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Teacher Spotlight: Steven Slaughter of Rosslyn Academy in Kenya

We bring you another installment of our Teacher Spotlight series, where we chat with teachers from around the country, picking their brain about their theater program and the art of teaching theater. This month we spoke with Steven Slaughter of Rosslyn Academy about his unique experience  teaching theater in Kenya and his recent productions of The Internet is Distract—OH LOOK A KITTEN and Brief Interviews with Internet Cats.

Brief Interviews with Internet CatsHow would you describe your theater department at Rosslyn Academy?

Rosslyn is an international k-12 school of about 650, so not large by US standards. We have about 165 students in the middle school and about 250 in the high school. We do not at present offer much in the way of drama classes, other than one semester-long 6th grade drama class and one 7th grade speech class. Nonetheless, our school strongly values the arts and so we are able to produce high school shows at a surprisingly high level.

What are some of the unique aspects to teaching theater in Kenya?

Our school’s international student body makes teaching in every area really interesting. We have kids from over 50 countries, and so we really enjoy a fascinating diversity of races, nationalities, and cultural perspectives. One challenge we face is resourcing. Without Home Depot (or even good smaller hardware stores), costume shops (or thrift shops), and the ability to easily order things online for delivery, building sets, props, and costumes can be a huge time-consuming challenge. You can just almost never find exactly what you need. So we constantly find ourselves having to be creative, to approach a prop that would be so easy to build in the States from a new direction to get it done. This can be super-frustrating, but it definitely pushes us to be resourceful.

What made you decide to teach theater?

I really stumbled back into this world, to my great delight. Theater was my life in high school and I began college as a theater major, though I switched to graphic design my sophomore year. Years later, I became an elementary teacher and taught in Chicago for 8 years. I’ve heard it said that teaching is 90% theater and I think that that is true. Moving to Nairobi 4 years ago, I realized that I was now part of a k-12 school (and thus, containing a high school theater department). I offered to assist the high school director on the fall play and found I still loved it. After two years, she unexpectedly had to stay in the States, and so I stepped up to direct. It really reawakened my love for theater and I was delighted to discover that what I loved about it as a teen was still exactly the same. The high school theater community—really more of a family—is something special. Drama kids are an awesome group—hard working, incredibly committed, creative, encouraging of one another, fearless, diverse in their skills and temperaments. My daughter, who was starting high school when we arrived, found a home here too (and didn’t mind my being a part of it), so I’ve loved doing so many shows with her as well. Being able to now be on the adult side of this world and helping today’s theater kids is an incredible privilege.

briefHow do high school students benefit from taking theater classes and working on productions?

Well, at present, we don’t offer theater classes—which I’d really like to bring back to the arts curriculum—but working on productions changes kids profoundly. My daughter has said that she would work on shows even if they were never performed. This is profound because it really doesn’t make sense on paper—you work for MONTHS on something that only gets performed a few nights. It isn’t like a sports team in which you play a whole bunch of games all season. It has to be about the process. Obviously, any onstage experience helps kids become more confident and self-assured in being in front of groups, which they have to do all the time in classroom and many future business settings. It also benefits kids, I think, by giving them a great appreciation for one another. Actors really learn to appreciate the craft and hard work of those supporting them through building sets, props, costumes, lighting and sound, etc. etc. Theater is the only art form in which so many skills and different personalities all do their parts to assemble this complex piece of collaborative art form. Everyone involved gets to work in their area of strength to collaborate to the whole. There is nothing else like it, and kids feel this when they pull off a great performance.

What drew you to The Internet is Distract—OH LOOK A KITTEN and Brief Interviews with Internet Cats?

This was my first year directing a middle school play. For months, I read tons of scripts and samples, but I frankly don’t love much that is being written for this age. So much of the humor feels like it tries too hard to be zany, or panders to the lowest common denominator or that it is all being written for little kids. Then I read these plays and found myself genuinely laughing. They both relate to kids today so well. I am also a parent of teens and I knew that all parents can relate to these. I knew that parents and older teens (as well as younger kids) would genuinely enjoy these shows (and not just endure them to support their kids, siblings, or classmates). The Internet is a Distract— especially is so smart and relatable. My students and I talk a lot about the ways the Internet can be so compulsive to us all, and so approaching it from this surreal point of view was appealing. They liked making fun of our own distractability, and I think they were glad to be doing material that was really topical and clever, a break from the folk tale retellings and fractured fairy tales they had done in previous years.

Distraction_AfterFight.jpgWhy do you think your students/audience responded to these plays?

By satirizing our present Internet-obsessed culture, both plays are relatable to a wide audience. There are enough silly elements that little kids can enjoy them, while there are so many smart, funny bits that teens and adults can relate to as well.

What was your favorite part of the rehearsal process?

My favorite part of all rehearsal processes is the act of collective discovery. I always have my larger vision for how I want the show to feel generally, but I love the process of running a scene, stopping when something isn’t working, and trying different things. I love those “What if we did ____?” moments, when anyone in the room pitches a new idea, we try it, and it suddenly works in an unexpected new way. I love how changing one gesture or inflection can surprise us with new depth, or poignancy, or increase the comedic value by 300% as we all burst into laughter and say, “Yes! That’s its!” This process is so much fun and feels like magic.

If you could pass only one lesson along to your students, what would it be?

More than anything, I think it would be to embrace the process of working on something very difficult. In every aspect of a show, from beginning to end, we face countless obstacles and challenges. That faux brick effect is not working, and so we must not lose heart, but do it again and again and again, just like the actors on stage are working on that scene, or song, or dance, or the costume crew ripping out that seam and trying again. We push through the frustrations and persevere until we get it right. I do not believe in the notion that it is “good enough for middle/high school.” Kids are capable of far more than they, or most adults, believe, and more than anything, I want them to come to see this…to see that they can put on a really excellent show, but that it doesn’t come easy. Nothing of value comes easy. But for theater kids, this perseverance is not the gritting your teeth and pushing through something you hate variety. It is working really hard to pursue excellence in something you absolutely love, surrounded by people you love. And what is more rewarding than that?

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