Word/Play at ALLPS

An Interview with Kelly Riley, English teacher at Fayetteville High School’s Agee-Lierly Life Preparation Services Center (ALLPS)

1. How long have you taught at ALLPS? 

This is my 4th year at ALLPS/FHS. 

2. How is ALLPS different than a mainstream high school?

ALLPS is the alternative program for Fayetteville High School.  Our program is designed to support students whose needs are not met by traditional programs.  Our students face a number challenges and hardships that cause them to struggle in school.  For example, some students are single parents, some are dealing with family issues, some are victims of abuse, some work full-time and provide the main source of income for their families, some are homeless, etc.  While there are students at the main campus that also face hardships, our students differ in that, in order to qualify as an alternative education student, they must exhibit at least two qualifying characteristics as outlined by Arkansas state law.  

3.  Have you ever taught in a mainstream school? If so, what is a fundamental difference between teaching in an alternative high school and mainstream?

Yes, I have taught at two different mainstream high schools.  When I was in the M.A.T. program, I worked for a year as an intern teacher at both Bentonville High School and Rogers Heritage High School.  I taught general education and AP courses at both schools.  Prior to that, I taught several different composition courses at the University of Arkansas as a graduate student in the English Department.

4. What challenges are unique to teaching at ALLPS? What rewards are particularly unique? 

Most of our students are dealing with difficult and often tragic life issues.  Some of their stories are so devastating that I am amazed that they are able to make it to school at all.  I am not sure I could be as strong as they are if I were dealing with similar issues.  Furthermore, many of our students have had bad experiences in school prior to coming to ALLPS.  A few of our students have not had the opportunity to attend the same school for an entire year because their families change residents frequently and, as a result, move in and out of various school districts in the area.

Naturally, our students suffer emotionally, often dealing with depression, frustration, anger, fear, anxiety, etc.  At times, their emotions surface while they are in school, which can lead to problems.  These students are often difficult to motivate and are sometimes reluctant to trust others because of their past experiences.  Finally, many of our students struggle with attendance issues, which cause them to fall behind in school. 

While teaching at ALLPS can be a challenge, it is also very rewarding.  Frequently, I have the privilege of seeing students experience success in school for the first time in their lives.  I love watching their intellectual curiosity bloom.  I love it when a student bounds into my room first thing in the morning just so they can declare their new-found love for Shakespeare.  I also like the fact that our program is very much like a family.  Our students gain stability, care, love, discipline, and support that is often lacking in their lives outside of school.  Because of this, the faculty and staff at ALLPS develop strong and lasting bonds with the students.  In fact, I am still in contact with many of the students I taught my first year at ALLPS, and I am in contact with students from subsequent years as well.  As I said, our program is a family, and I am proud to be a part of it.

5. What is your relationship to creative writing?

When I got my B.A. in English from the University of Arkansas, I took the extra credit hours required to obtain a degree with an emphasis in creative writing.  I have also worked as an editor for a small publishing company, and I continue to write both fiction and creative non-fiction in my spare time.  I have not had anything of significance published, but I hope to at some point in the future. 

Word/Play at ALLPS


Teaching Artist, Rodney Wilhite: Although the promise of writing their own short plays which would be performed by professional actors before a live audience seemed daunting to our students at Fayetteville High School’s Agee-Lierly Life Preparation Services Center (ALLPS) at first, Erika and I made the idea more approachable by collaborating on a story arc. For each class we showed a different photograph. For our first class it was the iconic Dorothea Lange photo of the migrant mother and her two children. For our second class, we showed the students a photograph of the singer Tom Waits. We then had the students brainstorm a list of assumptions: what can we tell about this person’s character from this photograph?

Our first class, inspired by Dorothea Lange, came up with a poor woman in Mexico whose husband dies, sending her on an epic quest to provide for her children, a quest which eventually leads her to America, where the kindly coyote (immigrant smuggler) who takes her across the border sacrifices himself to save her and her children.

