Lefty Parent

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Living & parenting without the rule book

Unschooling in the Art of Theater

February 15th, 2012 at 13:42

Me as "Maurice" in Lord of the Flies

I am a huge advocate for unschooling, as I’m sure you can gather if you have read very many of my pieces. Wikipedia defines “unschooling” as a term coined in the 1970s by radical educator John Holt, representing…

A range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. There are some who find it controversial. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities, often initiated by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child.

It was a continuing mid-life crisis some five years ago that inspired me to take a long and thoughtful look at (including muster the discipline to write about) my life’s experiences in my first five decades. How could I best leverage all that hair-graying and wrinkle-producing experience as some sort of wisdom as I looked forward to my purpose in the decades (hopefully) ahead?

A main theme emerging from that retro gaze and ponder was identifying the real mechanisms of human development, first looking at my own from young child to young adult and later the same for our two (now young adult) kids. What I saw from my own young life (and echoed by my witness of my kids) was that most of my significant developmental experiences were by Holt’s definition “unschooling”, because they happened outside of school.

In school I mainly learned about things, some of those things were interesting to me, but much of it lacked any context in my life and was not (and as Holt pithily notes is forgotten by the good students only after rather than before the test). There are some notable exceptions of course, including learning how to do many sorts of abstract math problems and proofs. But again lacking any real life context for applying these skills they were soon forgotten as well.

But outside of school my life was all about doing things, which required me to be constantly learning about and how to do new things that did have a context in my real life. In my recent piece “Unschooling in the Art of War” I documented a major narrative thread of “play” from age 7 to 23 starting with toy soldiers on the basement floor through complex historical military simulations, plus all the learning (about and how to) that facilitated that passion.

Not as extensive in duration but more so in concerted effort was another unschooling narrative thread around my “deep dive” from age 14 to 21 into theater (“the play” this time as it were). This thread featured the acquisition of a range of skills and wisdom around communication, collaboration and creativity (elusive goals in formal schooling) plus logistics and management. These are all key capabilities that I still routinely apply today in my “day job” and the rest of my life. All of this was learned because it was useful in a real life enterprise (I had freely chosen to engage in) of mounting theatrical productions.

What follows is my extensive unschooling narrative (like the prior “Art of War” one and about 7K words) that makes up the rest of this piece. Events actually started in school, inspired by one of those charismatic teachers that we are lucky if we have the opportunity to encounter.

Snowboy

About a month into the second semester of my eighth grade speech class, our teacher Mrs. Powrie had a heart attack and was out for the rest of the year. She was an older woman who ran the class pretty old school with lectures punctuated by our occasional speeches or other presentations. Pretty standard and not very interesting stuff I recall.

She was replaced by a thirty-something man named Michael who would turn out to be a significant player in the next ten years of my life and its current ongoing trajectory. Where Mrs. Powrie had us giving individual speeches, Michael immediately put us into groups of four or five and told each group to pick a scene from a play to perform.

With Michael’s active encouragement, my group of five males decided to do a scene from the musical “West Side Story”, where “Riff” and his “Jets” gang buddies sing “Officer Krupke”, lampooning their juvenile delinquent milieu. Of the five in my group, I was the shiest and therefore the least willing to sing. So they had me play “Snowboy”, the coked-out punk of the group who pretends to be officer Krupke (a non-singing part) while the others in the scene sing the parts of the JD kid and the three bureaucrats the system employs to try unsuccessfully to straighten him out. We rehearsed for several weeks in class, with Michael playing piano for our rehearsals and eventual performance in an assembly in front of several hundred of our fellow students.

We delivered our lines and sang our parts pretty well, with approving laughs and applause from the audience. It was the first time I had ever done something like this in front of more then a couple people. I did not realize it immediately, but it had planted a thespian seed in me for the theater.

Stagecraft

A year and a half later starting my first year of high school, I decided to take a Stagecraft class as an elective. The teacher turned out to be… can you guess? Michael. Previously a sub, he had just gotten the gig as a full-time theater arts teacher. It was the first time in my life that a teacher welcomed me by name the first time I walked into their classroom (though his classroom was the backstage area between the school’s large auditorium and much smaller and more intimate “little theater”.

