“Oh my god, you’re the playwright? It’s soooo amazing to meet you!”
Brian — my former theater student and star of the production of “Les Miserábles” I co-directed with students last year in the South Bronx — fights through the crowd in the lobby of Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan. He’s still sweating from his opening night performance of “Circuits,” one of two student-written one-acts currently in production by National Theater for Student Artists.
As Brian lunges forward to hug the young playwright of “Circuits,” she shouts, “You were fantastic!” and they launch into a volley of overlapping compliments. The lobby around them is a jumble of whooping, high-fives and gravity-defying hugs. Audience members vie to congratulate exuberant swarms of student directors, designers, stage managers and actors — the oldest recent college grads, the youngest fresh out of eighth grade. From across the lobby, I catch NTSA founder and executive director Victoria Chatfield’s eye and wink. Judging by the jubilant reaction of this opening night crowd, her high-stakes gamble is paying off big-time.
When the phrase “high stakes” comes up in a conversations among educators these days, it’s usually in reference to only one thing: standardized testing. (And if the frenzied analysis greeting last week’s release of New York’s new, lower Common Core state test scores is any indication, odds are those conversations are going to be pretty grim.)
But if you’re Victoria Chatfield, the phrase “high stakes” tells a different story altogether — and hearing her talk about it is anything but a downer. For Chatfield, “high stakes” means investing a hefty chunk of her own money into the creation of a professional theater by young adults for young adults, a project based on the risky — (read: thrilling) — proposition that young people should be given opportunities to lead in real-world contexts, even when that means giving them room to fail.
As a fellow theater educator who’s spent the past 10 years building a school-based theater program on a similar model of a student leadership, I’m a huge fan of what National Theater for Student Artists stands for. I know how critical this work is in terms of helping kids build the analytical, socio-emotional, creative and real-world navigational skills that have been largely squeezed out of so many schools in the wake of No Child Left Behind. I also know how hard it can be in this outcomes-obsessed climate to let go of the reins — even in an artistic class with no standardized test.
“I get it,” Chatfield says when we talk shop after a recent NTSA rehearsal. “Letting go of control can be frightening.”
As a middle school English teacher at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School, Chatfield tells me, she spent her first year in the classroom talking at her students instead of listening to what they had to say.
“I used to rationalize that decision,” she says, “telling myself that my students were far behind and needed ‘a little extra help.’ It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t want to give them room to lead because that meant giving them room to fail … which in this era of accountability is tantamount to begging your principal to fire you.”
Charfield says she encountered similar reluctance from potential partners and investors when she first started pitching the idea of a student-run theater company. “Everyone said the same thing to me: ‘Sure, the students can be actors. But don’t expect them to direct, design, or produce. If you do that, your show simply won’t be any good.'”
Chatfield understands this knee-jerk reaction, she says, especially in what she sees as a national climate of risk-aversion that puts the squeeze on creativity — not only in classrooms across the country but also on the Great White Way. The push toward standardization — whether in the form of bubbling in answer sheets in schools or subjecting theater shows to relentless regional testing before they end up (often radically diluted) on Broadway — is symptomatic of the same cultural issue, she argues: our obsession with playing it safe and betting on the sure thing.
But Brian says it’s precisely the element of risk — the feeling of being vulnerable with his teammates, out there with no safety net and knowing that no adult is going to swoop in to save them — that has made his learning experiences in the theater so powerful.
When I ask him about the difference between preparing for a high-stakes test in school and preparing for a high-stakes theater performance, he says,
They both require hours of work and the will to succeed. In a typical classroom setting, though, I always had a certain hesitation and fear about sharing my thoughts. The line between student and teacher was so blatant that I usually didn’t feel safe to share what was on my mind. And although I knew I was supposed to want to do well on tests, there was a part of me that said, “Why should I spend so much time and energy working for a letter or a number that is supposed to define my academic ability?”
But when I’m in rehearsal at NTSA, I feel as if there are no lines. No titles. Just person A and person B trying to solve for X. The performance feels high-stakes because I want to connect with the audience so badly I’ll work as long and hard as it takes. But since there is no grade at the end, just the result of how I affected other people, I feel safe to take risks. It’s not heavy and determinant like a test. It’s freeing.
If we made it a priority to help every classroom in America feel less like a test-prep bootcamp and more like an NTSA rehearsal — where students learned content in order to connect meaningfully with others in authentically high-stakes contexts — I’m willing to bet that our graduates would be far better prepared for college, career, and citizenship. If nothing else, we’d have a nation full of creative minds producing sophisticated, thought-provoking work. (And who knows? Maybe our test scores would climb in the process.)
As always, the views in this post are my own and not those of my school’s administration; the students featured in this post agreed to let me share their stories.