From the weathered face of Tom Waits, our second class yielded the character of a struggling musician who travels from city to city playing banjo and harmonica on street corners and on stage, sitting in with bands he’s become friends with during his years on the road. The character yielded a plot: a man who has struggled with drugs in his past, but has overcome that. Somewhere in his distant past is a beautiful woman, whose love he lost due to his addiction. After being diagnosed with cancer, he meets a young, drug-addled homeless guitar player to whom he becomes a mentor.

As we collaborated on these plots, the students became more and more invested in this character and his, they cared what was going to happen to him, how he was going to overcome his problems. It was inspiring to me, as both a teacher and a writer, to see these students (some of whom had started off somewhat reluctant to engage in this exercise) become immersed in the act of creation and storytelling.

This exercise formed the basis for many of the short plays the students wrote, each choosing a single moment from the epic story we wrote together and expanding it into its own play. Others, however, challenged themselves to write a play that had nothing to do with our collaborative story whatsoever. Some others split the difference and were inspired by our story, but combined it with their own interests and created something completely new.

I greatly admire the sensitivity and honesty with which the students approached this task. All of them put themselves on the line by sharing bits of their own lives while telling the stories they invented, something that is a challenge for even the most seasoned writers. I very much look forward to seeing the fruits of their labors, performed by professional actors in the Young Playwrights' Showcase at TheatreSquared’s 2013 Arkansas New Play Festival.

Word/Play at Har-Ber High School - 5/10/13

Teaching Artist, Gabrielle Idlet: With her connection with the students and familiarity their histories, English teacher Candis Harrell, has been a terrific spark for creativity. We launched the final phase of Word/Play work based on a photograph.  The old black-and-white image captures a pair of kids leaning against a car, the girl sobbing and the boy cackling. It’s a great starter for young people’s imaginations, since taunting is, after all, part of the mix when we’re struggling to get through our elementary and secondary school years. (At least it was part of the mix for me! If only someone had told me the cruelty of kids toward one another passes, and grown-ups, even when they don’t like each other, generally treat each other with manners…. But I digress.)

Students determined that the kids in the photo seemed to be brother and sister, partly because they seemed unusually comfortable leaning against what might have been their family car, but also because the ragged, raw emotions they displayed indicated an intimacy one wouldn’t expect with non-family. (Another digression: Lo, how I wish we had three hours with every class every day! It could have been powerful to use writing exercises to explore the nuances of intimacy with family in a room of high-schoolers. But we were on a mission. We had plotting to do, and that’s no small task.)

Together, we drew a plot diagram on the board, deciding that the moment captured in the picture was the inciting incident and figuring out what it might have led to, playing with causal relationships between events. When one classroom of students was slow getting going with ideas, Mrs. Harrell jumped in and asked whether the children in the photo might have had to leave somewhere to move to a new place. Of course! The group burst into brainstorming, coming up with things that might have happened to lead them to where they’d arrived – divorce? Why? And then what happened? Did the mother have a pattern of finding bad guys? So, what did that cause? Maybe the mother meets a new man and he is as bad as the last, and he tries to harm the daughter? Then what? Things became increasingly dramatic as the mother attempted to protect the daughter and an accidental shooting occurred. Eventually, after justice was done, forgiveness and reconciliation emerged.

Leaving one place and moving to another: these kids needed only to have their own intensely emotional experiences tapped for their creativity to explode. It was wonderful – and quite educational for Rodney and me – to see that such a simple adaptation could yield so much.

The other class had a hard time imagining the location they were looking at in the picture: row houses, stoops. Someone mentioned New York, but that didn’t resonate with the students, since it appeared they had not visited New York. Mrs. Harrell asked one student, a boy from Mexico, whether it could be Mexico City. Her suggestion, again, cracked things open. Rodney insisted that, though the children in the photograph are Caucasian, they didn’t need to be White for our purposes. Suddenly we were developing a narrative about a pair of middle class kids living in Mexico City with family problems – a stepfather who favors his son, a mother who fights with him about that. The son, laughing with a snarl, had a sociopathic streak and had stolen a key the daughter thought she’d lost. The stepfather blamed the daughter, became enraged, and chaos ensued, culminating in the mother and daughter moving out to stay with the grandmother. As with the other class, these students determined that the man should be forgiven once he figured out that he’d been wrong. Nice to see the heart winning over our universal impulse to enact vengeance.