Our curriculum included learning about designing and building sets for plays, designing and setting lights, and stage managing. Part of the class included participating in the stage crew for two student plays being done that year – “A Thurber Carnival” and “The Imaginary Invalid”.

I remember in the former we had built a set that featured a row of three rotating panel frames across the back of the stage. Removable panels could be hung on each side, one facing the audience and the other facing back stage so it could be changed for another and then rotated into position between scenes to provide the new backdrop.

Backstage there in the dark, with several of my fellow students, male and female, wrestling with those four by eight panels, building the camaraderie of a “crew”, was an experience like nothing else I had had before. Particularly for me, getting to work in close quarters with a couple of my female classmates (who I would be way to shy to even say hello to in the halls) was particularly thrilling. There is something about those dark and close quarters with the adrenaline triggered by a quick scene change pumping through your veins that breaks down the pretense and inhibitions. The thespian seed from eighth grade began to germinate.

Designing Lights

By the time we got to second semester, Michael asked me if I would like to design the lighting for “The Imaginary Invalid, the spring school play, which I was again thrilled to accept.

Theatrical light design involved first my coming up with a paper plan showing each lighting instrument and what area of the stage it would cover.

I had to learn how to work with the four basic types of stage lights that our two theaters had – profile (focused spot lights), Fresnel (a less focused wash light), “strips” (that hung on booms directly above the stage) and a “follow spot”. The latter was an awe inspiring piece of equipment that had two carbon rods that you would manually crank close enough together to create an arc of electricity (too bright to look at directly) that with the focusing concave mirror behind and lens in front could project an intense circle of light onto the stage maybe 150 feet across the auditorium.

Once the other key members of the production team were okay with my design, I actually had to mount and/or position all those lights, high up in the ceilings of the two theaters. In the “little theater” it involved learning how to assemble and secure (all of which I eventually could do by myself) a multi-level scaffolding that I would then climb and stand atop to mount, position and focus the lighting instruments onto the appropriate part of the stage based on my design. The final step was generally to add color gels to all the lights, a “cool” color (like blue or lavender) coming from one side and a “warm” (amber or red) from the other. With one “cool” and one “warm” light focused on every part of the stage the faces of the performers would stand out more 3D than if there were only white lights.

In the big auditorium, which included a balcony, the ceiling where the lights were hung was maybe forty feet above the stage. The “bridge” where one could hang the lights from was accessed by climbing a forty foot ladder up to a catwalk in the ceiling. As needed, the big lighting instruments were hauled up by rope. It was a thrill every time to climb up there.

Next I was working with the director to identify all the lighting “cues” throughout the course of the play, including scene changes and the sort. Finally I was working from the lighting booth during tech and dress rehearsals and performances to pull the various light dimmer levers to execute those cues as called for by the stage manager.

I don’t think I can overstate how developmentally significant it is to both develop a technical competence in something and then be able, in some real world situation, to exercise, demonstrate and be acknowledged for that competence. It was so much more of an invigorating “growth” experience than any I had had in a classroom. Even though this was just a “school play” that I was designing lights for, there were still real performances for a real audience expecting to be entertained (and even paying for their tickets for the evening performances) by a real show.

Naked in Toronto

My folks had divorced when I was ten, and my younger brother Peter and I lived with my mom as a single parent during my high school years. She had limited financial resources (living on child support from my dad) and often was battling depression, but she still had the chutzpah and “outside the box” thinking to pull off (sometimes in collaboration with her friends, sometimes on her own) some pretty impressive adventures. One such adventure synergized perfectly with my growing interest in theater.

It was the summer of 1969 as I recall, and the rock musical “Hair” had previously opened on Broadway and was now playing in Toronto, Canada, about 300 miles northeast of Ann Arbor. My mom and my “Feminist Aunt” Mary Jane (also divorced like my mom) hatched a plan together to take Peter and I and her four kids to see it. Mary Jane’s ex-husband Ray came along as well. To keep the trip as economical as possible, they decided that we would all travel together in my mom’s car.

