IRT Theater’s Westside Experiment Offers Career Development Opportunity to Deaf Students

Eight students are standing and stepping to their right while raising their arms to mid-chest level.

Students participate in a movement activity at IRT Theater’s Westside Experiment workshop. Photo credit: Rich Stillwell Photography

In July 2017, New York City’s IRT Theater wrapped up their sixth annual Westside Experiment summer intensive for high school age youth. This two-week career development program pairs experimental theater artists with adolescents working to find to find their identity and voice.

For the first time in 2017, IRT made the Westside Experiment fully accessible for students and theater professionals who are Deaf and have hearing loss. Nine students who are Deaf or have hearing loss joined nine hearing students in the program, and they worked side-by-side for the two weeks under the instruction of lead teachers Monique Holt and Luane Davis Haggerty.

American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters were present throughout the intensive, and ASL was incorporated into the workshops through lessons on ASL poetry and storytelling. Students also spent time studying other theater-making techniques, including movement, improvisation, nonverbal communication, mime, mask work, writing, stage combat, and collaboration. There were also opportunities for students to talk with arts administrators, including Julia C. Levy, Executive Director of New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company.

IRT producing artistic director Kori Rushton says that, in addition to the inclusive group of participating students, the teaching staff also included several theater professionals who are Deaf or have hearing loss. Rushton points to the diversity of the student participants, who came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and with varying levels of experience in the arts and in Deaf culture, as one of the program’s strengths. “We had a goal of crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries,” she explains, adding, “it was thrilling to watch this cohort embrace the challenge and exceed expectations.”

The students called the program a valuable, enjoyable learning experience, with several noting how sad they were to see the two weeks end. One Deaf student commented that he learned many new things at the Westside Experiment, which “…changed my perspective of what I want to become in the future.” Rushton says IRT hopes to continue to nurture the young theater artists, Deaf and hearing, and make sure they know that they have an artistic home at IRT.

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The Musical Theater Project Demonstrates the Value of Building Evaluation into Programs from Day One

One girl and two boys growl like tigers while wearing smock-style costumes.

Students participate in a Kids Love Musicals! residency. Photo credit: Heather Meeker

When leaders at the Musical Theater Project in Northeast Ohio decided they wanted to expand their Kids Love Musicals! residency program to serve students with disabilities, they were deliberate in their planning. They sought out resources and expertise from peer arts organizations already working with students with disabilities, and they attended professional development sessions on arts and special education topics. As they laid out their expansion plan, they identified program assessment as a priority and sought to include comprehensive evaluation strategies as a part of the new residencies.

With this in mind, Heather Meeker, Executive Director of the Musical Theater Project (TMTP), connected with leaders at the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), located nearby in Cleveland, Ohio. “CWRU is interested in being deeply involved in their community, so developing a mutually beneficial research project was of great interest to them,” says Meeker.

The Schubert Center introduced Meeker to psychology professor Sandra Russ and doctoral student Olena Zyga, who agreed to work with TMTP to assess the new residencies. TMTP agreed to support the academics’ work by raising money to pay for student researchers and faculty time, and Meeker says funders have been especially interested in supporting this collaborative assessment.

The Kids Love Musicals! residencies for children with disabilities aim to teach social skills and emotional understanding through the stories and characters from classic American musicals such as The Wizard of Oz, The Jungle Book, and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The multi-year evaluation project with the Schubert Center seeks to better understand if engaging in the residency program impacted participants’ socioemotional skills, including the ability to make eye contact, engage with others, take turns appropriately, and demonstrate emotional understanding. A secondary goal is to understand whether gains seen during the residency program extend to other environments.

Russ and Zyga created a custom measurement scale for the program, using their expertise in the fields of psychology and play. TMTP initiated their new residencies for students with disabilities, collecting multiple forms of data throughout. Residency sessions were videotaped across multiple school sites and to include a range of student ages and ability levels; the videos were then coded and scored according to the measurement scale. Teachers were also asked to report on the same variables that were being coded in each session for every student, both before the residency program began and after it had finished.