Our time was limited, but we got a lot done. We left the students with three scene options from which to pick one, and they were to write that between our class and the next week’s. Mrs. Harrell and Mrs. Nance, the other faculty member helping guide students through our residency, had students create storyboards for the scenes and come together in small groups to write the ones they’d selected. The visual integration and drafting of scenes using story arcs was quite successful. In both classes, the reconciliation scenes had the most takers, which was surprising considering the thrilling possibilities that go along with a climax involving conflict.

The collaboration of teachers in the residency work meant so much. Mrs. Harrell’s ability to make suggestions that resonated with the students cracked open the class discussion in ways Rodney and I might not have figured out how to do, especially with the newness of our work with English language learners. Mrs. Harrell’s and Mrs. Nance’s dedication to the work we’d initiated made all the difference. We were invited to read the scenes to a larger group at the end of the residency (typically, the students themselves do the reading, but they wanted to see their work performed by the visiting artists they’d worked with). Story arcs were evident, dialogue was varied and natural, and what they’d written was quite moving. And the students wrote fascinating, emotionally complex scenes in which shifts took place in characters’ thinking, rage gave way to compassion, loss remained but love returned.

What a powerful experience it was to learn from these young people. The vulnerability and boldness of creative work by young people is always exciting. For Rodney, Erika, and me, it was a new and profound experience to work with students who were reaching not only through the barriers all of us have to expressing what feels true and real inside us, but also through the barrier of a new and sometimes intimidating language. The students’ courage to do that work and share their writing with others is what ignites us as teaching artists.

At the reading, several students were permitted to break the usual no-cell-phones rule so they could capture their scenes read aloud. How wonderful to see “cool” seventeen year olds let down their guards and glow with pride over their hard work.

The 2013 ESOL Word/Play Curriculum Development Program is funded in part by an Arts-in-Education grant from the Arkansas Arts Council.

Gabrielle: Word/Play at Har-Ber High School - 4/22/13

Word/Play at Har-Ber High School - 4/22/13

Rodney Wilhite and Gabrielle Idlet lead a class of English language learners in a playwriting exercise.

Teaching Artist, Gabrielle Idlet: Just a few short weeks into our Word/Play Curriculum Development Program for ESOL students at Har-Ber High School, we’re really gaining traction working with two classes of English language learners, and the experience has been very rich. The classes Rodney and Erika Wilhite and I are teaching are filled with diverse young faces, excited Latino and Marshallese and Indian kids working hard to fuse words with ideas out loud and on the page.

Mrs. Harrell, in whose classroom we work, engages actively with kindness and encouragement, nudging students to employ learning they’re getting in the rest of their course work. One week, we read Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” and found out that the kids had just completed a Civil Rights unit. Their sensitivity to the nuances of oppression appeared even more vividly when we returned the next week and read a scene from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The kids picked up on the nuances of racism in what is unsaid, in actions and subtext, and Mrs. Harrell encouraged them to reflect on ways they may have been treated similarly.

I’m 43. Looking back at the schooling I had at their age, I find it hard to imagine any teacher confronting racism so directly with questions that empower students to recognize how such ugliness may operate not only around them but to them.

Equally exciting was watching the students write short dialogue pieces in which a conflict occurs “between the lines.” This is a subtle exercise. It requires writers to use what painters and photographers would call negative space, to write the doughnut around the hole, with the unwritten part containing the power and meaning in a scene. Students came up with some hilarious conversations about parents refusing to allow them to go to parties, guys nervously asking girls out on dates, friends resisting friends’ indirect nagging to borrow their cars. Humor seems to be a terrific tool for loosening up the imagination, and Rodney and I were impressed with how quickly the students grasped the concept and dove in with creativity and enthusiasm.

With Gabrielle's guidance, students work enthusiastically on a Word/Play project.

