The instructors of 4th Wall Theatre Co. converged last week for the annual Gathering of Leaders in Arts Education Extravaganza (a.k.a our staff meeting). As we provide mobile theatre workshops all over Southern Michigan, most of us only get the opportunity to work with a handful of other staff members throughout the year. This yearly meeting is an opportunity for the entire staff to share resources, stories and updates in an in-person setting; and the one thing everyone looks forward to, without fail, is “Favorite Yearly Memory”.
On our fifth year, we thought it appropriate to share highlights of this year’s Show & Tell (we are actors after all!) because every story included some important lessons learned.
Expect the Unexpected
- Mr. Aral—”My memory involves one student in particular. He came to class, even before characters were assigned, fully dressed as the King himself: Elvis Presley! There was a concern for half a class when two people wanted to be The King. But when the performance day came, he and a friend devised a way to make it a duet; the friend took on the role of band, backup singers, and even the stage hand that brings the King his cape! When they finished, the crowd went wild!”
•Lesson Learned: When you can embrace a student’s affinity, the experience will mean more to them and to others.
- Miss Robin—”My favorite memory is from a middle school workshop in Ann Arbor. Upon entering the classroom, a boy wearing braces on his legs made his way up to my wheelchair to ask a question. I expected him to mention my disability, but instead he enthusiastically asked if he could disable my phone! From that first interaction, he kept us instructors on our toes class after class, begging for us to play “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon. And could this kid ever dance!”
Lesson Learned: Disability doesn’t define how you dance.
- Miss Danielle—”On the first day of a workshop, I walked in and out of nowhere heard my name, “Miss Danielle!!” I turned to see a student coming in for a hug; she had remembered me from a one hour class I taught months before and was excited for a familiar face coming into her new class. Afterward she would make it a point to talk to me and tell me what had been going on. She even requested that I teach her next 4th Wall class!”
Lesson Learned: Never underestimate the impact that encouragement and positivity can make.
- Miss Katie P.—”Mine was the ultimate experience of “Expect the Unexpected”; at a workshop this year, one of the students had what I can only call a “wardrobe malfunction”! Well, the show must go on and we resolved the problem; the very same student had a great performance and wowed the crowd acting, singing and dancing!”
Lesson Learned: Positivity and adaptability can make a success out of less than perfect circumstances.
- Miss Gabby—”I want to tell you about Amanda (all students names have been changed). The disability she was born with limited her mobility so much that she used a wheelchair and had trouble speaking, however she wouldn’t let that hold her back during a workshop I taught last fall. During a class when the students chose their own “audition” pieces, Amanda chose to sing a worship song. The words were difficult to hear, but no one even noticed as she sang her heart out for Jesus. She gave it her all and left everyone in tears!”
Lesson Learned: Provide the venue, support and opportunity, and limitations don’t have to matter.
- Miss Taylor—”I was honored to be a part of the TEDx Detroit presentation onstage at the Fox Theater this year. I was so nervous and couldn’t stop thinking about how important this was for 4th Wall and their efforts for inclusive theater. When I arrived, I realized being there to support the students and make sure they knew what a big deal this was, was my privilege. But they already knew how important their job was that day. When the crowd gave them a standing ovation after they performed, it felt like a wall of happy water hit. I still look back at the video and tear up when I see the stunned faces of the performers. They knew what they had done, and they were so proud!”
Lesson Learned: Don’t underestimate students’ intuition and ability to rise to the occasion.
- Mr. Peter—”This is my first year as an instructor and on one of my first workshops I met a student named Carly. Carly’s caregiver told me multiple times not to expect much from her as she didn’t speak, make sounds, use sign language, or a tablet to communicate. Week after week, I would work with Carly to try and give her alternative ways, any ways, of communicating; and week after week, there was no progress. Finally, when asking if she wanted to be a dog or a cat during a theater game, there was no response– per usual. I said, “Okay… a cat. You can be a cat, is that alright with you?” Without missing a beat, Carly responded “Uh-huh.” We were all floored. After weeks of no response, there it was… “Uh-huh”. I hope she is in the class again this year, I can’t wait to discover the progress we can make!”
Lesson Learned: Don’t give up. Everyone has more inside than meets the eye.
- Miss KK—”I have been here since the beginning; over five years! I have been blessed to work with the Down Syndrome Guild of Southeast Michigan since then, and my experiences there continue to change the way I think about being an instructor. During one of our last workshops, I had a student named Sara choose to perform a monologue for their talent show. I asked if she needed help researching which piece she would like to do; she replied, “No thank you, I think I’ll just write my own about my life.” I was amazed! I have never had a student want to do that. The result was the most moving piece I have ever heard in my years with 4th Wall. Sara delivered her monologue with passion and true acting expertise With the resulting inspiration, I have decided that I will focus an entire workshop around each student expressively writing and acting a piece about who they are.”In preparation for writing this blog, Miss KK shared with me Sara’s finished piece. Here are just a few parts of what made it so special:
- Miss Lisa— “My first workshop as a lead instructor was at a recreation center in Canton. We had a very diverse group of students at this workshop; One of the older students-he might have been in his 50s-politely refused to do much of anything starting with the very first class. We even wrote his favorite character’s best lines into the script; when Dirty Harry’s line “Go ahead, make my day.” arrived, Steve would just reply in his deep quiet voice, “I’ll pass.” I tried my best every week to try to get him to join in with the group. Finally, I tried to see if he would like to be my buddy and help me “stay on task” as the assistant to the director of the play. “OK, you got it.” Just a week later, at the final performance, Steve and I were attached at the hip and he was telling me that he trusted me. That was a real wow moment!”
Lesson Learned: We are building more than acting skills.
- Miss Katie M .—”My favorite memory from the past year is from one of the most challenging workshops I have ever instructed. These students dealt with so many challenges, both physical and cognitive. It was difficult to get responses from them, so the fellow instructor and I felt defeated a lot of the time. The day of the performance seemed the same: responses were small and quiet. All of a sudden, we noticed the parents had the widest smiles on their faces! Afterwards, they couldn’t stop praising them. Many came up to me in tears saying this was the best day of their child’s life; of their life! They had performed in a way the parents had never thought them capable of!”
Lesson Learned: Parents, teachers and loved ones see things differently than we do. They can see new abilities that they don’t see in a day to day life of people with special needs.