Leah Porrata is the Education Director for Gulfshore Playhouse.
Theatre is a highly collaborative art form. I feel as though I repeat this phrase constantly, because it’s what I love about theatre. I thrive when I am part of a team ofclose colleagues and fellow artists, working together in symbiosis. Our individual ideas are sparked and nurtured by one another, grow into realization under the care and watchful eyes of all, and together we share a sense of pride and accomplishment as those ideas blossom into creations. I believe this is one of the reasons theatre draws me in—and back—time and time again.
As true as this sentiment is, and as much as I cherish and celebrate it and sing its praises, there are times when it can be hard for me to relinquish my individual ideas to others, to invite them in to become part of the realization process. This was the case for me this month as our ThinkTheatre in-school residency program began in schools across Collier County.
Although this year’s ThinkTheatre program entered its first classroom of 2016 just this month, the work “behind the scenes” has been going on for months. I have been busily planning, scheduling, curriculum creating, background checking, and more since last spring. At Gulfshore Playhouse, we put in hard work to ensure that the product will be nothing short of spectacular – whether that’s a show, an event, or an Education program like ThinkTheatre. And so, with the help of my colleagues (who are nothing short of spectacular themselves), that is what I have been doing.
However, when it came to teaching ThinkTheatre, I knew I would need more than a little extra help. With our Education programs steadily growing and expanding, I simply couldn’t teach the approximately 1,200 students in over 60 classrooms across Collier County alone. And so, thankfully, Gulfshore Playhouse has welcomed a new member of our family; A ThinkTheatre Teaching Artist, Samantha, a Collier County native with a passion for education and the arts. The idea was this: I would schedule, plan, and create the curriculum for ThinkTheatre, and Samantha would teach it.
Sounds great, right? Yes, of course. This solution would allow me the time to focus on all of the Playhouse’s varied Education programs, while knowing that the actual teaching of ThinkTheatre was in the capable hands of our Teaching Artist. But as we edged nearer to ThinkTheatre’s start date, our 2016 classroom debut, I began to dread the idea of the program—at least, the in-classroom sessions—leaving my hands. It sounds silly, I know, but as I’ve said, sometimes it’s hard to let go of something so personal, your own creation, even for its good – or your own.
Then, early in January, Samantha reported for duty. We began with several days of in-office training, going over the ins and outs of the ThinkTheatre program. I had written a thick manual of all things ThinkTheatre, including directions for everything from the simplest of situations, like signing in at a school’s front office, to outlandish scenarios that would never happen in a million years, like an unexpected earthquake. We reviewed it together, page by page and line by line. We walked through every upcoming lesson, acting them out as though there were full classrooms of invisible children in my office. I just wanted Samantha to be prepared as best as she could, as if I was in the classroom with her, even though I couldn’t be.
To her great credit, Samantha faithfully completed phase one of her training without even once calling me crazy, overbearing, or a worrywart. She excelled in everything – even the earthquake safety drill – and was eager to begin the in-school phase of training. She showed up early and prepared for her first day of training at a local elementary school, and jumped right in that day to teach a Language Arts-integrated session to a first grade classroom full of ELL students (English Language Learners).
Finally forced to observe rather than teach, listen rather than talk, I sat silently in the back of the classroom as Samantha took the lead – and that’s when the magic happened. Samantha took the lesson I had written with such care, and taught it with grace, polish, and of course, her own personal flair. The students were engaged and excited, giggling all the way as they worked together to create their own short story, which they would later act out together.
As the first grade class went around their “storytime” circle, each student adding a sentence to the story, the room fell silent as the story came to one little girl. “She doesn’t speak much English yet,” explained the classroom teacher. Samantha and the other children helped her understand, through motions and sounds, what was going on in the story. With much effort, she added her own part to the story, and the circle moved on as the little girl beamed with pride.
Before acting out the story, Samantha asked the students to volunteer to read their story, which she had written on the white board. The little girl who had struggled with the activity earlier stood up, faced the board, and read several sentences with very little help. The whole class fell into stunned silence. As the little girl turned around to face her classmates, she was met with smiles and applause as we cheered her success.
Witnessing this act of transformation, this educational breakthrough, was such a gift to me. It reminded me that what I so often say is true: Theatre is a highly collaborative art form. Though I played a part, that little girl’s breakthrough did not happen because of me. It took all of us – Samantha, the teachers, the administrators, the good people at Suncoast Credit Union Foundation who fund ThinkTheatre, and of course my coworkers at Gulfshore Playhouse and all who support us – to make this wonderful thing happen. All of us played a vital part. All of us said “Yes” to helping, to supporting, to working hard to ensure that the most under-served students in our community have access to opportunities like ThinkTheatre, like our STAR programs, like seeing live, professional theatre at Gulfshore Playhouse.
Thank you for your “Yes”. It makes a difference in our community, and in our world.