Children & Art: Learning Through Teaching
An interview with actor and teacher Steven West.
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have teachers who continue to motivate and inspire me, always demanding my best work. Upon reflection, I realize that it was the passion and commitment of teachers throughout grade and high school who helped me to discover my own passion for the theatre. Teachers are so important to the survival and community of the theatre, and I have a great deal of admiration for the work they do.
This week, I interviewed Steven West, a New York-based actor who has found joy, purpose, and meaning in his art directing and teaching children. You can find him teaching and directing at PlayGroup Theatre and the Shadow Box Theater, as a host with Radio Disney NYC, and acting for the Pulse Theatre Ensemble. I first met Steven when he assistant directed a show I was involved with in high school.
TIMOTHY THOMPSON: What is the PlayGroup Theatre and what do you do there?
STEVEN WEST: The Playgroup Theatre is this AMAZING children's company in Westchester which is 20 minutes north of NYC. They've never done Annie, and they won't. The company often does Shakespeare; it has even done edgy works like Zanna Don't and The Laramie Project. The work is approached in the most professional manner I've ever seen when working with kids. We also, however, realize they are kids and emphasize the FUN of the work. Being so close to NYC, it would be easy for us to push our students to go into the city and audition for Broadway or try to get an agent, which some of our students still do, but that is not from us pushing them to do so. My boss, the artistic director says it best, "we see the artists they can become, while we celebrate the children they are." I've never heard it summed up so beautifully before.
I teach children from ages 4 to 18. In the summer, we have a summer camp and I serve as a "Master Teacher" where I teach classes in Acting, Musical Theatre, Audition Technique, Shakespeare, Improv, and Stage Combat. During the school year, I direct our Studio Stage Series, creating devised pieces of theatre. This job has changed my life. We've created a Sunday Master Class series called "The Works" and the week-long "Spring Break Challenge" where the students devise, write, and put on an original show in one week, in addition to taking technique classes and a Master Class with a Broadway actor.
TT: What makes a good teacher?
SW: I think first and foremost you must LOVE this art and this work. This is true of any theatre professional. There will never be enough money in the job, so you better love the work. I think the ability to be flexible is helpful. Sometimes things may be very clear as you walk into the studio to teach class but your students are NOT having it. Rather than butt heads with them for an hour and have them leave having learned nothing and you frustrated, the "good" teacher will adapt their lesson plan to connect the material to the students in a different way. I also think a lack of an ego is important. I can't tell you how many classes I, or friends of mine have been in, where the teacher would rather talk about their personal accomplishments than teach you. A teacher must FULLY invest in their student's work. One must always be mindful of the class being about the STUDENTS and not re-hashing your old Broadway/regional credits, or complaining about "the real world."
TT: How has teaching informed you as an actor and artist?
SW: First off, it keeps me in check as an actor... do I practice what I preach in the studio? Do I always take a proper pre-beat/moment prior to starting an audition? I took a wonderful workshop in the city with a woman named Jean Taylor and she says that, "Your work as a teaching artist should feed your work as an actor and vice-versa."
Teaching has helped make me the director I am today. In educational theatre you must often be creative in your telling of the story. You have limitations in terms of age levels, talent levels, technical limitations, etc. As a director in educational theatre you must bypass all this and still find the truth in the work.
TT: This type of work must be very fulfilling, but it might not be for everyone. What sort of theatre person would you recommend this to?
SW: Teaching is NOT for everyone! Mostly, I think it is something that is inside of you. I knew early on that I had a talent for this work, and it made me HAPPY. As an adult and professional actor myself, I do not look at it as my "back-up plan." It truly is my life's work. I would love nothing more to amass some more credits as an actor here in NYC and regionally, then move on to an MFA program to get my graduate degree in acting, and then be a college professor. The best schools in the country allow their faculty leeway to remain active in the field. A dream of mine would be to run a school of theatre, perform regionally in the summers, and have a husband and a dog! The ability to be artistically satisfied but also have a "normal life" is a sweet thing, and teaching can allow you to have that life.
TT: Thank you so much for your time, Steven, and I hope things continue to stay sweet for you!