May 12, 2016 (TAMPA, Fla.) – When the spotlight hits the stage, all eyes are on the actors. But it takes a team to control the lights, operate the sound board, design the costumes, build the scenery and manage the backstage — all so the actors can focus on telling the story.
At Corbett Prep, students as young as elementary school are able to assume these responsibilities. By engaging kids in these "behind the scenes," nontraditional STEAM activities, teachers are inspiring more and more students in the practical application of science, technology, engineering and math. And in today's fast-paced technical world, these skills prepare them for future careers.
Drama teacher Seth Travaglino and Warriors' Pride Director Michael LeBlanc emphasize the importance of off-stage skills to all their students, even the ones who love the limelight. Far more opportunities are available backstage than onstage, Travaglino tells them, so if they choose to pursue theatre professionally, actors with multiple skills stand a better chance at getting hired than those who only can serve in one capacity.
One of the many options at Corbett Prep includes expanding student opportunities to get involved in technical theatre, through construction classes that merge engineering and design as well as programs that introduce students to sound and lighting basics and allow them to take on responsibilities for real productions.
Students begin performing as young as PreK3 in class productions and have the option to join larger-scale shows starting in fourth grade. Corbett Prep has also created a technical theatre elective for fifth graders. The students learn how theatre lights and sound work and how to prepare the stage for the sets. Directors choose a tech crew for different performances, giving them jobs during rehearsals and shows. The students are so eager, Travaglino says, they are always asking for new tasks.
Technical theatre appeals to many students who are kinesthetic or tactile learners and learn by doing. A show may require set pieces built to certain specifications, such as mobile platforms big enough to hold several cast members but light enough for students to move. It turns into an engineering problem for students to solve.
In Corbett Prep's new set construction class, STEAM teacher John Palmer challenged students to build a small bridge for a Community School of the Arts (CSA) dance recital. The middle school class had to figure out how to bend wood to form an arch, and keep it curved, as well as how to make the bridge both aesthetically pleasing and sturdy enough to support dancers. They tried one model, tested it, discovered problems and went back to the drawing board to try again. After several attempts, they found a solution and successfully completed the bridge.
The students had to learn to work together on the planning and construction, because all were accountable for its success or failure. In the end, they had the satisfaction of creating something needed and useful.
Palmer welcomed the trial and error during the process: "When things turn out other than the way we expect, we learn."
Eighth grader Isabela Mocsari is finding that the skills she has honed through technical theatre would serve her well in any job. She first tried stage managing when she was in fifth grade in Warriors' Pride Chorus and loved wearing the headset, calling cues backstage and communicating with the actors on behalf of the director. It has turned into her specialty, and she even won a state "All-Star Tech" award earlier this year at the Florida Junior Thespian Festival in Orlando.
It takes strong organizational skills and time management to work backstage, she says. She takes notes on changes the director wants to make and sees them through, and she has to keep track of how much time the cast has before the show starts and what needs to be done. Does everyone have costumes? Are props set in place? Who needs their makeup and hair finished?
While technical theatre can provide an entry point into the world of theatre for students who are reluctant to take the stage, involvement also builds a sense of confidence and community.
"If you want to be in theatre, but you're shy, you can be in tech," Isabela says. "You can be part of the group."