Learning that All The World's A Stage

He was what they called "a child on the fringes". Not great scholastically. Not very socially adept. Didn't excel in sports. Music wasn't his thing.

But then the actors came to school. They taught him to move with more grace Showed him to project his voice; articulate his words. His reading improved. The boy who couldn't memorize the states and their capitals now had no problem delivering a soliloquy from Shakespeare He had found theatre-the soil where he could blossom. The garden in which all the subjects of school finally came to life.

Thanks to the Chekhov Theatre Ensemble and its innovative Stages of Learning program, there's a lot more "blossoming" going on in schools throughout New York's five boroughs, up in Westchester, down in New Jersey, and branching out to Florida and Pennsylvania. While most performance programs make a presentation to a school and then leave, this program works within the specific curriculum and educational needs of each school, providing a participatory theatrical forum where students learn the subject matter in an integrated, exciting way. So far, the Ensemble has reached over 14,000 children and 400 teachers since its inception in 1994.

"Theatre has its roots in education," explains Floyd Rumohr, founder and artistic director. "Thousands of years ago it was used to teach and spread culture. It's a natural symbiosis - theatre and education."

This semester, the students of the Carrie E. Tomkins Elementary School in Croton-on-Hudson will analyze Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. They will focus on the rhythm of the writing and its effect on the listener. They will study the voice, the pitch, the cadence that a great orator uses to get his/her point across. The students will act the roles of four presidential candidates and will learn to observe their subjects, discover the gestures each one uses, and the rhythm of their speech patterns, how they hold themselves. After additional research on the personal life and policy platforms of each candidate, the students will have their own "presidential debate", integrating all the acting, writing, social studies, history and science tools they've acquired.

When they move on to their own student elections, each student will now focus on being themselves in a public forum; using what they've learned about effective speech making towrite and present their own speeches.

An Ellis Island project will focus on the history and events of that time, but, through their work with the Chekhov Theatre Ensemble, it will also explore the feelings and human drama of the immigrants as they come into a new land. In last year's program, kids designed and used their imaginations and knowledge to create their own fictional immigrant - age, nationality, family, gender, religion - and to write a journal using their character's "voice".

"The marriage of the arts and the academic curriculum is just a natural," says Dr. Janet Farnham, special reading teacher for the Carrie E. Tomkins Elementary School. Gesturing to the teachers who just took part in an energetic planning session that concluded with a variety of theatrical exercises, she adds: "You have to have teachers who think that way or can learn to think that way, though. And I think most can, given the latitude. Not all feel they have that."

Nor do many schools have the resources of a well-off school in the suburbs. The Chekhov Theatre Ensemble, for the most part, works with inner city schools where children take gym on blocked-off streets and life is tougher. This year Chekhov is working at three public schools in the Bronx. But because this is a program that deals with the imagination rather than high-tech gadgetry, the benefits, fun, and adventure of the theatre program is just as effective.

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Mike Bracco, a teacher at P.S. 30 in the Bronx, worked with teaching artists from Chekhov on "Her Seven Brothers", a Cheyenne Indian story by Paul Goble. "My class worked wonderfully as an ensemble," he says. "They surprised themselves and felt great about it. Teamwork, self-esteem, hidden talents all became evident."

Maria Palma, arts coordinator for District 31 in Staten Island, saw tremendous changes once theatre was added to her classroom. "Academically, my class is the lowest functioning class in the school," she explains. Crediting Chekhov with enabling her students to focus more on their school work, she cites one particular child "who was a huge discipline problem and was unable to stick to any academic task. He was riveted during the Chekhov production of Macbeth and is thrilled to be participating in the program. He has become a model student since this program began."

Sixth graders at Herricks Middle School in Albertson, Long Island also took Shakespeare to the boards in a version of Macbeth where all the students worked as a choral team, providing security for the students when reciting, and easing any stage-fright. "You learn that people years ago had the same feelings as they do now," says Ann Abraham, a student at the school. "This program teaches you what people were like a long time ago and makes you think about how things were. It's almost like learning history, even though it's not a social studies class."

Teachers and administrators credit Chekhov's success to the quality of its teaching staff, beginning with artistic director Floyd Rumohr. "He's so good with kids," says Dr. Farnham, noting that some people can give a good presentation, but just don't have the ability to work well in the classroom.

Rumohr and his staff carefully select the teaching artists who work with the students at the various schools. "We try to find people with an inner light," explains Rumohr, a tall, graceful man who himself bursts with the energy of a Macy's fireworks display. They all share his charisma, enthusiasm and a love of children. And they also share the goal of finding and nurturing the child whose worth is not measured by tests.

"The reason we want to participate in the education dialogue is because we want to participate in the educational assessment dialogue," he explains. "That a child who is able to intuit, empathize, visualize, speak with clarity, move with grace, sequence ..." he trails off then asks, "Those are not the aspects of being a whole human being?"

While tests don't measure it and some say the arts are just an option, Floyd Rumohr counters with the fact that the entertainment and enlightenment available in music, movies, and television is something every human being turns to in some form every single day, for joy, for relief, for soothing, for information, for human connection. "I'm not a sociologist. I can't prove to you that if children spent more time creating beauty they're less likely to destroy it," he states, "but I can tell you that it's a true statement."

The Chekhov Theatre Company can be contacted at their website, www.chekhovtheatre.org or by calling their office at (718) 398-2494.