We are talking here about three adults and six kids, all crammed into a rather ample, but normally six-person 1960s Ford sedan. We had the three adults sitting in the rather ample bench front seat, and the youngest of Mary Jane’s kids (age eight) sitting on her dad’s lap. (This of course was before seat belts, and would have been a horrendous tragedy if we had gotten in a bad accident.) Their three sons, my brother, and I (five boys ages ten to fourteen) were all arranged somehow in the back seat. Thus we set off first to Detroit, then across the Ambassador bridge to Windsor Canada, and finally the long straight trek across Ontario farmland to Toronto on Highway 401.

Like my mom, Mary Jane and Ray were parents way outside the box. All six of their combined progeny stuffed in the car with them had been raised with that unorthodox mix of love, liberty and respect for their emerging personhood. We six kids had a tight web of relationship with each other. Mary Jane’s daughter had a bit of a little-girl crush on me and I was comfortable accommodating it by engaging in her attempts at conversation and letting her sit in my lap when we were packed in the car. My brother and Mary Jane’s oldest were both budding comic book artists. Stereotypically, you might call it one big “hippy family” (though my mom would never have described herself as a hippy), but us kids thought of ourselves pretty much that way, and with great pride too.

I was not involved in any of the logistical details of the trip (which in fact involved traveling to a different country), so I don’t know if we arrived in Toronto with either hotel or ticket reservations. I do recall that we stopped briefly at the hotel and were late getting to the theater and were seated in our upper balcony seats midway through the first act.

And then quickly at the end of the first act came that magical moment which I can still recall vividly. In the final (as I recall) scene of the first act, the lights come up on all the lead actors standing and singing, facing the audience completely naked – breasts, penises and copious pubic hair in full display. It was a triumph of late 60’s “flower power” and “let it all hang out” (literally) and at least attempted to be some sort of celebration of human liberation from traditional sexual mores. That was the way I framed it in that moment, and I think Mary Jane, Ray, and most of the rest of us kids shared that view. My mom had a little bit more of that traditional streak in her, and I don’t recall if she ever shared with me her take on that publicly assertive nudity.

My written words can not begin to capture the full power of that moment and the impact it had on me going forward. As I have already said, I was a shy kid, and somehow seeing this handful of young actors triumphantly standing and belting out a song on stage, proudly and fully exposed and unguarded, continued to germinate that seed inside me, and presented a possible path forward for me to overcome or at least compartmentalize that shyness.

Subsequent to experiencing “Hair” in Toronto, the stage was soon going to give me the opportunity to expose and explore aspects of my own personality that I had previously, in my shyness, repressed. In that upcoming experience, I never had the occasion to appear on stage completely nude (though I got close), but I did avail myself of opportunities to at least “let it all hang out” psychologically, particularly in some of the musicals I had the fortune to perform in.

Junior Light Opera

With naked people singing on stage having presented a possible new horizon for me, I started my school year as a Junior in high school, now with Michael’s “Advanced Stage Craft” as one of my classes. Based on my growing relationship with Michael, and my success designing lights for the school play the previous spring, Michael invited me to join the ongoing youth theater company he had set up. Since much of its repertory were musicals (known originally as “light operas” as innovated by Gilbert and Sullivan), the group was called “Junior Light Opera”, or “JLO” for short. Though not affiliated directly with my high school, the company was affiliated with the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation department, and since Michael was now a teacher at my high school, JLO was allowed to use school facilities for rehearsals and performances. Michael wanted me to design lights for their fall musical, “Peter Pan”.

I can remember showing up at my first rehearsal and being surprised at what I encountered. Though Michael was present, sitting at an upright piano in the orchestra pit of the auditorium, the rehearsal was being led by a young woman who looked my age or a bit older. There were no other adults present, but there were some twenty kids on stage ranging from six and seven-year-olds to teens like her and I. In a loud and confident voice she would cue Michael to play and the kids on stage would sing and move their way through the musical number. After each iteration, she would call out her assessment of the group effort plus identify the various actors on stage by name and tell them what they needed to do to improve their performance within the scene.

During a break in the proceedings, Michael introduced me to her. She was seventeen (just two years older than I) and a senior at my high school. She grinned at me with suddenly incongruous shyness herself and welcomed me. Michael also introduced me to the show’s choreographer, who was younger than I was. Though still somewhat intimidated, it was a new experience for me to walk into a new situation and be introduced not just as some random kid (with an unusual first name), but as a person with a particular technical skill set he was contributing to the production.