Analysis of the first round of data, which specifically focused on The Wizard of Oz residency, suggests that students who participated in the Kids Love Musicals! program did make gains in eye contact, turn taking, engagement, and symbolic flexibility. These results were recently published in the Journal of Intellectual Disabilities. Meeker is thrilled that their collaboration with the Schubert Center led to the research being shared broadly, both through journal publication and in various conference presentations by her and Zyga.

Four children stand in front of two adults, all wearing curly gold ribbon on their heads and making roaring faces.

Teaching artists work with students in the Kids Love Musicals! residencies. Photo credit: Heather Meeker

The research collaboration between TMTP and the Schubert Center continues post-report publication, including a new round of data collection focused on identifying if similar gains are seen across curriculums presented to students. Specifically, they are asking if children made the same gains while learning The Jungle Book as made while learning The Wizard of Oz. Analysis of this data is currently underway, with initial results suggesting that curriculum differences do not significantly impact the student outcomes. A final phase of data collection, completed at the end of the 2016-2017 academic year, focused on comparing the active residency period with a pre-residency control period.

Given the success of their collaboration with the Schubert Center, Meeker encourages organizations interested in conducting robust program evaluations to consider partnering with a college or university in their own community. “If a project can be designed with the idea that both the organization and university students can benefit from it, a collaboration can really be a win-win situation,” she says.

Of course, Meeker also warns of the hard work and complications that come with conducting a large-scale assessment. She explains, “We had to make peace with the fact that we would not get 100% compliance from teachers in our data collection efforts, and that not all of the data we worked so hard to collect would ultimately be used in the study. We also did not anticipate the delays that sometimes come with working with a university, like waiting for internal review board approvals for everything from project proposals to parent permission forms.”

But the reward for that hard work is great, Meeker says, as their research has clarified so much for TMTP about the program internally. She concludes, “If you are constantly looking to improve your work, then thorough evaluation is crucial. This project has empowered us to do even more with our programming.”

5 Reasons to Attend the 2017 VSA Intersections Conference

There are lots of reasons to attend the Kennedy Center’s VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Brand New Content

We have tons of new sessions that you won’t want to miss! Here is sampling of what we have planned:

  • It Takes a Village: Inclusive Community Music Programming
  • Teaching Students with Disabilities Using Puppets
  • Blackness, Disability, and Higher Education
  • Using Art to Reach Students Who Have Experienced Trauma
  • The Power Of West African Drumming For Students With Disabilities
  • What’s New? A Fresh Look At Paraprofessionals And Peers As Support For Students With Disabilities

Browse the full schedule here.

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2. Keynote Speaker: Antoine Hunter

The Keynote address will challenge attendees to question how teacher perception of disability affects student expectations and to envision a classroom environment in which every student is empowered to achieve at high levels. In this address, Mr. Antoine Hunter—an award-winning African-American Deaf producer, choreographer, film/theater actor, dancer, dance instructor, model, poet, speaker, mentor, Deaf advocate, and the 2017 King of San Francisco Carnaval—will offer perspective from his own experiences as a Deaf artist and provide insights into how those experiences have shaped his current teaching practice.

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3. Get Inspired Before the New Year Begins

It’s the beginning of summer break and you just want to lay at the pool, spend time with your family, and rest your mind before the new school year begins. We know it’s hard to think ahead to the end of summer. But the VSA Intersections Conference is a great way to get re-energized and inspired, so you can bring new creative ideas to the 2017-2018 year.

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4. Grow Your Peer and Resources Network

Meet experts and newcomers to the field and grow your relationships with other educators passionate about arts education for students with disabilities. Everyone conference is a different experience and there are plenty of opportunities to mingle with other participants.

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5. Explore all that Austin has to Offer

A change of location can inspire you to think differently. Join us in Texas and explore all the art and creativity that it’s capital city has to offer. During the conference, you’ll hear from Austin-based arts organizations such as MINDPOP and VSA Texas.

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We hope you’ll be able to join us as we dig deeper into the critical relationship of arts and education through new content, an amazing keynote speaker, and plenty of learning and fun.  The 2017 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference is taking place August 6-7, 2017 in Austin, Texas. Register by June 30 for the lowest rate.

