the worn, lacquered boards of an intimate thirty-by-twenty foot stage in room 204 of Denver South High School, home of the drama department and headed in my day by Mr. J. Joe Craft.
Mr. Craft (‘J. Joe’) was one of my favorite teachers and arguably the one who had the most profound, tangible effects on my life; to say I go back to what I learned on that stage in Mr. Craft’s classroom and under his direction on a regular basis is not just a nostalgic turn on my part.
There were the fundamentals that you’d expect from a high school drama class; voice and diction basics, stage directions, the vernacular of the theatre, that sort of thing. There were also the byproducts of all that: self-confidence and self-awareness, the ability to deal with overcoming fears, dealing with rejection. (Auditioning and not getting a role, rejections from publishers, students who fail your class – been there, done that. I learned how to deal with all of it via Mr. Craft.)
It was there that I also experienced Shakespeare for the first time; Mr. Craft had studied for a time at Stratford-upon-Avon, and just sitting on those metal folding chairs as he stood on that classroom stage in rattling off a soliloquy from Hamlet or Midsummer Night’s Dream in his booming baritone is still fresh in my mind. It really came back to me a few years ago, as I had a small role in a Shakespeare in the park production of Merchant of Venice in rural, southwestern Minnesota.
Stage learning was not confined to our drama room. South was known throughout the city for its year-long slate of full-scale theatrical productions; a drama in the fall and a musical in the spring being our hallmarks. We all had the chance to partake in everything involved with a production from stage building to marketing and ticket sales; everyone had their shot from the hangers-on to the divas.
Being a part of a drama department, putting on a play or show of any kind, is a great environment for learning how to successfully collaborate with others. Mr. Craft’s insistence that everybody have a hand in every aspect of putting a production together that taught me how to function as part of a team; that is also where I learned how to put together and lead a team, and how to give meaningful but tactful redirection when needed. Skills I have continually refined and used successfully through the years in both my personal and professional lives. Abilities I began cultivating under the direction of Mr. Craft.
One very specific example of how I put what I learned in room 204 into practice: Mr. Craft taught me how to coach job seekers.
One of the biggest issues for young or new actors is the idea of emoting; being on stage means you have to play things a little larger-than-life, or it doesn’t translate well to the audience from up on stage. You need to be a little over the top, not hold back. One of Mr. Craft’s reminder mantras to young actors was, “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be.”
In other words, just when you think you have gone wayyyy overboard, anyone watching you is just starting to get a feel for you putting out any kind of emotion or observable, believable characterization. The trick comes in pushing yourself over the threshold from wooden to passionate, but still conveying honesty and believability in your performance.
About a decade ago I found myself working as case manager and trainer for the Minnesota Department of Economic Security in Minneapolis. As a classroom trainer, I taught weekly four-and-a-half hour classroom sessions in how to find a new job; Creative Job Search. I also taught classes in networking, resume writing and Internet job search, and devised and led a class on Skills Identification.
I saw the job search process as putting together a show; you needed a script to follow, and some lines to learn. Under some good direction, it was easy to go out on stage and ‘knock ‘em dead.’
As a trainer, these were tough crowds to play to; most of them had a chip on their shoulder because of their situations. They had been laid-off, fired or merged out of a job, and all they knew about finding a new one was checking the want ads. Aside from the valuable information I was having to convey and the old-style mindsets I had to change, I needed to keep the enthusiasm level relentlessly positive and keep the class looking ahead, not back. Plus, in any given week I was likely to have minimum-wage line workers and six-figure executives sharing table space in my classroom; those eight-to-twelve-thirty sessions could be draining.
Roll playing the networking aspects of the job search process with attendees, going over the same ideas, critiquing and then cajoling a better result out of them was a piece of cake – because I had done it all in play rehearsal under Mr. Craft.
Along with the group classroom instruction, I also had a case load of about 125 job seekers that I assisted with resume and other logistical advice, help in getting them additional training or certification, that sort of thing. But the most complex part of my job was playing the role of director of a little dramatic production called interview practice.
Interviewing for a job is one of the most stressful things in life, a terrifying proposition for many. A big part of being an employment counselor was to coach my clients in how to conduct their part of an interview, and that meant role playing (with me as the director/hiring manager) in a one-on-one production in my cubical or one of our conference rooms. Countless times when coaching my clients I could literally hear Mr. Crafts voice in the back of my head; “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be.”
I always went into an interview coaching session trying to push my clients to a ‘Brando’ – a ten on a personal, varied-with-the-client, 1-to-10 scale – figuring if I could get most of them to a six or seven, they would be in good shape. I settled for a lot of fours and fives, but that still put most of them light-years ahead of where they started
All the worlds a stage; my clients had a pretty good track record of good reviews – interviewing successes.
Drama was my favorite class in high school. Five days a week exploring everything from Greek drama to Shakespeare to the American canon to more contemporary stage fare was great. Getting to act out scenes on that thirty-by-twenty foot stage was eye-opening and liberating. We learned how to expand our boundaries and how to handle failure. We also got to direct one-act plays, learning in the process how to lead and manage, coach and coax the best out of people who aren’t always sure they can do something.
Those are all wonderful things to have a solid grasp of as you head on into the adult world.