JLO was a unique youth theater company of about fifty kids, launched, bankrolled and overseen by Michael. It was a year-round enterprise, doing some ten plays a year, generally with several in various stages of production simultaneously. Other than the occasional parent who would help with sewing costumes, the only other grown up involved with the company was the music director Sue, who was a also a teacher at another school. She recruited, rehearsed and conducted the youth orchestra for most of JLO’s musicals. Michael played the pivotal role in funding the enterprise, securing the venues for rehearsals and performances, picking the plays, pulling the key team members (producer, director, etc.) together for each play, and running interface with the adult community.

The bulk of the responsibility was distributed among a large and dynamic group of young people like myself. This is unlike any other youth theater group I have encountered since, where all the key jobs – director, producer, lighting and set design, costumer, choreographer – are performed by adults. Each JLO show had teens in all those leadership roles, coordinating other youth building sets and costumes and doing makeup.

Oliver

That winter we did the musical “Oliver” (with a seventeen-year-old director, a thirteen-year-old choreographer, and an eighteen-year-old costume designer) and Michael asked me to design both the sets and lights and wear the hat of the overall “producer” (more rehearsal manager really, since I had Michael actually recruited the director, choreographer, etc). I threw myself into the production in every way I thought I could contribute. For two or three months I recall that we rehearsed six days a week, two to three hours after each school day plus a longer rehearsal on Saturdays.

I was at every rehearsal, making sure everyone was present and accounted for and the director was able to move forward rehearsing the show scenes on the day’s agenda. At first I would try to do my regular school homework during breaks, but as the show got closer to production, that became impossible as I found myself constantly at work keeping several parallel threads of activity running.

My homework in my regular school classes suffered. I was taking an advanced placement math analysis class, featuring lots of proofs and number theory which I enjoyed. But by the middle of the second semester I was struggling to keep up with this very challenging class, where things you learned one week were building blocks for things you wrestled with the next.

Designing and building the set was a first time task for me and a particular challenge, because due to a limited budget and build crew, Michael wanted me to come up with a set design that used all the existing scenery (an array of platforms, staircases, etc) built for previous productions. This was daunting at first, but I had the thought to build little 3-D paper models of all the existing pieces so I could play around with them on a model stage.

I eventually came up with a very minimalist design centered around an existing six foot tall, four by eight foot platform with just four bare vertical beams and nothing else. We had two six-foot staircases, one I put in front and the other in back, so actors could ascend to the top of the platform from either side. Each side of the big stage had similar eight-by-four platforms, but these were only three feet high and accessed by small staircases, again one in front and one in back.

On the big auditorium stage with a flat white full-stage screen dropped behind it (lit in various scenes by different color strip lights above) it made for a simple skeleton of a set, perfect for the bleak environs of Dickens’ classic tale of Victorian England’s dark side of exploited orphan youth and urban working-class culture.

So once my design was approved by Michael and the director, I supervised the assembling and painting of the set by a crew of maybe six other high school kids in my Advanced Stagecraft class. I also implemented my light design, hanging and positioning the lights, then creating and documenting all the lighting cues in consultation with the seventeen-year-old director and thirteen-year-old choreographer.

The Burger Run

My producer duties also included several new things for me. I working with the graphic-artist (age fifteen like me) to design and compile the content for the program. I also ended up managing the whole dinner process, since many of our rehearsals (as we got closer to the performance dates) involved longer rehearsals.

The challenge here was having some fifty kids who needed to eat, and it was easier for most kids to bring a few bucks to buy fast food rather than to bring food themselves. So I figured out a system, organized and made the nightly run, generally to Macdonald’s, for food. The challenge was to keep the whole thing as simple as possible and under control.

So I set up a system where I took orders from people and calculated much their order would cost. Then they would pay me for their order, but I gave no change. By not giving change (keeping that extra bit from everybody) kept the process simple and provided a sum of extra money for the inevitable kid or two who had forgotten to bring money. I used to get a kick out of showing up at the nearby McDonald’s and placing the $100 to $200 order, including many big bags full of burgers, of fries, and trays of sodas and shakes. I and a helper would return with the haul, hole up in small room with the array of food, and distribute the meals one kid at a time.

