Lights, camera, learning!

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By Susan Riddell
susan.riddell@education.ky.gov

Technical theater teacher Carolyn Greer and theater arts teacher David Walker instruct students in the Black Box theater at Owensboro High School (Owensboro Independent). Photo by Amy Wallot, Oct. 19, 2011
Technical theater teacher Carolyn Greer and theater arts teacher David Walker instruct students in the Black Box theater at Owensboro High School (Owensboro Independent). Photo by Amy Wallot, Oct. 19, 2011

When high schools put on plays or musicals, parent and community support is often a vital ingredient to the productions’ success.

At Owensboro High School (Owensboro Independent), however, while these extra hands are welcomed when it comes to making costumes or working on sets, they are not required.

“Parents are still very supportive,” said Julie Ellis, information officer for Owensboro Independent, “when needed.”

That’s because the school has traded in that need for a class that teaches students how to do all the things usually expected to be outside their knowledge and skill base.

“The students handle most everything,” Ellis said.

Six years ago, the school began offering a Theater Art and Technical Theater class. Now, roughly 40 students (some from neighboring districts) spend 90 minutes each day in block scheduling doing all the things volunteers tend to get asked to do during play season, such as:

  • set design and construction
  • dressing
  • costume design
  • lighting design
  • sound design
  • publicity

The idea for the class didn’t originate from a desire to eliminate community support; it was to help students learn.

“Our technical theater program grew out of the need to teach students how to design, build and dress the sets used for our productions,” said arts and humanities teacher Carolyn Greer.

Greer has been teaching theater at Owensboro High the last 14 years. Visual arts teacher David Walker began helping with smaller elements of set design when he started at the school nine years ago.

“Being a visual arts teacher, you naturally get asked to help out with a variety of projects such as these,” Walker said. “Through those experiences, I began to learn about set design techniques and philosophies, and began working with Carolyn and students to create sets. That eventually grew into our principal asking us to offer full time classes on set design.”

Greer said the Theater Art and Technical Theater class “is a practical hands-on course that provides students with basic construction and technical skills, and allows them to use creativity to design sets, props and costumes,” she said. “This course applies 21st-century skills on a daily basis; preparing students for both postsecondary educations as well as real-world job opportunities in the arts and beyond.”

Students are graded on daily participation, completion of technical duties, skill evaluations and product completion, Greer said.

The Theater Art and Technical Theater class elements tie in with the visual arts, drama, mathematics and science curriculum.

“The class is closely tied to so many areas of core content,” Ellis said. “It is a great example of integrating the curriculum, and it’s a lot of fun. The students are engaged from the minute they walk in until the period ends.”

Walker said that basic communication and social skills also are benefits of taking the class.

“One of the No. 1 needs for college students is the ability to communicate their ideas and to work with partners or teams,” he said. “Our course requires – on a daily basis – that our students do just that. Our students will leave our class with the ability to work with others to complete a task and to communicate with each other to produce a product.”

Walker and Greer agreed the most satisfying part of the class is watching the students work together and use their creative problem-solving skills.

“There is never a single-person project, which means that students must work together to solve any issues that come up within the class structure,” Greer said.

“They really learn a sense of teamwork, but also a sense of accomplishment and pride when they are able to see their products on stage during a performance,” Walker said. “I’m also very happy about the hand-on skills that these students learn during these experiences that they’ll be able to use for the rest of their lives.”

When students are putting those skills to use, safety is always enforced. “They do a lot more than talk about theater,” Ellis said. “(Recently) the school technology person was on a ladder beside a student who was on another ladder reaching up and working with cords and lights,” Ellis said. “The IT person spent as much time talking about how to safely be on the ladder and how to handle cords as he did to positioning. Meanwhile, in the scenery shop, David (Walker) was talking about measurements, how to properly clean out painting equipment and how to paint properly.”

Students taking the class help comprise the Rose Curtain Players theatrical troupe, which dates back to the 1920s and school officials say is the state’s oldest school production troupe. The troupe has won multiple state honors over the years, but continues to benefit from innovative ideas, including the technical theater class and recent additions to the school.

Two years ago, Owensboro High updated the fine arts wing, complete with a Black Box theater and a scene shop.

“(They) have made a major difference in the program,” Greer said. “Not only do we have a space specifically for construction and painting, but we also have state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment now.

“Our students are now being trained to focus, hang, patch and design lighting for our productions. This design and use process is also being taught for sound. Having this equipment and training is providing our technical students with skills that they can use in many facilities, not just theaters.”

MORE INFO…

Julie Ellis, julie.ellis@owensboro.kyschools.us, (270) 686-1000

Carolyn Greer, carolyn.greer@owensboro.kyschools.us, (270) 686-1110

David Walker, david.walker@owensboro.kyschools.us, (270) 686-1110

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