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 talked to Melissa Chin-Parker of Hartnell College, fresh off their run of Miss Electricity by Kathryn Walat.
What made you decide to teach theater?
I have two teaching credentials, but even before that I think I always enjoyed teaching. As a youth I was a summer camp counselor / Recreation Leader and was always involved in many forms of the Arts, so when I finally joined our local regional theater, teaching theatre for the youth outreach programs was a natural extension of what I had done in the past.
Tell us a little about your theater program?
The short version is that Hartnell College had a summer theatre program and the City Council developed the Salinas Performing Arts Program (SPA), a community arts group in the 1960s. Over the years, Hartnell’s Theatre grew to include the AA-Theatre degree and a producing/training program called The Western Stage, whose development began with the success of SPA. There are now three legs to Hartnell College’s Theatre Program: a newly revamped AA-Theatre degree, The Western Stage, and a strong youth & community outreach program, which includes The Young Company. Miss Electricity was presented by The Young Company with actors from all three programs.
Why did you connect with the story of Miss Electricity?
I am always looking for stories with young protagonists who are on a journey of self-discovery and who, along the way, are required to make hard decisions. It might seem that there is a plethora of plays that present that to young actors, but they don’t always offer the opportunity for deeper exploration into both sides of a person/character. For instance with Miss Electricity, although I wanted to keep the story in Violet’s point of view, I asked the actor portraying “Mom” to show us a caring, harried, professional single mother who didn’t just lecture Violet, but showed fear when she didn’t come home on time, only to find out she was struck by lightning. Violet of course doesn’t see her that way until later in the play, but I wanted the audience to understand that as a point of disconnect between the two. We also got to explore the characters who are scripted as “bullies,” and why the might be so. I wanted the actors playing “Billy” and “Connie” to also be more truthful in their portrayal and not just stereotypical “mean kids,” so we looked for opportunities to show their vulnerability as an explanation why they in turn picked on Violet.
What made you decide to bring Miss Electricity to your students and audience?
Among the many reasons: Miss Electricity had a female lead; the script had both very humorous and serious moments; and again, each character could be developed a little more deeply and challenged the actors to delve into some hard questions about true friendship, what makes one special, and recognizing that we sometimes take for granted those who love and support us most. Right before the actors went to Places, our mantra was to tell the story truthfully, to show the audience—especially the youths—that everyone has gifts that make one special, even if it doesn’t make them popular, and to appreciate family and friends.
What was your favorite part of the rehearsal process for this play?
I always enjoy finding the moments that resonate with the cast— those “Aha”/light bulb moments—when the actors sink into their characters a little more and when they take that moment and run with it. I also love discovering the humorous moments that crack us up and bring joy to the rehearsal. Those are the moments that help us earn the deeper, heartfelt moments. Then again, I love the tech process as well. I was happy because all of my designers were developing young artists who have grown within the company. The scenic designer recently got her bachelor’s degree in industrial design, and was once one of our Young Company. So, I don’t think I have a favorite part!
How did audiences react to your production?
We presented Miss Electricity to the community, which included friends and family and the Hartnell students and employees, and also to groups of local school children. Each of our audiences was engaged and responsive. We received positive comments about the story and about how much they enjoyed seeing strong performances from our youth actors who held their own with the college and Western Stage staff actors.
What advice would you give young teachers?
Find a way to make things happen. Regardless of budget, space, and support limitations, Art experiences are important and vital to anyone’s education. Be creative, be persistent, be the one to make things happen.
If you could offer one lesson to your students, what would it be?
Remember that it’s an actor’s responsibility to portray a character as truthfully and honestly as possible, and to make them whole human beings, which means you need to use every moment on stage—whether you have lines or not—to do so.