At the end of our junior year, Mr. Craft left South to lead the theatre department at Denver’s new Career Education Center, a magnet school featuring hands on training in a wide range of disciplines ranging from theatre and dance to E.M.T. training. It had a vocational focus which included its own store and café; very cutting edge in 1976.
I spent the mornings of my senior year there as part of Mr. Craft’s Children’s Theatre Class. I was one of three students from South in the class, and none of us had been anything more than bit players or chorus members, but in a class of twelve students from seven different schools, we all got our shot as we took a production of Little Red Riding Hood on the road to a few schools, produced and videotaped a Tonight Show satire that we wrote ourselves, and capped the year with a full-fledged production of The Wise Men of Chelm, at the Denver Jewish Community Center’s prestigious Schwayder Theatre.
That year was memorable in many ways; not the least of which was getting to be on stage as Shimmer-Eli, the enchanted tailor who buys an unruly goat in Chelm, and mastering the Yiddish dialect for our interpretation of the stories of Shalom Aleichem (his many Chelm stories were the basis for his classic Fiddler on the Roof) for a largely Jewish audience, including my father.
The Schwayder was a far cry from room 204.
There was a trick Mr. Craft showed us to make my goat: a thick, hemp rope was slightly unwound so straightened coat hangers could be pushed into the center of it to give it form. The resulting mutant-pipecleaner was then bent into a collar and leash, and I was believably able to lead around (and also be lead by) an invisible goat for the entire play. The bobbing nature of the hanger-reinforced rope made it seem like I really did have a goat on a leash. I have used the same rope/hanger technique successfully through the intervening years to portray various animals in Christmas pageants and Cub Scout skits.
There was also the aluminum foil, masking tape and rubber cement mask making techniques Mr. Craft taught us to transform me into Little Red’s nemesis wolf I have used a number of times since, in everything from church programs to radio promotional events. As I now live in New Orleans, I have to think that somewhere along the line I’ll be using foil, tape and rubber cement for some sort of Mardi Gras facial adornment.
New Orleans is where what I learned from Mr. Craft comes full circle.
My wife and I came here to teach in 2008, part of a program that recruited people from the business world to come into the classroom as the city struggled, post-Katrina, to rebuild one of the worst public school systems in America; a system that was abysmal before being obliterated by a hurricane. It is an ongoing, daily challenge, as we deal with kids from poverty, single-parent and no-parent homes and a litany of other issues. Most of my tenth and eleventh grade English students are at least two-to-three years behind grade level in reading. Some are motivated, most are not. Some have a need and desire to express themselves, but have no idea how.
I try to get them to write…every day. I use the same “Just when you think you’re pushing things too far is where you are just starting to get to where you should be” with my students when it comes to my students writing. The results aren’t where I would like them to be – yet.
But I am a patient guy. You have to be, as I learned long ago, a show takes a while to go from rehearsal from being ready for opening night, and that it rarely goes totally according to the script at hand.
I have been thinking a lot about Mr. Craft lately as I have spent the last three weeks working with my inner-city sophomores on getting through Julius Caesar. Not the easiest of reads, but Julius Caesar is in our textbook and highlighted and encouraged in our state curriculum. Shakespeare in general is a hard sell for these kids, but oftentimes street-smart kids from the environments that we are working with can connect on some level to Caesar’s concepts of loyalty and betrayal, and certainly the violence and mayhem of the play should ring true here in the murder capital of America.
We’re getting there, very slowly.
Once again, much as with my job seekers, my audience here is oftentimes angry, resentful, and fearful. ‘Why-am-I-here-and-what-relevance-has-this-got-to-my-life?’ attitudes abound. In a way it seems that I have been in rehearsal for the last three decades for this three-week stretch.
I have also been thinking about Mr. Craft as we begin to wind down the school year, and look ahead to fall. I have had a good year, and for the first time in my four-years here, it appears that I will be back at the same school, but teaching what? A month or so ago, our administration had us fill out forms about our intentions for next year, and what we might like to teach. My school is trying to remake itself, and would like to offer more electives. The form asked if we were certified for any specialty, or if we would be willing to get certified. One of the things the school would like to offer is a drama class of some sort, and I could add the drama certification to my license simply by passing a national certification test.
I listed ‘drama’ as one of the electives I would indeed be willing and eagerly able to teach.
If the timing is just right, and they decide to go that route, maybe I’ll get the part.
As I write this, Mr. Craft is about to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the Denver Public Schools Shakespeare Festival that he founded in 1984 and continues to direct. According to the press release from the DPS, ‘About 5,000 costumed students from more than 75 DPS schools will perform’ at the day-long event this coming Friday, May 11, 2012.
( http://communications.dpsk12.org/announcements/scenes-and-sonnets-to-be-performed-at-dps-28th-annual-shakespeare-festival )
Meanwhile, my fifty-three New Orleans tenth graders and I will continue to work our way through the last acts of Julius Caesar. It isn’t a festival and nobody will hear them reading the lines, but I hope some of it will resonate with some of them on some level.
So here I sit, thirty-five years removed from my last classroom or stage session with J. Joe, and I am still using what I learned from him on a regular basis. The curtain always goes up, the show never closes. Life is like that; you play to whatever audience happens to be in the seats.
As it should be. The show must, of course, go on. I learned that from Mr. J. Joe Craft.