Kandace Arens McGowan, drama teacher at Sehome High School, is the director of their spring 2018 production of Annie which opened May 2. This month she also had an article published in the drama teacher magazine Teaching Theater. Her article is about the intense and rewarding 24-hour play festival she puts on annually with her theatre students. Click here to read.
Before Annie opened and before a visit to this year’s State Thespian conference, we had a chance to ask McGowan a few questions about theatre work and its impact on students, both academically and personally.
So many skills that are learned in theatre and stage work transfer to other areas of life. Can you tell me where you see this in your teaching? (I am thinking of things like public speaking, creativity and collaboration.)
I love teaching theatre because theatre is the study of life. It’s about what it is like to be a human being.
First, in drama, students are constantly practicing academic skills. When they analyze a character, I ask them to dissect the script for clues and they make inferences based on the text. When we create the world of the play, we also learn about the time period. (For example, during Annie, we’ve watched documentaries about the Great Depression and explored what kind of people lived in Hoovervilles – all things that directly connect to history class.) They must look at how language, symbols and thematic elements are used to portray nuance. And that depth of thinking is exactly what every teacher wants. They’re practicing textual analysis without realizing it.
I also love teaching theatre because theatre is the story of people. Drama students practice compassion and explore other perspectives. We break down social moments and analyze them by asking questions like “Why is the character doing that?” and “What can we learn about society through this story?” In Intermediate Drama, we do a unit about Status, where students learn how physical movements, like the way you stand or carry yourself, can show confidence or power. They do an observation assignment where they go into the world and analyze what’s happening between actual people. The students are always fascinated. Last spring, my Advanced class chose to perform a one-act play called “Lockdown” that directly dealt with the current events of school safety. They chose the script because it was an issue that mattered to them, and, through their drama class, it gave them a way to discuss contemporary American issues. Theatre makes them more compassionate, thoughtful humans.
Finally, in drama, students also learn tons of “real-world” skills. The problems that they solve are authentic problems that require creativity and collaboration. For example, once, I had a student calculate the amount of wood that we needed to buy for a piece of our set. I wasn’t going to check her work, I told her, and we were going to order the amount of wood that she calculated. Suddenly, geometry mattered! I had kids pulling out protractors to measure the angles of the stage and calculating the hypotenuse. Or when students take Drama 1, they often start out feeling self-conscious and unsure. By the end of the class, they might still be afraid of public speaking but they have the skills to conquer it. Kids take those experiences and transfer them to their everyday life beyond the stage. I don’t expect every student to go into theatre. In fact, the majority of my students don’t go into theatre. That’s why I feel like it’s important for them to learn these real-world skills in the arts that they can bring to the rest of their lives.
Do you go to the Thespian Conference every year with a play?
We typically compete every year. This year, we took our fall play The 39 Steps, which meant that we had to do pickup rehearsals where kids needed to remember their lines, their movement, etc. Last year, we competed with Twelfth Night, and the year before that, we competed with an original student-written and student-directed play The Paper Dolls, which was really fun! There are also Individual Events, where students compete individually with in different categories in acting or technical theatre for State titles. Students compete at Regionals in January and the top students compete at State. This year, we had four Sehome students qualify at the state level for Monologue, Duo Scene, and Stage Management.
As an educator, what are the things you are most proud of in your students as they get up and perform, put together a show? What is it that you most want them to succeed at?
My favorite moment in a production is when my students pull off something incredibly hard and make it look easy. For example, last fall in The 39 Steps, there was this difficult moment where there’s literally a plane crash onstage and then a huge set piece appears magically, while the lead actor is running across the stage. It’s a 30 second sequence, but it took every person involved in the play to make it happen. I always say that one person alone cannot make a show — we need everyone to work together. A sound designer created the sounds, a stage manager designed and built the giant set piece, another group of actors experimented with shadow puppets to design the plane crash, and then everyone in the whole cast and crew needed to move together at the same time to make the transition look flawless. It took hours of rehearsal. That’s 25-plus kids who need to all work together and focus. It’s hard work. We have fun, but, like any collaboration, it’s also frustrating sometimes. And students learn how to deal with their frustration, persist together, and finish it. On opening night, I sat in the back of the audience and held my breath – and they pulled it off. It looked phenomenal. They’re working so hard and, yet, they make it look easy. It’s so gratifying. The kids practically levitate with joy. We’re bringing that moment (and the rest of the play) to state on Friday, so wish us luck!
In this job, I get to help young people discover that they’re capable of so much more than they thought they were. I see them recognize the value of their own story, and that they have the power and ability to create something meaningful. They can do it and their voice matters. Watching them realize that? You can’t ask for anything better than that.