In one exercise, we played a StoryCorps interview in which the mother of a murdered son talks with the man who, at sixteen, killed her child, and it is revealed that the two have formed their own mother-son relationship. It’s a moving and startling conversation. We then worked on plotting what might have happened earlier on to allow the mother to develop empathy for the person who committed that devastating crime. Students came up with a complex set of circumstances that built upon one another to cause the mother to feel empathy for him. Imagining divorce and illness in the family, economic desperation, and the temptation of a gang as providing alternate “family” for the teenager, they created a chain of events that enabled him to become real. Black and white became gray. It was quite thrilling to see the group envision plot points that made the young man take shape as a human being. 

I grew up in a Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles, and even as a kid I was aware of the challenges families faced as new immigrants. As I grew older, I began to recognize the level of privilege I benefited from as the child of Anglo parents. My comfort with – and feeling of ownership of – the English language allowed me a kind of ease in the world that my peers did not experience, and that privilege has followed me into mid-life. It means so much to be able to contribute to the opening of these vibrant young people to language as a tool for discovery and play.

The 2013 ESOL Word/Play Curriculum Development Program is funded in part by an Arts-in-Education grant from the Arkansas Arts Council.

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Erika: As we whiz across Arkansas in “the Raven,” through small and even smaller towns, winding our way around the Ozarks, passing  what I consider to be the most beautiful landscape in the country, I think to myself how lucky I am to have such a great job. I am a professional actor and teaching artist. I get to perform in a terrifically silly and cool play about Edgar Allan Poe and co-teach workshops after each show. I travel from community to community with own little community, my ensemble, my little show family—my pack of pals known as “The Poe Show.”

After each town, we inevitably use the commute to check in with each other the about the most recent shows and workshops.  We’re be brimming with observations, so the conversations are pretty exciting. None of us have done anything quite like this. We are all pretty far removed from the culture of high school, so we feel slightly scientific about the experience!

First of all, I am pretty certain that high school students are the toughest audiences to win over. No matter what town or region they come from, teenagers are an audience whose trust and respect you have to gain immediately, or they will eat you for lunch, right there in the cafetorium.

Teens are a tough crowd. I know this from substitute-teaching a high school drama class for two months. I learned from that experience that I had to give so much energy and attention to the quality of my lessons. There was no way I could “phone it in” because if I didn’t keep them engaged in an activity, exercise, or discussion, I would lose them to that sleepy state of apathy the darlings are famous for. So I had to be “on” all the time. I kept thinking to myself during that time that teaching is like acting in the way that you must always stay present and receptive to the information you are getting from the room. I’d come into the class working off a script, my prepared lesson, but I’d have to adjust how I was teaching based on their body language and level of enthusiasm. I’d have to make a quick assessment and shift gears in the moment if I didn’t want to lose them. I learned a lot from my temporary high school teaching gig.

Another truth I was reminded of by the Poe Show audiences—we have to love it if we want them to love it. And we LOVE this show. The script is hysterical, the boys are so cool and funny, and the show is SUPERFUN.  We make this offering of SUPERFUN, and if they laugh their faces off (which they do, I get to watch the audience from the stage), then they are certain to trust us enough to give us their attention. I can brag that all the school audiences were into it. And in the midst of all that SUPERFUN, we snuck in the stories and life of Edgar Allan Poe. By the time we got to the workshops, we saw very little reluctance to engage in the program that was designed to expand their understanding of Poe. As a matter of fact, that was a consistent trend with the workshops. The kids participated. They were free from the shackles of teen cynicism for this brief window of time, and they PLAYED! Because they played, they learned even more about Edgar Allan Poe! And I’d bet you cold hard cash that many of those kids were excited enough about Poe to seek him out on their own.

The Poe Show is designed to be a teaching tool, but it is just part of the learning experience. Since teachers in Arkansas don’t necessarily teach the same authors, prior to hitting the road, Morgan sent out study guides that the teachers could use to prepare the kids. We included all sorts of exercises, projects, and resources in the guide, dividing the lessons into pre-show and post-show activities.  Between the guide, the play, the workshops, I think we showed them a thing or two about Poe. The workshop gave us a chance to assess their understanding of Poe in their reinterpretations of his work through tableau, chilling when done well.  The students’ tableaus were awesome and demonstrated and their understanding of an Edgar Allan Poe poem. A Poe(m), if you will. And I usually got goose bumps watching!

