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Teacher Spotlight: Danielle Filas of Village Academy

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 Danielle Filas of Village Academy about cross-curriculum collaboration, taking “the note,” and her recent production of Failure: A Love Story by Philip Dawkins.

fail3What made you decide to teach theater?

The huge salary, the fame, the glamour, and the massive public respect. Sure, the paparazzi can feel overwhelming at times, but I just slip into the hot tub in the back of my stretch limo and the stress is gone.

Haha. Just kidding.

I’m a teacher by accident, actually. Years ago, I was directing Tina Howe’s Museum for BackStage Theatre in Chicago. After the show, Matthew Kerns, then the head of the Theatre Department of the Chicago Academy for the Arts approached me and asked if I would direct the show for his high school students. I declined, “I hated high school when I was in it. I wouldn’t want to go again.” He offered me a paycheck, so I changed my mind and accepted. And I loved it immediately. The fearlessness and energy of the students was infectious. Being challenged to articulate and clarify my own artistic process also made me a better artist. I basically did everything in my power to convince the school to hire me full time. Within a year, I’d succeeded. I’ve never looked back. I see teaching as an extension of being a theater artist. I absolutely love what I do, and I’ve been fortunate that both schools where I’ve worked (Chicago Academy for the Arts and now Village Academy Schools) have supported my theatrical life outside the classroom. I’ve never stopped writing, acting, and directing in local theater.

Why did you connect with the story of the Fail Family in Failure: A Love Story?

What’s not to love about this script? The charming Fail family itself represents so much to me: the American Dream at its finest, the notion that a life’s journey is best measured in stories (love stories especially), the fact that it’s in our quirks and imperfections that our beauty hides. I’ll have to admit, too, that I’m a Chicago girl at heart. (I lived there for 15 years and even though I moved to Ohio in 2008, my city has never really left my heart.) So the script had me at the river and the parrots—in part, Failure is a love note to Chicago itself. Even more than the characters and setting, I found myself drawn to this script because of how it’s written.

Philip Dawkins has created something entirely unique here in terms of narrative and structure; he’s invented his own conventions in this piece of magical realism. So much of what is written (and especially for young theater artists) bores me to tears. I’m tired of living-room dramas, I’m tired of second-rate (or non-existent!) female characters, I’m tired of scripts that talk down to students through barely-disguised lectures decorated with what adults think is hip and cool teen lingo. I’m really really really tired of realism on stage. Along came Failure—let me hand out a special thanks to my good friend Kathy Arfken who sent it to me as a must read. (Side note: she designed the set for Failure at Theatre Northwest, the performance company of the Indiana University Northwest Department of Performing Arts.) This script forces you to be creative as the director, as an actor, as a designer. You have to figure out how to divide up the casting, the lines. How to make a clock talk, time jump, a character give birth, and how to make narration active. You can’t approach this script without firing up your imaginative forces full throttle. I love that!

failFailure: A Love Story deals with aging and the passage of time, but you work with young artists at your high school.  Why do you think that high school students connect to this material?

My students connected especially to the line, “Just because something ends, that don’t mean it wasn’t a great success.” While it applies to the themes of mortality and the passage of time, my students also related the idea to many aspects of their own lives. My graduating seniors applied it to the impending end of their high school careers. Others related it to romantic breakups, to losing friends, to the ends of various projects. All of us related to this idea as theater artists in particular. Closing this show broke our hearts, for example, but that don’t mean it wasn’t a great success.

What was your favorite part of the rehearsal process for this play?

Is it cheating to say the whole thing?

Probably. Ok.

Our school schedule worked out so that when we returned from our two week winter break, we were suddenly in tech week. A challenge, to be sure! As with—oh, say, every theatrical production in the history of time—we wished we had more time. My students . . . let me say that again . . . my students asked me if we could rehearse over break. Yup. Pretty amazing. They begged to give up winter break in order to make this show as beautiful and special as they knew it could be. And one of our actors (JJ Sheehan who played Mortimer Mortimer et al) was out of town for the entire winter break, so we used Google Hangouts to have him at the rehearsals virtually. One of my fellow teachers heard what we were doing and brought us food every day, too. Everyone involved in the production loved it intensely from day 1. It was an incredibly special show to each of us.