There is no assignment I got in regular school that was anywhere near the design and logistical challenges of my various tasks facilitating “Oliver” and later JLO productions. In school I learned mostly about things and how to work on my own, whereas in my theater group I learned how to get things done working with others. Developmentally speaking, much of the project type work I do today depends on skills I first learned in my theater group work.

Turn of the Screw

I had always been a shy kid, and my prior experience in the puberty pressure cooker of junior high school (comparing myself always unfavorably to all those other kids my age I was surrounded by) had only served to reinforce that shyness and wreak what little self esteem I had cobbled together. As such, I was very reluctant to be in the spotlight, though at some level I longed to be acknowledged as talented or at least capable. Unlike in the rest of my high school classes where I was just another student, in JLO I felt I was making at least some sort of real contribution and getting some acknowledgement for it, from Michael and my JLO peers.

The composition of JLO, like most youth theater groups I have participated in or encountered since, included way more young women than young men. This was in contrast to the fact that most plays, particularly most musicals, generally had more parts for men than women. Given this, those of us male types who were active in the company and of high-school age were always being pitched to take a crack at playing on-stage roles in our robust repertory of theatrical productions. I even had eventually been cajoled to appear on stage a couple of times in crowd scenes, with no lines of my own.

Two of my JLO comrades, sisters and very talented actors who attended my high school, had decided that they wanted to enter a high school district competition in forensics in the area of “multiple reading”, a performance of a written piece with voice but no staging. They had found a piece that they both liked, the climactic scene of the play The Innocents, based on Henry James classic Gothic novel, The Turn of the Screw. But they needed someone to play the male part, “Miles”, the demon possessed youth who is exorcised by his governess in the play’s final scene. I think I was one of the few male persons they knew who attended our same high school and was involved in theater.

While I still saw myself as a timid kid who would surly wilt in front of an audience, I imagine they saw me instead as a capable comrade, successful lighting and set designer, that they had collaborated with for the last half a year. They had me read through the piece with them and decided to pitch me to participate, and given that they were two intelligent, capable, good looking young women that I admired, I maybe was to timid to finally say no.

We rehearsed after school and with their constant encouragement and direction I got into my part and was able to vocally portray this young boy fearfully coming to grips with his demonic possession. Our reading ending with a dramatic final scene where I am cajoled by my interrogating governess to finally call out the name of my possessor before finally dying. As she grills me I got more and more agitated until I literally screamed out his name. It was an exciting piece, the kind of angsty and overwrought stuff that appealed to my teenage self. When we performed it in front of the forensic tournament audiences it was well received and I enjoyed the rush of putting on a show for the audience of this very disturbed young man losing it completely. After coming in second place in the district competition and then again in the regional one, I was hooked.

Song & Dance

Having now broken the ice as a potential actor and on-stage performer, and given the dearth of older males in the company, I was prevailed on to try out for the second male lead part in JLO’s summer musical production, “Oklahoma”. Such was that dearth in our theater company that I and one other guy were the only two to try out for the part of “Will Parker”, for a show to be double-cast and thus needing two guys to play the role. Simple arithmetic had sealed my fate and I was committed to a path forward that would have me singing and dancing under the lights in front of a large audience of mostly strangers, two things that I was no way comfortable in doing. But… the show must go on, right?

Looking back, these first acting experiences were examples of an ongoing personal pattern of being initially overcome with timidity and shyness to try something outside my comfort zone, but then sometimes throwing myself completely in the deep end. I was always in an internal tussle between being scared and wanting to protect myself versus wanting to be some sort of a star.

So again, with much encouragement from my JLO comrades, I learned the part, including the songs and with greater difficulty the dances as well. My performance included my first on stage passionate lips-to-lips kiss made particularly freaky because I had never had an off-stage lips-to-lips kiss with anybody. Scared but yet now at some level craving the spotlight, and fearing failure to the point of willing myself to somehow be good, I got through my rehearsals and did my two performances before an audience of several hundred people including my mom and my aunt.