Before Annie hit the stage, we also caught up with Sehome thespians Michelle Zender, Megan Gill and Marissa Douglas to ask them about this world of theatre from their perspective. Zender is co-president of the Sehome Drama Club and is portraying several characters in Annie. Gill is a Thespian officer and head stage manager and light board operator of Annie; she earned a Superior in Sound Design with a perfect score at the National Thespian Festival in 2017. This coming June she will attend the national conference again placing in the top 10 percent of duet acting in Washington. Douglas is a freshman in the Sehome drama program.
Tell me why you enjoy working on plays:
Gill: It’s a very creative environment and I think it’s so fun to design something on paper and then see it come to life onstage. Plus, the people are so wonderful.
Zender: I love working on plays because it’s a great way to make a lot of friends and meet new people. I have met some of my closest friends through play rehearsal. Not to mention I love to act. Being on stage and putting on a character that is totally different than how I would ever act is so incredibly fun and I would recommend everyone trying it!
Douglas: I enjoy working on plays because I enjoy people who care about people. Creating a play is a team effort and for a team to succeed they have to care for one another despite their differences. I love the diversity within theatre kids but I also love that they’re all similar in the sense that they will accept you as you are whether they necessarily like you or not. I am not someone who feels a need to be liked by everyone but I do believe everyone should respect and not judge one another until given proper reasoning. The people in drama are the kind of people who love before they hate and respect before they judge. I like that.
Do you think being involved with stage work has changed you at all?
Gill: Definitely. I primarily work as a technician, which I never would have seen myself doing a few years ago. I’ve learned so much about set construction, different types of design, and computer software that I didn’t have much interest in before I started doing drama.
Zender: My confidence has definitely grown through theatre. Being in front of an audience countless times makes public speaking seem easy!
Douglas: Being involved in stagework has changed me by strengthening my ability to persist. There’s the popular phrase, “The show must go on!” This saying is not only a rule limited to theatre, but an outlook on life. During a showing of a play, if you’re not feeling your best, or something doesn’t go as planned, you’ve got to suck it up, improvise, and carry on with the show. In life, it’s really easy to get stuck on the difficult times, the sad times, or the times that should’ve gone left but went right. However, people tend to be much more successful if they acknowledge the imperfection, figure out how to make stuff work anyway, and move on to the next scene. Persistence to move on and the ability to adjust to changes are mandatory in theatre and just as useful in life.
What has been your favorite high school role?
Gill: I’m currently stage managing our production of Annie, as well as designing the sound and lights and it’s been super fun so far! I’ve got a great cast and I’ve been able to help build our set.
Zender: My favorite high school role has been Pamela from The 39 Steps because there was a lot of fast-paced dialogue, yelling involved, and I got to speak in a British accent.
Douglas: My favorite and only high school role I’ve had yet is being a part of the tech/run crew and I’ve loved it.
Have you been to the state conference for thespians before and what do you look forward to the most?
Gill: I have been before! I honestly just love going and watching others schools productions. It’s cool to see all the great work everyone else has been doing. I will also be competing with a duo scene, which I haven’t done before, so I’m looking forward to that as well.
Zender: I have gone to the Thespian State Festival for the past four years and each time it has been a blast. Honestly, I like every part of it: performing, watching other schools perform, going to workshops, hanging out with friends, and, of course, getting to skip school.
Do you plan to continue work in theatre once you graduate?
Gill: For sure! I absolutely love doing technical theatre and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Our theatre has become my second home. As of now I am planning to go to college for theatre design and technology so I can pursue a career as a technical director.
Zender: Yes, I do! As a matter of fact, I’m going to be in a play called “The Wolves” through Western as soon as I finish Annie. It’s also going to be amazing and people should definitely go see it!
Annie plays through May 12. Visit SehomeDrama.com/spring for tickets. Please note: As of May 9, most shows are sold out.
Photo 1: The cast of Annie at State Theatre Conference March 2018 (left to right: Kandace McGowan (Director), Saskia van de Poel, Lainie Mueller, Bontu Takele, Jonathan Snavely, Colin Gregory, Rachel Holladay, and Owen Lunny)
Photo 2: Annie rehearsal (left to right: Owen Lunny, Jonathan Snavely, Anica Johnston, Spencer Rose)
Photo 3: “Hard Knocks Life” in rehearsal (left to right: Bontu Takele, Michelle Zender, Michelle Colman)
Photo 4: Rehearsal with director Kandace Arens McGowan (lower right) (left to right onstage: Kennedy Garrison, Bry Finley, Bontu Takele, Kenzie Knapp)
Photo 5: Head stage manager and light board operator Megan Gill
Photo 6: Costume manager Lily Furlong works on costume
Photo 7: Full cast and crew of Annie.