By Will Barrios
This is the first of two posts on my conversation with Steven. He had some great thoughts to share on his experience working with kids as a Teaching Artist for Disney Theatrical. We talked about the importance of arts education and the amazing life skills kids develop through theater. Steven is clearly passionate about his work and sees so much possibility for kids who participate in the arts. Steven knows the importance of play and how expression can help develop individuality.
W: Hey, Steven! Thanks for talking with me today. I know you have a lot of things going on right now and I would love to hear about all of this work you’re doing with kids. I would love to talk about your work with Disney Theatrical and how that’s going. So, can we talk a little bit about what you’re up to right now and what originally got you into this business?
S: Sure! So I went to school at the Boston Conservatory and got my BFA in Musical Theater. While I was there I realized that I enjoyed being behind the table, directing and choreographing. So, while I was there I reached out to a choreographer in New York who I really admired. I started assisting them and getting work here and there. Then they got a job working for Disney Theatrical doing choreography for their choreography DVDs. So, basically the choreography DVDs are if you license a Disney musical or Disney kids show you can learn the choreography for the show. While the chorographer was doing the DVDs, and I had access to Disney Theatrical, I approached Disney and said, “You know, I love Disney and I'm a Disney kid from Orlando, Florida. I’m interested in the kind of work you do with kids” and they told me about Disney Teaching Artists work.
So, now I work for them as a Teaching Artist and I do a few different things. I work in the Education Department at Disney Theatrical and one thing I do is teach Broadway workshops. It’s one of our major things. If a large group of people buy group tickets to a Disney On Broadway show we then offer the opportunity to come in and learn a song and dance from the actual show they’re about to see. So, that's one large thing that I do. Another thing I do is I facilitate talkbacks with the cast after the shows.
Another big thing we do is called the Disney Musicals in Schools: Residency program which is essentially a grant program that Disney Theatrical provides. Five schools within New York City receive grants to produce free Disney Kids or Disney Junior shows and they provide two Teaching Artists to go into the schools and teach the students and teachers how to put on the show, how to act, how to do the costumes - stuff like that. That's a huge booming industry right now. We are in several states. I believe we are in Orange County, California; Orlando, Florida; Seattle and many places throughout the states. We just launched Disney Musicals in Schools in London and then the goal is to move it over to Asia sometime around 2019. So, it's a pretty big program and that's what I do!
I also work for Theaterworks USA, theater for young audiences in NYC. I remount ongoing productions of Click, Clack, Moo; I'm working on Dragons Love Tacos this January and I get to tour all over the U.S.. Then I recently directed a new Christmas show for Stages on the Sound in Brooklyn, NY.
That's kind of what I do!
W: That should keep you pretty busy! Your work with Disney Theatrical in schools sounds super fun! If parents, kids, or school leaders are reading this and want to get their school involved how can they do that?
S: Sure! So they just need to go to the website at http://disneymusicalsinschools.com/school-nyc and locate a program in their area via the “Find Us” button. Now the program is a grant and each organization in a local area will accept applications and choose schools that qualify. The program is designed for Title 1 Schools, which essentially, are school programs that have a certain percentage of their population in free or reduced lunch. And also it's for schools that don't necessarily have an arts education program. The program is designed to bring arts into the school and hopefully become a sustainable program that the school continues to use.
Really the best thing is to check out the website and follow the links to programs in your area. There is a rather long list of requirements but if parents are interested they should talk to their Principal or School Administrator and let them know they're very interested in something like this.
W: So you’re working a lot with kids in Disney Musical in Schools program. Can you talk about the benefits kids get from programs like these? For example, what I love about programs like this is that it gives kids tools for success through theater. How is that playing out?
S: Yeah, so I remember working on a production of The Lion King Kids and we were waiting outside the theater for it to clear for another event and one of the kids came up to me and said, “You know I really like doing this, the singing and the dancing.” It came just completely out of nowhere. This kid said, “I go to therapy after school. I have these bad feelings but whenever I'm here doing theater I don't have those feelings anymore.” So it's just this chance to escape for these kids. It creates a community that's open and welcoming.
The work these kids are doing also encourages individuality and that's what's so important about the program. It allows young people to really express themselves and be something different, try something new. It forces them to get out of their comfort zone. It invokes everyday life skills like public speaking, collaboration, and problem solving. These are all normal things that just aren’t within the normal curriculum for public schools or even private schools. These are just everyday human basic skills that you actually learn through theater. I think it's amazing that we can kind of touch people that way.
W: So do you think the skills kids develop through the program like problem solving, critical thinking, and expression don’t exist in their academic curriculum?
S: Yeah I think so.
W: Or maybe in a different way?
S: Yeah. Now, I'm not a school teacher but from what I've experienced having been a student in public schools the program does offer real life examples as opposed to theoretical which I think makes it more tangible and then ultimately makes it more relevant to the student.
W: You talked earlier about Title I Schools serving underdeveloped communities. I want to talk a little more about problem solving. Because I think especially for underdeveloped communities this skill is over looked. You're using this program to really provide arts to these kids. How do you use dance, acting, and theater to really teach problem solving?
S: Yeah, I can speak directly to choreography. With formations and movements I ask students to get into their window, which is a space between two other dancers, so they can be seen and they might not even know they are out of their window. I can point it out to them and say, “Okay, Claire you're behind somebody right now, the audience can’t see you. How can you fix that?” And then they can fix it. They take the initiative to fix it themselves. And that sounds like a very small thing to us but to a kid that's really huge to find that awareness. I think using blocking and choreography, as a way for them assess the situation, think about it, and solve the situation is important. They become aware of their space and solve the problem.
For example, if a prop falls on stage, or a costume piece falls you have to problem solve. How do you continue with the show? How do you continue the storyline? Then we also have understudies incase people are sick or out for a show. Sometimes we have to say, “Ashley’s out, you're in!” You've got to be able to step up to the plate and hold the blocking.
Does that answer your question?
W: Yes absolutely. I think I'm just letting you go. You're sharing some great stuff. I love the clarity around your ideas and the work that you’re doing. You’re very passionate about your work. Can you talk more about what really motivates you?
S: Yeah! The biggest motivator for me is the gratification I get from the students. They are so drawn to theater and it feeds their soul. They are so happy and they're so passionate about it. I also find that a lot of issues like noisiness, rowdiness, and talking for kids are really symptoms of not having a structured environment to release their energy. With theater you get that kind of release of energy from singing and dancing. I think a lot of kids are looking for an environment that gives them structure to release their energy. But they need that extra push, that extra help that this program provides.
Actually, I don't know very much about your toy Tatro but seeing what I've seen on Instagram I think it's very smart because it's structured and fun. It gives kids all the tools to express themselves and then creative license to mix and match the scenes and characters to shake things up. That's exactly what you need for a developing mind and being that this work is theatrically driven it gives kids every opportunity to develop all the skills we’ve talked about.
W: I love that you see the opportunity for kids to develop some important life skills through theater. I love your stories about these kids that are having positive experiences and growing, stepping out of their comfort zone. Thanks so much for the chat and I hope this article helps you reach kids and parents that are looking for a program like Disney Musicals in Schools. Your self-awareness and observations of the kid’s experiences are really powerful and I hope that continues as you grow with the program!