#SDTheatre: Keeping Live Theatre Alive–A Call to Creative Theatre Education

by Cecelia Kouma

in National Conference

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(Pictured: Cecelia Kouma Executive Director of Playwrights Project with Cygnet Theatre’s President Judy Garrett, Artistic Director Sean Murray, and Managing Director Bill Schmidt at Playwrights in Process New Play Festival. The following post is part of a series highlighting and celebrating the theatres and theatre people of San Diego as part of the 2014 TCG National Conference in San Diego. Email Gus Schulenburg if you’d like to participate.)

Keeping live theatre alive… It’s on the minds of theatre leaders across the nation. How do we retain what is magical, adapt to a changing world, and instill the love of theatre in future generations? This is especially challenging in the digital age, where technology is insidiously supplanting face to face contact.

New efforts in audience development have emerged in San Diego, with more theatres adding pre-show conversations, talk backs, workshops, and play festivals that engage audiences in the evolution of new plays. Creative thinkers (including the James Irvine Foundation) at the La Jolla Playhouse WoW’ed us with its festival of site specific work of the same name (With out Walls). Several smaller theatres in San Diego (Circle Circle dot dot, New Play Café, and San Diego Fringe) are following suit by taking their productions to the streets. Others, including Mo’olelo, The Old Globe and Playwrights Project, are focusing on engaging populations who don’t typically attend theatre.

Kouma2As we look to solutions, let’s not undervalue the importance of theatre education, or as La Jolla Playhouse’s Education Director Steve McCormick (left) calls it, “youth driven” theatre. How will younger generations appreciate live theatre if they’ve never been exposed to it?  Thousands of San Diegans vocally support the demand for a new baseball stadium. The number of parents signing their children up for Little League, soccer and football far outweighs those signing up for theatre classes, dance and music. Why aren’t people shouting out for the arts?

Most students are exposed to team sports and required to take PE in school. As the last one chosen for kickball teams, I wonder why athletes weren’t required to take acting classes, where I could have reigned as team captain?

How do we ingrain the arts in communities’ DNA? Do we need to elevate our local theatre artists into celebrities, as actor TJ Johnson (right) has Kouma3suggested, with a theatre version of baseball cards? How do we captivate theatre lovers, develop theatre artists and build audiences?  More youth theatre programs would certainly whet more appetites, and greater student discounts to professional productions would attract youth to attend theatre. If my high school acting teacher hadn’t given his students the opportunity to usher at professional theatre houses (like The Old Globe), I would never have experienced theatre of that magnitude and majesty.

We need to deepen the engagement of students already bitten by the theatre bug. As Jay Sarno, Vice President of North Coast Repertory Theatre puts it, “It’s one thing to be in your high school play.  It’s quite a different thing to be able to write and direct a one-act play and have it produced at a professional theatre like NCRT.”  I’m sure their student playwrights and student actors would agree.

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North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Student One Act Festival

Playwrights Project engages student playwrights from across the state in the process of professionally producing their plays with professional actors, directors and designers. This year’s 29th festival just ran for its 15th year at The Old Globe. Jim DeVivo, Education Director at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, has identified over 50 groups across the nation producing plays written by young people. He’s beginning to connect these groups to share ideas and strategies for the future.

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Playwrights Project’s Plays by Young Writers Festival;
Carlos Angel-Barajas, Patrick McBride,

Carol Cabrera and Brandon Kelly in FAIRY TALE by Devyn Krevat (age 17). Photo by Ken Jacques.

San Diego Repertory Theatre and its partner The San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts have designed another shining example with their program the Xchange Xperience. They have co-produced four major musicals, including HAIRSPRAY, THE WHO’S TOMMY, ZOOT SUIT and IN THE HEIGHTS. Student actors participate side by side with professional actors, directors and choreographers. Their productions of HAIRSPRAY and IN THE HEIGHTS won local theatre honors over productions that involved all professionals.

in the heights

Pictured: Jai Rodriguez in San Diego Rep’s In the Heights. Photo by Daren Scott.

La Jolla Playhouse brought its site specific strategies to a suburb of San Diego with its project Excavating Escondido, which engaged three local high schools in connecting the history of their city with modern life, in a play that engaged audiences in sharing their hopes of how they’d like to be remembered.

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La Jolla Playhouse, Excavating Escondido
Directed by Erika Phillips and James Pillar

High Tech High has employed working actors in full time jobs as theatre teachers; however, one of these positions is slated for elimination as the school shifts its focus to science. Such is the fate of arts in the schools. The STEAM movement hasn’t yet landed with this administration. Yet, adding the Arts to the focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math makes a lot of sense.

Kouma7Quoting Linda Libby (left), the theatre teacher losing her job in June, “English, math, science, history… these can all be learned online… only the arts demand your presence and develop skills and knowledge that can’t be acquired over the Internet.” She also points out that theatre lets students fully understand that “they matter. Until students really know that they matter, they can’t empathize.” Every single person involved in a theatre production matters. The stars may get the credit, but it’s teamwork. Just ask the crew member who forgot to put out an essential prop. And when a production evokes a response from the audience, there’s a connection, a shared understanding. That is empathy.

As Malik Gillani (right) of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising Theatre states, “Empathy does not require us to give up our own Kouma8perspectives, but allows us to integrate others’ perspectives within our own. It is critical to develop this skill in order for students to succeed in the 21st century.”

Communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity – essential to the new common core standards – are all natural byproducts of theatre. So why isn’t theatre top of the priority list for most schools? Ultimately, I suspect, it’s because theatre is a bit scary to the uninitiated. Theatre taps our emotions, not just our intellects. Creativity by nature is unpredictable. It’s provocative and dangerous. But, it’s in these risky live exchanges where vulnerabilities are exposed and the human spirit is glimpsed. As we look toward solutions to keeping live theatre viable, let’s not be afraid to talk theatre education. Let’s engage youth in theatre and give them something to tweet about.


cecelia koumaCecelia Kouma was hired as Playwrights Project’s Managing Director in 2000 and was promoted to Executive Director in 2007. She has a BFA in Theatre Arts, from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She has developed programs for schools, foster youth, adult playwrights, veterans, and immigrants. Ms. Kouma has worked as an arts administrator since 1987 and has presented at conferences on the topics of arts education and nonprofit management. She serves on advisory committees for the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, San Diego Theatre Educators Alliance, and the San Diego Teaching Artist Institute.