So that was my job for the last few weeks. Yes, please, I’ll have more of that, thank you.

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Caden: While on stage, especially in this show, it’s difficult to ignore an audience.  Several hundred eyes staring at you tend to leave a strong impression.  Since we interact and speak directly to the audience for much of the show, the way they react to each show is often a topic of conversation in "the Raven" (the gray Chrysler Town and Country we're driving while on tour).  Here are some thoughts on the audiences we’ve come across:

The schools that were prepped on Poe beforehand tended to understand more of the humor in the show.  Aside from the big physical numbers (the interpretive dance and the Rasputin-like murder scene in “The Tell-Tale Heart”), our one-liners and creative license we’ve taken with some stories resound much more in the Poe-prepped schools.  As one whom values instant gratification, laughter is very important to me—especially in a comedy. 

The unprepared (un-Poe-pared?  That’s not funny.) schools, then, seemed as if they weren’t into the show or didn’t get the humor, and I—needing validation right then and there—felt that I wasn’t doing enough or that the show somehow wasn’t working.  Morgan, our director, reassured us though: the high schoolers were hunched forward in their seats, chins propped on their hands, actively listening and responding to the latter half of the show (the more educational portion of “The Poe Show”).  She may have said this to preserve our sometimes swelling egos but hearing the students repeat lines from the show (especially from the second half) after curtain call helps me sleep better at night.

Benton County School of the Arts was a blessing halfway through this week, because they were (a) prepped on Poe and enjoyed his work and (b) art and theatre students;  it was like playing to the theater crowd at the university, who always are more vocal and energetic, which always fuels a performer.  I believe all of the jokes landed, even ones that we had thought were funny that hadn’t landed on any other audience.  Nothing invigorates me more than when an audience is completely in sync with the show.

And then we come to the rowdy crowds.  Now this isn’t the kind of show where one of us will pull a Patti LuPone on a lone wisecracker: again, we often interact with the audience directly, going so far as bringing a student onstage.  Because of the way the show is written, winning over the audience becomes, at times, the game of the scene we’re performing.  The louder and more raucous they are, the bigger responses we receive from them when they take our side (or not).  This (for me, at least) fuels the performance, and dealing with hecklers or superfans always keeps the show fresh and exciting.  I think some of our best performances came from these high schools because we had to work so hard to win them over.  They may not have understood all the jokes, but they were rolling during the big numbers, and if they learned something from the show, that’s pretty cool too.

Another reason I’ve enjoyed the rowdy crowds is my entrance.  I don’t know who’s idea it was (between Morgan, Jordan Haynes, and Kris Stoker), but my entrance as Poe is the best I’ve had on stage.  Sitting in the back of the theater, I stand up in a huff and disrupt the proceedings onstage.  The rowdy kids (most of the kids actually) simultaneously gasp, and a few have even stopped us for an ovation after my first line.  With an entrance like that, I don’t have to work too hard.

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Thomas: I’ve been having a lot of fun traveling around the state with The Poe Show. We’ve traveled all over Arkansas and seen twenty schools so far. A few consistencies: all the schools seem to really like the show, most start out fairly raucous, and somebody in the audience always thinks Justin looks like Turk from "Scrubs."

I’m from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, which is consistently ranked among the roughest and most crime-ridden cities in the nation. That’s right, the nation…look it up. We never had the “luxury” of an experience like The Poe Show because large assembled groups of students at our school, to put it mildly, had trouble behaving. But I think sometimes that our behavior was a self-fulfilling prophecy -- some of our teachers and administrators didn't believe we could handle new experiences, and we perceived that and reacted.

The teachers and administrators that have invited us into their schools this month have made a good-faith gesture to their students. They may not expect the kids to behave, but at least they're giving them a chance. Sure, not every kid in the room is on board -- but not every adult is, either. It means a lot that these students are being given the opportunity at all.