From my theater comrades’ reviews and the audience’s applause, I felt like I had done a good job and my addiction to the stage spotlight continued to grow. I went on to play lead roles in several other musicals, coming to specialize in the bad guy type roles, including…

* An oily interpretation of the biblical “Snake” in the musical “The Diary of Adam and Eve”, with a dramatic song where I lure Eve into taking a bite out of the forbidden fruit

* The egotistical yet bumbling “Wazir of Police” in the musical “Kismet”

* The maniacal marketing director “Peabody” in a rock version of the musical “Flahooley”

* Finally, my favorite part and I think my best work, “Mr. Rich”, the mega-wealthy avatar for “The Man” in the allegorical musical “Celebration”

So what did it mean for a shy kid with low self esteem like me to be able to successfully play these loud, in your face, larger than life characters? It was a revelation of another side of my personality, a way I could learn to be someday, “playing myself” as it were. It was a way to channel and release a lot of angst accumulated from suffering through my parents’ divorce and my mom’s subsequent depression. It was a chance to be acknowledged by others (and myself) as a capable person and to build some badly needed self-esteem.

These were transformational experiences for me during my last two years of high school. I became willing to at least play the role of a capable and talented person, and eventually I got comfortable with the part. If I had instead spent my after school hours doing all my homework and relying on my school curriculum for my development, I don’t think I would have been at all transformed.

Lord of the Flies

Michael had an inner circle of older youth in the company who brainstormed ideas with him on what shows JLO would do. I recall one day, he and I returning from the Tobin Lakes Studio outside of Ann Arbor where we rented or purchased various props, costumes, scenery and lights and lighting supplies for our shows. I was telling him that I had recently read William Golding’s book “Lord of the Flies” in my British Literature class and fantasized about doing it as a play.

To give you a little background, Michael was always looking for the challenge of an unorthodox theater piece or doing a more traditional theater piece in an unorthodox way. As I have mentioned above, since our company had nearly two females for every male (while most plays had more male than female parts), he was known to cast young women to play parts written for males. So when we did the musical “Fantastiks”, the parts of the two fathers he changed to two mothers, with great added comic value. He added a love scene to our production of Hamlet where Hamlet takes Ophelia into his bed, something that is only implied in Shakespeare’s dialog. He hired a young rock composer to re-score the musical “Flahooley”, which had had a more traditional original score written in the 1940s.

If you have read and remember William Golding’s book Lord of the Flies, it is a very provocative story about British school boys, crashed on an island with all their accompanying adults killed. The group of boys quickly lose their veneer of civilization and descend into mayhem and savagery. When I broached the idea, I think Michael immediately saw this as a potential production that would raise more than a few eyebrows when staged.

He told me it was an inspired idea and thought we should do it. One big problem I noted, the book needed to be adapted for the stage. Michael did not see that as an obstacle, and offhandedly suggested that I write it.

Now I was a fifteen year old kid at the time who had never attempted anything close to a project of this magnitude. I struggled to type a three page school paper on my little portable electric typewriter. But like a good teacher or mentor, Michael had a way of inspiring us to do things we would not have otherwise thought we could do. After much discussion the rest of the way back into town, I finally agreed at least to give it a try.

I spent most of my free time for the next three months pounding out a script on my JC Penney portable electric typewriter. It was certainly no great work of adaptation, since I really had no idea what I was doing, but I kept at it until a draft was finished.

One of the issues I encountered early on was that the characters were British and used British swear words and other slang. I decided to Americanize the dialog, mapping the English slang to its American equivalent or near equivalent, as best I could figure.

The phrase “Bollocks to the rules”, used several times in the book’s dialog, was a particular challenge. “Bollocks” is an old Anglo-Saxon word for testicles, and is used in English slang to mean nonsense or to otherwise demean the object of the sentence. What would an American kid say in the same situation? After some thought, the two Americanized phrases I came up with were “Screw the rules” and “Fuck the rules”. Profanity for a fifteen year old is pretty heady stuff. I decided to go with the later of the two phrases.

When I showed the eighty page script to Michael and he read the passages with the Americanized expletives, he did not flinch at all. He felt the script would work, “F word” and all. He mimeographed copies and began the process of assembling our production team and casting the show.

In the midsts of rehearsals it got out somehow that the “F word” was used in the script. This actually led to a hearing, including parents, school board members and recreation department members (our theater group’s sponsors). Artistic freedom versus the appropriateness of the material for school age youth was discussed. In the end we agreed to leave “Fuck the rules” in the evening performances, but change it to “Screw the rules” in the afternoon matinées for our fellow high school students.

