Performing Art was conceived out of necessity really. Inspired by two of my high school students. I was teaching a sculpture class at La Salle College Preparatory High School. I had two students, whom I recognized from their acting in the school plays, but had never seen them in the art rooms before. I also noticed that they were quite good at art. So, I asked them, “ Well, clearly you both have talent in art and sculpture, why have I never seen you walk through these studio doors before now, your final semester of your Senior year!?” They both immediately said, “We know, we love art. But we only have so many Electives Courses we are allowed to take, so we always picked theatre.” I replied, “ Well I know you are talented actresses. It is just too bad I have never seen you up here because you guys are really good.” They too were disappointed.
I began to think of how to incorporate Acting and Art into one course, after all, I always did both. I am an actress and an artist. When I was in school, I never had to choose between acting and art. I was allowed to develop skills in both. In fact, I was so glad I didn’t have to choose between them, because I don’t think I could have. I loved them both. They were both talents I had been given. It didn’t seem right to have to choose one over the other. I had to come up with a way that students could get it all in one program so they didn’t have to choose. Maybe I could incorporate music, if any of the students enjoyed singing or playing an instrument. Why not showcase all of their talents?
I am an art teacher so could teach that and I am an actress and a theater director so I could coach them and direct a performance. I’ve been in the theatre for 47 years. I have worked behind the scenes. I have technical skills. I’m a prop designer and set designer so I could design the sets and teach them about the technical side. I have also written a play and a screenplay so I knew the structure of those. Then, I had the light bulb moment. Why not take a masterpiece painting, and have the students write a play about the people in it! Then they could perform their own words. This was exciting. Now, I could utilize all of my talents too! That would make it very satisfying. I know there are students out there like me, there just has to be. So, Performing Art was born.
However, I wasn’t sure it would fly. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea. So I quietly went around to a couple of art students whom also acted in the school plays and asked, “If there was a course that would incorporate acting, art and playwriting would you sign up for it? Would that be of interest to you?” They instantly said, “When can I sign up? Are you teaching it next semester? Cuz, I’m graduating this year so I want to take it.” Then I got up the courage to asked a room full of my students that were all from different walks of life with lots of different interests. I asked them to raise their hands if they would be interested in a course like this. To my astonishment, practically every hand went up. Even the kids whom I thought would have no interest in it at all! I thought, hmmm, I might have something here.
I took a year to develop it further, made lesson plans for each day and each week. Added more disciplines. Made lists upon lists, making sure I thought of everything. I designed it so I only really needed one room with some tables and chairs, as long as I had access to a sink somewhere to clean up the art supplies. Access to a performing space or theatre would be great but we could also turn the room into a performance space. Keep it simple and make it about the students.
I did a pilot program as a 3-week, all day summer camp. I belonged to a theatre that had room for the art and writing portion and a stage for the performance. Perfect! I had very little of my own money to start all this so there would be, very little advertisement. I could put the word out through the theatre company’s newsletter. However, mostly advertisement was through just word of mouth, my mouth. I managed to get about 5 students to sign up and pay a nominal fee. A bargain, especially for an all day summer camp. That money covered the cost for the materials and not much else, but it was a start. I pretty much working for free. Oh well, it was worth it. I had to see if the program would work.
I wanted to have the students learn from other adults and professionals too. I needed a small faculty. I paid a friend, who was an established Stand Up Comedian, to come in and do some improvisation with the students because some had never acted before. I knew Improve is a good introduction to that. Plus it would be fun for them. I also hired a costumer to help with the minimal costumes and had the students learn a little a bout that too by helping out. I wanted to keep it simple at first. I had to. I wanted the actors to be able to pull everything out of a trunk and transform into the characters right in front of the audiences eyes. I wanted them to put minimal costumes on right over their clothes in some artistic way. It worked!
However, one student, who was a terrific artist, was terrified of getting on stage. I tried to encourage her to try it, but I also didn’t want to cause her panic and stress. That wasn’t at all what this program was about. Performing Art was developed to give students a chance to try their hand at three artistic disciplines not to create anxiety in the participants. So, I made her the Stage Manager! Work behind the scenes is just as important as work done on stage. Problem solved. If any other student felt that way…well there were plenty of jobs to do behind the scenes. I was teaching teamwork through out this program and theater technicians are part of the team.
At first, I was only seeing Performing Art for young people and college students. Then my comedian friend, who also helped me video the program, really saw it in action said, “Joanne this thing is so great. I want to do it! You should offer this for adults.” Wow, I hadn’t even considered that. Then I thought, what about our seniors in assisted living homes? I bet they would love this too, especially in LA, where there are a ton of retired actors, artist and playwrights. Maybe we could write a whole play or a One Act. We could even publish them and all could get a cut of the proceeds! The participants could actually make a little money perhaps. We could even charge a little for the performance and that would help fund the program itself. Performing Art isn’t just for kids, it’s for everyone everywhere. It’s just so much fun. I hope everyone gives Performing Art a try.
As a side note, near the end of the pilot program I said to the kids, “Well I hope you guys have learned some things by doing all this.” I will never forget one of my 10 year olds piped in and said, “ Joanne, I didn’t know anything before this!” I replied with a laugh, “Oh I think you knew a few things. But thank you, that made my day!”
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