Four Steps to Set You Up for Success (Or: How I Prep for a Theatre Class)
People often email me asking for theatre advice. I try to email back as best I can, but it got me thinking: What do I wish I could tell myself five years ago?
Do your Homework
For every 4th Wall Theatre class, we send out a note to the parents with emergency information, etc. We call it our “Getting to Know You” form. It includes basic facts like age, diagnosis, as well as helpful hidden clues like what the student’s chores are at home, or how they like to be calmed. All of this paints a picture of the student’s preferred communication method, touch preference, etc.
If you’re at a school and there are instructors or other paraprofessionals in the room, then the form isn’t as paramount (the teachers should be able to fill you in on any vital information). In this case, try to set aside some time for a meeting with the teachers (even if just for a few minutes) in advance of beginning your class. But for everyone else out there, do yourself and the students a favor and: Do your homework. Find our form on Pinterest here.
Clear the Space
4th Wall Theatre instructors often walk in blind to a classroom, library, etc. Or you may be using your own classroom, which you typically don’t use for this purpose. Whatever your situation: clear the space. I once had class at a high school on a beautiful stage. It was cleared already so I figured we were ready to set up. Wrong. I didn’t look at the space through a student’s eyes: Are they a “hider?” Then the scaffolding under the pit was a perfect place to get lost. Are they a “distract-ee?” Then the props table way over there was the perfect place to touch everything. Are they a “runner?” Then the spiral staircase up the catwalk should most definitely be blocked. Please, live vicariously through my mistakes: coaxing a young man with autism off of a catwalk is not a fun time. Clear the space.
Set the Space
I love the book “The First Days of School.” Authors, Wong and Wong, talk about the importance of a student knowing where to be when they enter a space. This husband and wife team are big proponents of assigned seats on the first couple of days to remove some anxiety. As such, we always start our 4th Wall Theatre classes in a circle seated on the floor, or in chairs. If I know the crowd is younger, I often put out spot markers (we call them “Pancakes”) on the ground for them. If sitting on the ground is an issue, I pre-set chairs instead.
My mother was a preschool teacher for twelve years. Sometimes I was lucky enough to substitute teach for her which meant I had the liberty of setting up the classroom routine: Circle time first? Or centers? From my experience, getting 16 preschoolers to sit for circle time after 15 minutes of more active learning is like trying to keep kittens in a box. Having a room full of students knowing where to sit helps calm their nerves and improve the vibe of the room.
Greet the Parental Units (aka Divide and Conquer)
At 4th Wall Theatre, it is our policy to have two instructors in the field on all classes. This is especially helpful on the first day of class: One instructor can be chatting with the students about what they had for lunch (see number three) while another is greeting parents and students alike at the door.
I get my best tips from the parents at the door.
When parents see the instructor inside they send their child in with a wave. With an instructor outside in the hallway an introduction can be made and sometimes, very important information is passed along. Most of the time it is just pleasant chitchat, but I have learned: Tommy had a really bad day at school. Suzy’s aunt just passed away. Robert tends to have more behavioral issues when Ann’s in class. And on and on. Pieces of information that help inform how I would discipline any behavioral issues that day.