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Teacher Spotlight: Molly Rice of St. Stephens High School

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 Molly Rice of St. Stephens High School Tractor Shed Theatre program about her recent production of Jeremy Bloom’s Peter/Wendy, where she finds design inspiration, and the importance of presentness in both theater and life.

IMG_7936What made you decide to teach theater?

Theatre literally saved me. I had a rough upbringing, and when I found theatre my junior year in high school, I had come home. Theatre took me off a very dodgy path, and fueled my creativity, and gave me a haven. I started off as an actor/singer, and found out that I was a director. I always wanted to teach, though. I had some amazing, encouraging teachers who pushed me in the right direction. So it is the old adage, “There was a teacher . . .” Theatre transformed me, and I wanted to help share that love with others.

What has been the biggest surprise of your teaching career?

While I believed in the magic of theatre, I had the opportunity to see its full glory while doing peace work in Northern Ireland. My husband, Northern Irish Poet Adrian Rice, and I had been doing cross-community work across the North, and had worked with students of all ages and abilities up to old-age pensioners. We were working in what was called a “special school.” A particular student was in a wheelchair, and not very responsive. Her teacher had noted that Orla wouldn’t be able to participate much in my project. We did thematic work, and the chosen theme was friendship. I storyboarded a music video to go along with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” and used the student, regardless of the naysay. I had a very eager Down syndrome student act with Orla. And once we started, and I noticed that Orla probably wasn’t getting anything from it, I started to slightly doubt its worth. We invited parents in for tea and toast and to watch the video. We gathered around a TV on a cart, and pushed play. Once we got to Orla’s part, for the first time ever, she started verbalizing and moving! She had recognized herself! What a beautiful surprise. What an amazing gift theatre gave us. From that experience, I know to trust the healing powers of the arts. The Tractor Shed Theatre takes pride in all the continued civic engagement work, knowing that it isn’t shocking what the arts can do, but it is shocking how little they are valued in our school systems.

IMG_1131-LWhy did you connect with Peter/Wendy?

The Tractor Shed Theatre is known for its civic engagement work. We were invited to be part of a Holocaust Remembrance Day event, and chose the one-act version of I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Celeste Raspanti, as we were looking for a play that would also be about childhood, and could balance the seriousness of the Holocaust play. We were delighted that Peter/Wendy by Jeremy Bloom could also be produced in the one-act version, and it was a perfect fit. We incorporated physical theatre elements in both shows, and loved the ensemble feel. We used Peter/Wendy as our second act, leaving them with the “happy thoughts” piece.

We were drawn to the aesthetic of Bloom’s Peter Pan. We loved the space he provided to play in—such a vast possible playground! We are a creative program, and usually produce shows that give us scope to fashion our own stamp on the piece. We also loved the way that Bloom kept dialogue from the original novel, and added some of Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird for an ethereal effect. We adored his poetical push.

What was your favorite part of the rehearsal process?

Collecting “happy thoughts” from our community was a real treasure. Peter/Wendy broke apart beautifully for French Scene breakdown, and putting it back together was exciting. Working from small groups of trios (the leads, the mermaids, the lost boys, the pirates) to full ensemble gave the student actors a cog to wheel experience. We tripled the characters and thought it was interesting to add a trinity feel to the mermaids, lost boys, and pirates. Exploring the physical aspects was my personal favorite. The full struggle of first blush efforts, to the final victory of physically flying, capturing, sailing, playing (we added a garden of children’s games for an improvised beginning), tumbling and stunts, and fighting. (We kept the childhood element going, and our fights were pillow fights.)

IMG_9302-LHow did audiences react to your production?

We used audience participation. Three times we approached the audience for happy thoughts. The first two visits with the audience we asked and wrote down their replies on our set, floors, and doors. The last time we asked for happy thoughts, we said, “Tell us your happy thoughts . . .” and were quiet as they in ensemble shared out loud. It was a very special moment each night to hear what makes people happy. It also gave us an opportunity to call on members we knew. The last night of the show I asked Jude, our youngest audience member who is two years old, “Jude, what makes you happy?” His reply was simple but profound: “My happy thought is happy.” The audiences were captive and captivated by this fun and meaningful piece.

My favorite evening was a beautiful tandem experience between players and audience when our power was knocked out in a storm. It was during intermission, and I gave the audience the chance to leave, but they wanted to stay to see Peter/Wendy. My actors were very nervous to perform in no light. A parent provided a cell phone light, and eventually the power company gave us a big flashlight. I ran around and lit each part of the show. Our happy thoughts included words like lights, power, sound/music, etc. which induced big belly laughs. The actors fully played, and the brilliance of Bloom’s piece made us all feel like we were watching children in a basement performance, so afterwards we reminisced about childhood.

Your production had some really unique design elements. What inspired the visual aspects of your production?

IMG_2018-LWe use Pinterest in our dramaturgy, and through digging and meet-backs with student-led design teams we carefully discuss and design to tailor-fit our productions to our Tractor Shed Theatre style. We were drawn to the dreamy quality of Peter/Wendy, and wanted our show to look and feel like a beautiful slumber party. Our set was simple, with the bedroom on an upper level, the lagoon on the lower with hanging hammock, firefly-lit jars; the lost boy land was a simple separate platform, and the pirates had their own ship. The set was all black, with over 1,300 collected happy thoughts. We love to design our shows, and spend a lot of our time on designing our entire theatre space. Our house design included a mobile of handmade light-up clouds, stars, and butterflies. Even Tinkerbell’s shoes lit up the space! I first fell in love with designing through one of my former students, Andrew Licout. We worked on his portfolio for the School of Design and Production, and the University of NC School of the Arts. He was accepted on the spot. For Peter/Wendy, I wanted my budding photographer, Irvin Maldonado, to have beautiful photographs for his portfolio. It is not an easy task though designing a fresh take on Neverland, but we hoped not to disappoint our Peter Pan fans.

What advice would you give aspiring teachers?

Each student needs you. Your subject is second to your student. Connect in a meaningful way, and get to know each student. It is difficult to be a teacher these days when data is king. Focus on the student, not their stats. Learn how to communicate well. Read educational articles and books. Really listen to your students, and you will gain great insight. Be patient and firm. Balance. Find time to recharge your batteries. Take care of yourself. Regardless of your subject, save time for character education. Save time for conversation. Embrace diversity, make it important that others do in your classroom as well. Remember your favorite teacher, and make a list of their qualities, and see if you can emulate them. Do the same for a teacher you didn’t like, and don’t emulate them. The art of teaching is assisting discovery. Don’t forget to also be a student, and make discoveries which will keep you in awe of understanding and moving forward.

IMG_1242-LIf you could offer one lesson to your students, what would it be?

We are perpetually living in the death of the moment. Ten minutes ago is gone. Essentially, memory is paramount. Art encapsulates memory, thought, imagination, and creativity— the human experience. Art is important. Learn to advocate for it. Keep creating and inspiring. Appreciate the otherness of others, and strive to friend someone totally different and diverse. Be kind and courageous. We are all on loan here, and we should learn to love in our brief time together. Don’t be jealous or envious. Push each other forward instead of trying to hold each other back. Make no excuses, and do the work. Limit your use of social media. Unplug. Be present. Be unashamedly you. And remember: “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.” ― J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Top photo: Eckard Photographic

Production photos: Irvin Maldonado

2 responses to “Teacher Spotlight: Molly Rice of St. Stephens High School”

  1. What an inspirational interview – thank you for sharing!


  2. Brenda Smith says:

    Molly– this was truly inspirational. Thank you for being who you are.

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