How To Create a Sustainable Theatre Education Program

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The authors behind the first-ever comprehensive musical theatre educators’ textbook reveal insights about arts education.
The iTheatrics Method Book Launch

Through their work in adapting Broadway shows into versions suitable for performance by kids 18 and younger, iTheatrics has completely changed the landscape of musical theatre education. Kids all over the world have been able to learn and perform some of the best scores Broadway has to offer—an experience with countless educational benefits.

But now, the iTheatrics team has taken things a step further with a textbook for arts educators. The organization amassed a group of professionals with expertise in all areas of theatre education—from direction and choreography to set and costume design to marketing and fundraising—to create the most comprehensive resource available today for educators looking to start a musical theatre program, or to take their existing program to the next level. When The iTheatrics Method: The Quintessential Guide to Creating Quality Musical Theater Programs was released in February of this year, it became the first textbook on creating and sustaining a musical theatre education program.

Earlier this year at the first-ever Junior Theatre Festival West in Sacramento, CA, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the textbook’s three lead authors, Timothy Allen McDonald, Cynthia Ripley, and Marty Johnson, to talk about the book and the importance of arts education.

Tell us what this textbook provides for educators.
Marty Johnson: It will take you through the entire process of putting on a musical from show selection, to rehearsals, all the way to performances. But beyond that, it also makes sure that what you’re creating is a sustainable program that will last beyond the first show. It was written not only by the three of us, but by the entire iTheatrics team which encompasses Broadway designers, choreographers—every area is covered. We also included information and tips from teachers all across the country to make sure it’s a really comprehensive guide.

iTheatrics has been revolutionizing theatre education programs all around the world for over 20 years now, so this must have seemed like a natural next step.
Timothy Allen McDonald: It did and it didn’t. It wasn’t actually our idea to write a textbook. It was our publisher’s idea because he had a daughter who came to the Junior Theatre Festival and saw what we were doing—saw his daughter transform from a shy little girl who wouldn’t use her own voice into a poised young lady who was suddenly fearless, all because of musical theatre. He saw our work, and so he said, “You guys have a method and we should create a textbook and get it out there so more people have access to this method.”

What does the availability of this textbook mean for theatre educators and potential theatre educators?
Cynthia Ripley: I work with teachers in all sorts of places year-round, and from working with those teachers and seeing their productions and doing workshops this book is everything they’re asking for. All the answers are in there. They seem to be going through a similar process.

Who did you have in mind when you were writing this book, the theatre educator just starting out or someone who’s been running a program but aiming for the next level?
TAM: It’s really for all of those, but mostly we saw that there was no textbook out there that teaches an emerging teacher how to put on a musical. I’ve gotten so many calls from teachers who say, “I’ve got a Broadway, Jr. ShowKit sitting right here. The teacher before me bought it, and I have no idea what to do, but my principal said that we paid for it so we better get on it.” We made a book that isn’t academic or heavy. It’s practical skills. It has lots for anyone who’s working on a school musical.

It seems like budget is a big concern for lots of people looking to start a theatre program. Do you need millions of dollars to put on a school show?
TAM: No. All you need are students and some quality material—a really great story to tell that you’re passionate about. Everything else is bonus. All you need is humans and a vision.

MJ: One of the big ideas we talk about in the book is that boundaries can be freeing. It’s something I learned in grad school from Dr. Betty Jean Jones. She taught us that limitations are really just an invitation for us to be creative. So, a low budget is no problem if you are willing to think outside the box and be creative.

CR: A lot of our workshops with teachers have been about teaching them that less is more.

Is putting on a show something to be scared about?
TAM: Yeah, it is! It’s scary and it can feel really overwhelming, but you break it down and tackle it piece by piece. You start with the music, layer in some movement—all focused on storytelling. So long as you keep that primary focus of telling the story, it becomes a lot less overwhelming.

Talk to me about this idea in the book of creating a program that’s sustainable. What does that mean, and why is that so important?
CR: We’ve seen too many programs where they get very excited in the beginning but they don’t have the skills to make it continue past that first show. Teaching sustainability gives people hope that they will still have jobs in the arts, which is the scariest part right now. But it’s also about sustainability in a community. The arts have a way of bringing communities together and helping them connect with one another.

Does that play into choosing which works produce?
TAM: Completely. We remind teachers that they are the musical theatre experts and curators in their community. While it’s great to just do public shows with title equity—the blockbusters—you can’t do those year after year because you have to train your audience that if it’s a show on your stage that it’s going to be good and it’s going to tell an interesting story. That becomes a big part of sustainability—striving for excellence and quality.

The book also emphasizes sustainability is dependent upon the community, not to mention school district administration, recognizing the impact of these drama programs on the kids.
CR: We suggest in the book having kids write directly to administrators and school board members, because kids are the best ones to communicate their experiences. It’s a pure message. It’s not propaganda. It’s how they speak, how they think, how a theatre kid doesn’t need a phone in their hand and how they look you in the eye and talk to you. A theatre kid can do that. That’s what’s going to keep culture alive and promote communication.

Is arts education only important for kids who want to go into arts careers?
CR: No! It’s everybody else. Your leads are going to get there and take whatever path they will take, but somebody who’s a consumer of the arts, or who uses the arts to help them in their life, that’s the person we’re looking for.

TAM: But I think it’s important to say that the arts are in-and-of themselves enough. We don’t have to justify ourselves past that. It is enough for a kid to sing, act, and dance, all in service of telling a story. That is a key component to being a human. There are so many people who want to talk testing and quantify when it comes to arts education, and I get it—people want facts. If you want facts, watch your kid who starts in a program and see who they are when they start and see who they are after doing a musical. You can see it!

MJ: And the book, I think, really highlights empowering the students and making it about them. We’re teaching teachers to do that hopefully whether they’re at the community theatre level, grade school level, all of those levels. And you’re giving those kids all of those skills to be creative thinkers through the arts, which is a safe environment, a safe space for them to try things. Art is enough, but instilling the kids with their art is really amazing.

Have you received feedback from schools using the textbook already?
MJ: We know there’s a couple of colleges that have already picked it up, and they’re going to use it in their music education programs. We also have a junior teaching intensive that we do in the summer and we are using this as the basis to build that into a certificate-granting program.

The book talks about a game called “Sondheim Says.” Can you tell me how that goes?
TAM: That is a silly thing we started doing and it’s basically Simon Says, but instead of Simon we say Sondheim. We use it to teach stage left, stage right, upstage, and downstage. And why would you say “Simon says” when you can say “Sondheim says?”

The iTheatrics Method is available online from MusicalsInc.com and Amazon.

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