VSA Intersections is a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program.

Children with ASD Learn through Shakespeare at OSU

Photo of teaching artists working with a boy.

OSU teaching artists work with students with ASD. Photo credit: Big Ten Network

Shakespearean language may sound unfamiliar or intimidating to some children, but at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio, educators are successfully using Shakespeare as the cornerstone of theater workshops for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). OSU’s Shakespeare and Autism program not only offers an exciting arts learning opportunity for young participants with ASD, but also provides hands-on training for university theater students as teaching artists for students with disabilities.

The Shakespeare and Autism program grew out of OSU’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). While RSC actor Kelly Hunter was at the university in 2009 to lead Shakespeare workshops for graduate students, she proposed incorporating her program for young people with ASD, called the Hunter Heartbeat Method, into the partnership. The success of an 11-week pilot program led to a collaboration between the OSU Department of Theater and the Nisonger Center, a university center for excellence in developmental disabilities. The Nisonger Center embarked upon a 42-week longitudinal study on the impact of the Hunter Heartbeat workshops on children with ASD.

The results of the Nisonger Center’s study were published in 2016 in the journal Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. They showed that participation in the Shakespeare and Autism program led to significant improvements in social involvement, language skills, and identification of facial expressions for children with ASD.

A female teaching artist puts her arms around two boys in a theater workshop.

Students play theater games led by OSU teaching artists. Photo credit: Big Ten Network

Kevin McClatchy, assistant professor of theater and director of the Shakespeare and Autism program, says the Hunter Heartbeat Method is rooted in the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language and exploring the mind’s eye. “Shakespeare was so great at putting words to feelings, and our workshops help kids express what being alive feels like to them. It gets exciting,” says McClatchy.

McClatchy teaches a Shakespeare and Autism class in the theater department every spring semester. During the 15-week service learning course, undergraduate and graduate students spend the first five weeks studying the Hunter Heartbeat Method and learning about ASD from scholarly reading, research, and guest speakers. After the first five weeks, they begin to lead Shakespeare and Autism workshops with two groups of 12 children with ASD from the Columbus area.

The workshops always begin with a heartbeat circle, in which everyone pats the rhythm of a heartbeat on their chests and says hello. McClatchy describes the circle as a great transitional tool and acknowledgment of a shared moment. After the heartbeat circle, the teaching artists lead the children in games based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which provides a central storyline throughout the workshops.

Photo of a male teaching artist holding hands with a girl in a red shirt.

A teaching artist works with a girl at a Shakespeare and Autism workshop. Photo credit: Big Ten Network

The teaching artists might begin with a game like “Changing the Face,” when they would introduce the half-fish, half-monster character of Caliban. They make an angry face, attach an angry heartbeat, and go around the circle doing an angry hello. That moves into throwing the face across the circle to someone else who will catch it, and ultimately involves attaching Caliban’s text to the throw as well. Teaching artists model the games, and for certain activities, break the children into small groups for practice before returning to the large group.

McClatchy says the play-based games aim to develop skills like recognition and replication of facial expressions, taking turns, sustaining eye contact, and understanding cause and effect, all using Shakespeare’s text as a starting point. He also describes the practical learning opportunity for the university students as “incredible,” adding that real learning for any teaching artist happens when you actually do the work, adding, “You must be present in the moment and respond to every particular need. A strategy that works one week may backfire the next session. The OSU students are amazing in their ability to respond.”

For more information about the Shakespeare and Autism program, visit OSU’s website.

Announcing the Winners of the 2017 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition

The Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA and Accessibility is pleased to announce the winners of the 2017 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program. This annual competition invites young writers with disabilities and collaborative groups that include students with disabilities to examine the disability experience and express their views through the art of writing for performance.

The winner in the Primary Division (grades 6-7) is The Lesson Taught by a Slice of Pizza by Lucas Correal from Baltimore Lab School in Baltimore, Maryland. The winner in the Junior Division (grades 8-9) is The Beauty of Roses by Courtney Brown from Derby High School in Derby, Kansas. The winners in these divisions will be featured on the VSA blog in the coming weeks.