One lesson I learned in high school: if you treat kids like criminals, they'll behave that way. Don’t expect them to fail. Give them responsibility and new opportunities and hope for the best. The students we visit may start off raucus, but eventually it's clear that they love The Poe Show and learn from it -- even in the Pine Bluffs of the state. We're grateful that enough teachers out there believe that live theatre isn't a "luxury" -- it's a way to learn social skills, responsibility, and collaboration and have fun in the process.

There's so much to be done to give students across the state more comparable educational opportunities. We're grateful to the strong-willed teachers who have brought us in and shown their kids they have higher expectations. For many of these students, this is their first theatrical experience -- which means, in a small but meaningful way, it's a great first step.

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Erika: Ah, the Arkansas Delta! I write this from our AWESOME digs in Augusta, Arkansas. We are staying in the ArCare guest house—a beautifully renovated Victorian home, restored to its original beauty but enhanced with modern amenities. We feel spoiled!

I am returning to this region as a teaching artist after a Shakespeare program I taught last spring. The program was an initiative through ArCare (an organization that was created to stimulate community growth in this region) and through a collaboration with the University of Arkansas and Trike Theatre for Youth. I return this time with TheatreSquared ‘s “The Poe Show,” and our friends at ArCare hooked us up with this beautiful home to stay in while we perform for the area schools—Augusta, McCrory, Newport, and Bald Knob. We can thank our friend Joy Lynn Bowen (education director for ArCare) for working so hard to help us book “The Poe Show” at these schools. She understands the value of arts in education and is the driving force behind these new programs and literacy initiatives here.

But “The Poe Show” is only the beginning of our time in the Arkansas Delta. We have so much planned for the schools here! Morgan and I will be returning for Word/Play, a playwriting residency that is a curriculum collaboration with high school teachers and designed to use playwriting as an access point to literacy. We will be returning throughout the school year to work with the teachers and their students in a series of workshops and site visits. We are so stoked—especially after meeting and working with the kids from McCrory and Newport in the post-show workshops today.

After each show, Morgan and I lead a “Poe Show” workshop. We use the tool of “tableau,” or frozen pictures, to retell Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems.  We teach the students how to create a tableau, and they, in turn, use that skill to adapt the poem Annabel Lee. After the students created the tableaus, we have a group discussion about the poem.  So far, it seems like the groups have a pretty strong grasp of the literature after recreating pieces of the poems through tableau. Each workshop has been sublime!

Today at McCrory and Newport, I was reminded why I love teaching in this area. These kids want this work! They are ready for new ways of learning!  And from our WordPlay meetings with the teachers and principals, I understand that literacy is weak in these parts. There is a need for an “out-of-the-box” approach to learning content. I sympathize with the pressure of testing standards, but I believe that if they made more time for creative exploration of the content the students must learn, their assessments would show an increase in literacy.

Tableau is an amazing way to assess a student’s comprehension of a subject matter. The teachers seem to all say the same thing: “I can’t believe those were my students!” But I can. 

I expect every group to have a breakthrough because, in my experience, every group has had one in some form or another. Whether I am getting the shyest student to perform with her peers or discussing a metaphor with a challenged reader, I am never surprised that theatre—or any art form—enhances a student’s understanding of the world, both in literary and life lessons.   That’s what we expect…because that’s why we’re here. 

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Morgan: Driving through the state of Arkansas is remarkable…for so many reasons.  First off, Arkansas is arguably the most beautiful state in America.   My eyes are drunk with the beauty of the fall foliage.   Everywhere you look there is a scenic view even more stunning than the last.  We’re unbelievably lucky to call Arkansas our home.  

I also feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to bring my passion for theatre and literature to students directly.   TheatreSquared’s education outreach mission allows us to build partnerships with teachers throughout the state.  This tour (which will hit 22 different schools in 11 days) has a wide geographic reach.We'll travel as far north as Mountain Home and Valley Springs, as far south as El Dorado, as far East as Helena and as far west as Lavaca.  Some of towns have large populations and some are tiny.  Some have been sheltered from current economic conditions, and some are in areas that are deeply economically depressed.

