Verbal agility, quick thinking, productive collaboration and confident public speaking are valuable life skills, and only some of the myriad benefits of drama training. But drama at Grace goes further, touching every student both on stage and in the classroom. Teachers use drama to fuel the curriculum, as a catalyst to mastering a subject and to prepare students for learning as they progress through the divisions.. The formal drama curriculum not only trains students in the art of acting, but also delves into theater history, and technical skills, like set design, lighting and costumes.
At Grace, drama is involved even when performing in front of an audience is not the point. Drama teachers Susan Sterman-Jones (JK-8) and Sabrina Jacob (HS), teach from the approach that children absorb a subject when they are immersed in it, essentially being part of the subject matter.
Classroom teachers embrace the idea in ways both simple and complex: first graders simulate climbing Mt. Everest by hiking up to the sixth floor; in the second grade, students benefit from NYU Educational Theatre students who come to the classroom and implement dramatically-oriented lessons to enhance learning. Mock Ellis Island, a highlight of third grade, is an elaborate staging of the early immigration experience where students assume the identity of an immigrant and, with the help of parents playing a variety of officials, improvise the role from the moment they land at Ellis Island to a successful immigration.
As students move up through the grades, early training paves the way for more sophisticated work. Fourth graders debate in character as Athenians and Spartans setting the stage for the more in-depth debating in high school. In the upper grades, off-stage drama continues. Students develop presentations in a variety of subjects, standing up in front of their peers and teachers to speak. They hone skills as debaters and members of student government. High school students give tours during admissions season. They gain interviewing skills, which will serve them well in the classroom and beyond as they pursue internships and embark on the college process. According to Sabrina Jacob, “Drama is not about being in the limelight, it’s about gaining the tools that you need for anything in life.”
Opportunities to be in the limelight, however, are abundant. Students are immersed in a range of dramatic activity throughout the years from pretend play on the playground to avant-garde experimental theater.
Formal courses in drama begin in fifth grade, but Junior Kindergartners are introduced to the stage when they begin rehearsing for the JK Variety Show. This year’s thespians performed admirably, exuding confidence while singing, dancing, and acting, triple threats all around. According to Cheryl Kelly, Head of Early Childhood and the Arts Department, “Performing in the JK Variety Show builds self-esteem. These young children get up in front of a packed room and perform, something that most adults are not willing to do.”
The fourth grade Mythical Musical combines “Glee” and ancient Greece, resulting in a highly entertaining and educational experience that dovetails with the curriculum and brings history to life. With rewritten lyrics to music by The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Mythical Musical is a chance for fourth graders to belt, strut, and learn about the history of ancient Greece while getting a taste of musical theater.
Required drama courses begin in Upper School with a year-long musical theater class in fifth grade. Students write their own musical, rehearse and perform the show for parents and other students. Sixth graders continue to develop skills, especially how to support each other in a show. They work on writing scenes based on stories, participate in theatrical exercises, and study Kabuki Theater. Seventh graders develop their comedic side through improvisation and work on character development. They create scenes using improvisational techniques, exploring current events and human rights issues. Eighth graders study Shakespeare and may take an elective in the History of American Theatre.
Two major upper school productions play a significant role in the drama program. Sixth, seventh and eighth graders who are interested in performing, audition for roles in these polished productions. This year, students portrayed early 19th century ladies and gentlemen in “Pride and Prejudice” and cabaret performers in the Musical Revue. Those more interested in being behind the scenes learn about stagecraft, setting the mood with lighting, sound and scenery. Susan Sterman-Jones remarks, “The beauty of our Upper School productions is consistently astounding. The sets, costumes, lighting design and overall professional quality of middle school theater at GCS is unique and impressive. But watching the students learn to work in a deeply collaborative way is what really moves me. Developing strategies to work with others respectfully and artistically at such a young age is a privilege and a gift.”
The drama curriculum in the High School Division expands in depth and breadth. In addition to academic classes in drama, high school students act, direct, write, run tech and stage manage productions of plays and musicals. The goal is for students interested in the drama world to see themselves as artists, whether as an actor or playwright, and to develop a personal artistic voice.
In the first production of the High School, “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” players and audience moved around the building as scenes shifted. The audience had the sense of dropping in on a moment. Ms. Jacob explained, “My background is in experimental theater. I’m interested in site specific work so this didn’t feel unusual to me. I was looking for spaces in the school that felt natural for the play.” As the school year finished, performers in the High School Division were back on stage in a musical featuring selections from “Rent” and “Urinetown.”
Drama is a critical component of teaching at Grace and touches every student, providing opportunities to explore academic subjects, and themselves, more deeply.