Selected winners in the Senior Division (grades 10-12/ages 15-18) receive exclusive access to participate in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., and the opportunity to participate in staged readings and workshops alongside the nation’s premier collegiate playwrights. The young playwrights also participate in the festival’s award ceremony.

The winning Senior Division plays include: A Change of Heart by Cicely Henderson; The Forgotten by Anna Hiestand; Silent Thank Yous by Dana Langston; What Now? by Lissette Lendeborg and Angeles Parada; The Pain of Scoliosis by Jacob Radford; and Dimples and Diabetes by Elle Shaheen.

Photo of Ciecely Henderson, a girl with light brown braided hair and a blue sleeveless top.Cicely Henderson (A Change of Heart) is a sophomore in the San Francisco School of the Arts Theatre Department. During her two years there, she has developed a love of both Shakespeare and playwriting. She especially enjoys playwriting because it allows her to express and discover new perspectives. Cicely is currently in recovery for an eating disorder. She is honored to be participating in the 2017 VSA Playwright Discovery Program.

A photo of Anna Hiestand, a girl with reddish brown hair and bangs, wearing a dark blue dress.Anna Hiestand (The Forgotten) is a high school senior from Blue Springs, Missouri. Anna, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety, has a deep passion for writing, fueled by her desire to bring comfort and healing to others. She cites her disability experience as providing the empathy, emotional insight, and sensitivity necessary to make her a better writer. Anna believes we can accomplish things not only in spite of our disabilities, but also because of them!

A photo of Dana Langston, a girl with chin length, dark brown hair, wearing dark round glasses and a gray shirt.Dana Langston (Silent Thank Yous), age 17, hails from Pensacola, Florida. She is a senior at West Florida High School of Advanced Technology. Dana has severe depression and anxiety, which inspires much of her work. She is a published author, as well as the founder of Defective Dynamic, an organization that helps those with mental illness. She will be attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago after high school.

A photo of Lissette Lendeborg, a girl with black, braided hair wearing dark rim glasses and a black jacket.Lissette Lendeborg (What Now?) is a junior in the Creative Writing program at Miami Arts Charter School. Her work has been published in Orange Island Review, Poetry Matters, and di-verse-city Youth Anthology. Lissette has major depressive disorder, which she cites as the biggest obstacle she faces in producing work. She spends agonizing nights hovering over taunting blank pages, but rejoices when she takes part in the production of art.

Angeles ParadaPhoto of Angeles Parada, a girl with long, blonde hair and reddish rimmed glasses, wearing a pint shirt. (What Now?) is an eleventh grade student at Miami Arts Charter School. Angeles has migraine headaches; she aims to create art that helps others understand the disability experience.  She has been published by Poetry Matters and received two Silver Keys from the prestigious Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

A photo of Jacob Radford, a young man with short brown hair wearing a collared shirt and blue tie.Jacob Radford (The Pain of Scoliosis) is a 19-year-old senior at Seneca High School in Louisville, Kentucky. He enjoys listening to music on his headphones and playing basketball with his friends. His bowling team recently finished 4th in the state. Jacob, who has multiple disabilities, says his favorite assignment in his academic career has been writing this play; it is one of his most accomplished pieces.

A photo of Elle Shaheen, a girl with long, dark brown hair, wearing a blue shirt.Elle Shaheen (Dimples and Diabetes) is a 12th grade student at Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Elle, who has type 1 diabetes, uses her talents and passion for the performing arts to be an effective advocate for people with diabetes. The story of her life became the New York Times bestseller Elle and Coach. Elle has served as Co-Chair of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Children’s Congress, campaigned for the restoration of stem cell research, and founded a production company to produce and perform The Diary of Anne Frank along with new works while raising money for diabetes research.

Excerpts from the winning scripts will be performed on April 22 at 10 a.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab. To reserve a free ticket, email Megan Bailey at mebailey@kennedy-center.org before April 17.