We are truly seeing the educational conditions of the state “up close and personal."


So far, we've had a great reception from each of the schools we’ve visited.  The students are thrilled to be getting out of the traditional classroom for an hour, but beyond that, they seem truly excited by the fact that some “outsiders” are interested enough to come to them where they live.   One thing that does not come as a surprise—but that is being proven over and over again—is that the students are just as receptive to new experiences as their teachers and administrators are.  There are some schools that welcome a non-traditional approach.  The students are primed for our creative style of learning and will carry an extraordinary amount away from the experience.  There are other schools that have invited us in but think that our visit is somewhat dangerous.  They feel that the students are not ready to process information presented in a unique way.  They feel that classroom time is so precious that any deviation from the normal schedule should be guarded carefully.  I appreciate their concerns because teachers are held accountable for test scores, and it must be difficult to think outside the box under that kind of constant pressure.

It is amazing, though, how one teacher’s attitude (either positive or negative) can truly influence the attitude of an entire school.  When there is a teacher who is engaged with the students and truly invested in their education (rather than just the benchmarks of their education), the classroom becomes a magical place where learning is exciting.  Students explore their imaginations and creativity….and it is exciting to be near.  We are inspired by what we are seeing in the schools.  Some are thriving under the leadership of visionaries.  Some need more work than we could have ever suspected.  This tour is less than a week old—and what we are learning is almost overwhelming.  I’m so thrilled to be on this ride.  I know that the journey is providing vital information that will aid us as we continue to shape TheatreSquared educational programs. 

 From the Valley Springs Teacher’s Pledge, on the wall in the cafeteria.


Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Caden: The gray Chrysler Town and Country (which we have cleverly dubbed “The Raven” because that’s not an obvious joke) pulled into the Valley Springs school complex, and the first thing I saw pasted on the windows was a series of Edgar Allen Poe posters—or “Poe-sters” if you’re into wordplay (though I’m sure everyone else blogging here will make the same joke).  What struck me was not so much that the students had made them for our arrival, but that each one was detailed and intricate and had a definite theme that the student presented intelligently: the theme was “Poe Knows…” and each would end with another word, such as “Love” or “Necromancy” or “Death.”  Each poster was designed with that theme in mind: Love had hearts over Poe’s eyes; Haunted had several Poe portraits with the head or eyes missing from them.  Chilling, funny stuff.  My favorite combination.  


The mere fact that these high school students showed so much interest in this show and the works of Edgar Allen Poe conveys to me that these students are not only interested in and hungry for more knowledge but that they also know how to have fun with it.  This always seemed a mark of high intelligence to me.  It is apparent that the Valley Springs student body has teachers that not only care but are also willing to deviate from (what are in my experience) typical high school teaching methods in order to get kids interested in the subject matter and encourage them to form an original outlook on it.   The English teacher, Wes Whitaker, was not only insanely helpful with setup (including solving a last-minute technical problem) and urging his students to ask questions and participate in the workshops, but after seeing his classroom and having a few words with him, I realized he was also a teacher who would open student’s minds and encourage them to pursue interests that lie outside the norm.  I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it weren’t for a similar high school English teacher (looking at you, Thomas MacQueeney), who gave such assignments as writing  short stories, short plays, and short films, on top of all the reading we had to do.  I think the educational system works much better when teachers eliminate fear (of failure, of displeasing your elders) from the classroom and instead foster interest in whatever topics captivate the students.  More Wes Whitakers in the school system would lead to more wonderful students like the ones we performed for in Valley Springs.

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Thomas: We just left Valley Springs High School, home of the Tigers, where they had a lovely welcome sign waiting for us as well as a bunch of awesome Edgar Allen Poe “poe-sters” that the students had made and placed throughout the school. One of my favorites had Poe dressed in Goth with a chain connecting his nose and ear, another had Poe holding flowers and hearts covering his eyes. The students also covered a hallway with Ravens that had red eyes...awesome and creepy.

