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The Joy of Teaching Teachers to Unlock Their Inner Artist

Date: Jan 27, 2020


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Instructors become the students in TDF's Be Your Own Hero: A Playwright's Journey Course


One of the first things Crystal Skillman did when her students arrived for their first session of TDF's Be Your Own Hero: A Playwright's Journey class last summer was get them up on their feet. As they walked around the room, she asked them to ruminate on a series of probing and personal questions, such as "Do you remember the first time you felt betrayed? Do you remember when you first made a friend? Do you remember a family gathering where people seemed to be sad?" It left quite an impression on her pupils, all of whom were high school and college teachers.

"It was shocking," recalls Theresa Brown with a laugh. "But it really made you think." Later in the day, when they sat down to write, she realized how much material that activity had unearthed. An English reading and writing teacher at FIT and Hudson County Community College, Brown says, "I went right back to the classroom and used that very technique with my students."

Katie Wu, who teaches English at Manhattan Business Academy high school, also found the exercise eye-opening. "Crystal immediately got everyone thinking and creating and performing," she says, noting that the latter is something "I don't normally do."

What the students didn't know was that Skillman was as anxious that first day as they were. "It was my first time teaching teachers!" explains the award-winning dramatist, who is also a veteran instructor for TDF. "I found it quite frightening in the beginning because they are the people who shape and change students' lives and minds. I think what surprised me the most was they were so hungry to be creative. They wanted to do more than learn how to fulfill the academic requirements of teaching playwriting to students. They wanted to know how they could use these skills to meet their students' creative and emotional needs."

Offered through the NYC Department of Education's After School Professional Development Program, TDF's Be Your Own Hero: A Playwright's Journey is inspired by Joseph Campbell's 17 stages of the Hero's Journey. During the course, Skillman has the participants engage in a series of verbal, visual and oral exercises so they can learn the ins and outs of teaching dramatic action. It's structured like a TV writers' room, so everyone shares work in a collaborative setting. By the end of the class, they have created an origin story play, a comic strip and a monologue; seen at least one show; crafted a syllabus and earned professional credits (P-credits and CTLE hours) to boot.

Skillman—whose credits include the plays Open and Geek!, and the book for the musical Mary and Max—became a teacher because of TDF, both as a way to tide her over in between projects and because she wanted to share her passion for playwriting with others. "I had seen something online for TDF looking for teaching artists," she recalls. "You had to come in with a syllabus and pitch a Broadway show which you would teach from. Everyone else pretty much pitched Wicked or The Lion King; I picked God of Carnage and launched into my violence and society and parents and teenagers and abuse and growing up pitch."

Skillman's energy, inventiveness and insight impressed Ginger Meagher, TDF’s Director of Education Programs, who hired her for TDF's Young Playwrights courses. "I almost started crying because at that point I just wasn't sure what to do to make money while I was writing," Skillman says. "I also wanted to be of service to society and I just fell in love with teaching with TDF. It's where I cut my teeth as a teacher."

Over the past decade, Skillman has built up her writing and teaching careers simultaneously, serving as an instructor at Pace University, Michigan State and the theatre company Primary Stages, while having shows produced Off Broadway, regionally, and in Canada and Europe. She finds teaching others to do what she does exhilarating—whether her students are teenagers or teachers.

Be Your Own Hero: A Playwright's Journey "operates like a masterclass of sorts," explains Skillman. "It lets the teachers see from the writer's point of view. This helps them really dive deep into their craft and comes out in their work, which grows stronger. The idea is that their students say, 'Oh my gosh, my teacher wrote that!' A teacher demonstrating that boldness creates a sense of teamwork."

According to her teacher-students, Skillman's philosophy of learning by doing pays off. "I had never written a play in my life before the class," admits Brown. "I had taught other kids to do it, but I hadn't done it. And the play I wrote was pretty good! But the plays that the other ladies wrote were exceptional, too, and they wouldn't have been if we hadn't had a teacher whose technique was so amazing. Crystal can get her students to do just about anything, which is what I liked about her. She is innovative and enthusiastic, and that rubbed off on us.

Wu agrees. "It was nice to see all the teachers in the room become students and really love the process," she says. "It was a reminder that our students should love the process the way we did with Crystal."

The next session of Be Your Own Hero: A Playwright's Journey begins on February 4. Enrollment is currently open.


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: TDF's inaugural Be Your Own Hero: A Playwright's Journey class in summer 2019, with Crystal Skillman in the back row with glasses. Photo by Ginger Bartkoski Meagher.

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