How did audiences react to your production?

Oh, I was worried about this! It was so different (in content and form) than anything else I had seen our school (or any high school) perform. Would people get it?

I need not have worried! People loved it. I know that everybody comes up to you when you direct (or act) after the show and says, “Great job.” So, I tend not to take much of that sort of complimenting to the bank. This was different. People asked questions. Or told me stories. Or ignored me entirely and talked to one another about what they had just seen. A show that can inspire people to connect once the stage lights dim? Love that!

And a favorite moment? When we performed the show at the Ohio State Thespian Festival, someone in the front row cried her false eyelashes off. Somewhere, I have a photo of them on the floor.

You created a really unique lesson plan for your production of Failure: A Love Story.  What inspired you to do this?

Thank you for the nice compliment!

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. Our school is chock full of activity. We have art openings, poetry readings, athletics, choir conferences, band performances, fundraisers of all shapes and sizes. So our theatrical productions can struggle to attract audiences, even with the supportive community we do have. Shows with smaller casts (we used five for Failure) struggle to fill seats a bit more, as parents and friends make up a large demographic for us.  Fewer actors means fewer family and friends. So, I hoped that by creating a ready-to-use set of cross-curricular lesson plans, I might inspire some teachers to attend and/or to talk about the show with their students.

fail2Why do you think it is important to link theater to other areas of curriculum?

I talk about this quite often on Theatrecast (a podcast designed for theater teachers and artists) with my co-host, Nick Cusumano. We laugh together about how Common Core standards pretend that the ideas of deep reading, collaborative work, and critical thinking are new. Any theater teacher will tell you that putting up a show hits all of those areas. And any theater production links with just about any curricular area you can name. Every piece touches on Language Arts (how is the dialogue put together?), on history (what was happening in the world when the plot begins or when the author was alive?), on STEM subjects (design a set, understand colors in lighting, measure sight lines . . .), and on global awareness (explore the cultures of the characters, figure out how to make a zero-carbon-footprint production). Live theater works as the intersection of every subject we teach in schools and quite a few we don’t. The value of participating in live theater (by creating it or by watching it) is unmatched because theater, at its core, is an attempt to articulate what it means to be a human being.

For our program, curricular cross-pollination is important because it’s a chance to get more students involved. Students tend to perceive each content areas as compartmentalized and separate. So, a student interested in engineering might believe there’s nothing for her in the theater arts. Bringing theater into diverse content areas opens students’ eyes to new ways to make their subjects of choice tangible and experiential. And if we’re going to keep the stage alive, we need a steady stream of young artists to engage passionately with theater arts.

What advice would you give young teachers?

Before I became a teacher, I worked at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University as the secretary to the then Director, Dr. Stephen Rosen. Dr. Rosen was top in his field as both with patients and as a researcher. He could have rested on his reputation. But he didn’t. Every Friday, one of my tasks was to collect articles from medical journals specific to his area of expertise. He’d read through them every Friday afternoon. This was an appointment he would not miss. He did this because he owed it to his patients to give them the best and most up-to-date help. As a teacher, I’ve tried to have the same attitude. I believe we, as teachers, owe it to ourselves and to our students to stay up-to-date on progressive thinking and new research about how best to serve our classrooms. One of my passions, for instance, lies in educational technology as the newest literacy we can give our students. It’s a constant process to understand and use technology, and it’s worth it. You’ve got to get used to living life in beta.

Of course, that lofty goal needs to be somewhat tempered. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received came from Pamela Jordan, my long-time mentor and then the Head of School for the Chicago Academy for the Arts. She said, “Teaching will take exactly as much time and energy as you are willing to give it.” We have to balance our personal lives with what we give to our classrooms.”

If you could offer one lesson to your students, what would it be?

For my theater students? “Take the note.” Actually, that works everywhere and not just in theater arts! Hear what people say, take the note, and move on. Doesn’t mean you have to agree with it or internalize it. Just hear it and move on. No need to get defensive.

In general? Remember that if you’re facing in the direction of your fears, you’re going the right way. Face life and challenges with a “yes and” attitude. And help others to do the same.


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