Earlier today in Russellville, we got to perform in their great new black-box theatre. Afterwards, we had a Q&A session with the students where they asked some great Qs, my favorite one asked of Justin, “Has anyone ever told you, you look like Turk from Scrubs?” Before the question fully escaped the student’s lips, Justin finished and answered his question.   

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Justin: Today was an interesting day.  We performed in Russellville, which is about 10 miles from my home town.  It was interestingly surreal at the Q&A after the show when a student asked, “Is it hard doing what you do?”

The drama students we performed for were attentive and intrigued.  They were excited to learn and to experience theater.  More importantly, they were eager to discover what art means to them and what it means to others, which is more or less what the Poe Show is all about.

I was eager to answer the question.  I told the students the same thing I say to anyone who asks the question, “You absolutely, positively have to love what you do to do it.”  I encouraged them to apply it to any profession they want to pursue.  I find it easy to do what I do because I love what I do.  As an actor, you rarely get the chance to convey that to a young mind because the profession is hard, it is time consuming, it is special.  It IS my life.  I was happy to give the students that understanding, and hopefully, they will be able to apply it in their lives. 

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

Morgan: TheatreSquared has begun an exciting journey through the state of Arkansas. In the next 11 days, we'll hit every region of the state and visit a wide variety of schools. Some urban -- but most very rural. We specifically sought out partnerships with schools where the students have limited access to arts and arts integration in the classrooms. We were looking for the schools that needed us the most -- and we found 22 of them. With more funding, we feel that this program could and should be offered to many more schools, but for now we are thrilled with the impact that we know we will be having in the coming weeks.

The idea for the tour came last fall when Dr. David Jolliffe, who holds the Brown Chair of English Literacy at the University of Arkansas, was approached by Wes Whitaker, an English teacher from Valley Springs. Wes had attended TheatreSquared's production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" and expressed regret that his student had not had a chance to see it. This casual conversation became a moment of inspiration. When Dr. Jolliffe came to me to float the idea of a touring version of the show, I immediately jumped on board! The actors were still around. We had the props. Why not hop in the van and take the show on the road? Of course, there were several other logistics to work out...but the seed was planted.

With funding from the Arkansas Arts Council and the Brown Chair of English Literacy at the University, we were able to create a short Shakespeare show and take it to eight schools in the fall of 2010, including a visit to Valley Springs. The show was paired with an in-class workshop to provide greater curricular tie-in. We had a blast, but we knew that we wanted the initiative to have an even larger scope. There are so many schools that we wanted to visit, but time and money were at a premium.

This year, as we began to plan the tour, we again sought the counsel of Dr. Jolliffe. He has led several literacy initiatives in the Arkansas Delta and was able, along with some generous funding, to provide us with several vital contacts that made it possible to add several schools in that region to our map. Dr. Jolliffe's work in Augusta and the surrounding area has been incredibly significant, and his seal of approval certainly started us out on the right foot with the teachers and administrators there. We are also thrilled to be able to connect to so many other schools in the Northwest and Central areas of the state. We cannot wait to get started. There are so many students to meet and so much work to do and fun to be had.

Last year, we visited eight schools and roughly 2400 students. This year the show will be performed for 22 schools and roughly 6500 students. There are hundreds of other schools in the state and tens of thousands of students. We are hopeful that this program will receive the recognition and funding that will allow us to create access to the arts for many more students in the years to come. We are in debt to Dr. Jolliffe, The University of Arkansas, and the Arkansas Arts Council for making this program possible.

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011/12

Arkansas Schools Tour 2011 - The Poe Show

With the support of the Arkansas Arts Council and our patrons, TheatreSquared is setting off November 7 to bring its 45-minute professional production about the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe to 22 Arkansas high schools — and over 7,000 students.

Over the next two weeks, check in here for reports from the road from Morgan Hicks, T2 Director of Education and Program Development; Erika Wilhite, Learning Programs Manager; and cast members, Justin Cunningham, Thomas Hunter, and Caden Worley.

Without further ado... let's get "The Poe Show" on the road!

The cast (clockwise from top left): Justin Cunningham, Erika Wilhite,
Caden Worley, Thomas Hunter.