Another exciting element of the production was the costumes. The characters start out in the white shirts and dark slacks of their school uniforms but soon resort to clothing more befitting their descent into savagery, animal fur loin clothes – very brief and rather risqué. You can probably imagine our performances – kids on stage from five to fifteen in loin clothes carrying spears smeared with blood and occasionally shouting “Fuck (or Screw) the rules”.

As I have said before, most youth theater companies including JLO, have more females than males. “Lord of the Flies” had some 15 male speaking parts and not a single female. This was a bit of a challenge because some of the males in our company who often did key backstage jobs were recruited to be in the cast. So to staff all the positions, we ended up with an almost all female stage crew supporting the all male cast. I recall them dressed in black pants and turtlenecks, caring turkey basters full of fake blood that they would squirt on us actors from their hidden crannies in the set and off stage during the bloody scenes.

The kid in the production team responsible for publicity got in touch with the theater critic of the Ann Arbor News who agreed to do a story on me, the 15 year old youth who wrote the script for the play. Later the same critic came to the show and wrote a review, calling the play “flawed but suspenseful”.

The whole thing was an incredible experience for me. Taking an idea from conception through script writing and language controversy, and then participating in the production as one of the scantily clad and blood spattered cast. Heady stuff again for a shy teenager with low self esteem but delusions of grandeur.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Though some of the youth members of our company were true prodigies in their particular crafts, most of us were less prodigious in our skills and learned by trial and error as we went along, and we had our share of ugly sets, poor direction, sophomoric choreography, squeaking clarinets, bad acting and so-so productions. But we damn near did it all ourselves, with Michael and Sue taking over tasks here and there, but generally cheerleading all us young people, though occasionally reading us the riot act when time was running short and one or more aspects of the production were not coming together as needed.

Our troupe was also a soap opera of on-and-off romances (straight and gay), jealousies and disagreements, and sex or drug use off in the dark corners. We navigated through all these tangents united by the mantra that the show must go on.

Unlike our high school classes where our interactions were controlled and stage-managed by ever present adult teachers, most of the JLO activities had minimal adult supervision, we were mostly on our own to figure out how to sort things out for ourselves. On the rare occasion when a disagreement turned into a shouting match or even a physical fight, it was most often a respected youth peer among us who stepped in, broke things up and talked the aggrieved parties down. In the process we all learned collaboration and leadership skills, along with a significant degree of social sophistication, that are crucial tools in the adult world we were soon to enter.

Another Educational Path

My theater experience, particularly in retrospect based on my later acquaintance with the concept of unschooling, speaks to a completely different educational paradigm that could be made available to young people as an alternative to all or part of conventional instructional school. Learning by doing along with the associated trial and error is a whole different thing than learning be being taught and trying to get right answers on tests.

Certainly the two aren’t totally incompatible. If we reframed our public education system in terms of offering many educational paths, students and their families could choose some instruction here mixed with some real world experience there to find the right mix of education for them. The real paradigm shift would be that our young people would be honored by having the opportunity to choose their path forward.

I can only speculate how my own development would have been spurred if I could have taken a “deep dive” into an unschooling experience like Junior Light Opera a few years earlier. My three years in a conventional instructional junior high school seemed to have done so much more to set back my development rather than help it forward. What if I could have spent those three years plunged into theater instead?

Even though I did not end up making a career (or even an avocation) in the theater, the experiences I have shared above were transformational for me as a developing human being. So much of my more confident personae and skill set today started from the success and failure of real life learning that I experienced on or around the stage, mostly outside the context of conventional school.

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2 Responses to “Unschooling in the Art of Theater”

  1. Lisabeth Almgren Says:

    Thanks, Cooper, for capturing the role theater has played in the learning styles of so many. I fantasize about writing a grant that would support this kind of unschooling…I also, love how you honor your single-parent mom with limited resources! It was your production of Oliver that drew me into JLO!

  2. Cooper Zale Says:

    Lisabeth… I appreciate your comment… it made my day! I think it would be great to get funding to do more theater groups that are mostly youth-led like JLO was.

    I did not know that Oliver was your first show. That’s very cool!

    Coop

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